Lynyrd Skynyrd: Keeping the legacy alive

JOHNSTON, Pa. —A chart inside the concert arena here tells visitors that the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd performed in the arena on Oct. 21, 1989.

That was 12 years after a plane crash in Mississippi killed four band members.

Five more members of the legendary group have died in the years since.

"When I look back on it, we've had a lot of tragedy in this band," guitarist Rickey Medlocke said in a recent interview. "Man, we've been through the mill."

Lynyrd Skynyrd will play a concert Thursday at Intrust Bank Arena with ZZ Top. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Medlocke was a drummer in Skynyrd's early days, writing material in 1971 and '72 that was eventually released in 1978 on the album "Skynyrd's First and ... Last."

By then, Medlocke was the front man for his own band, "Blackfoot" — and Lynyrd Skynyrd had been torn apart by catastrophe.

On Oct. 20, 1977, the plane carrying the band crashed in a wooded area of Mississippi.

Killed were iconic lead singer Ronnie Van Zant; guitarist Steve Gaines; his sister and backup singer, Cassie Gaines; assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick; and two pilots.

Other members of the band suffered injuries ranging from moderate to severe.

A decade later, Skynyrd was re-formed with Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, on lead vocals.

Guitarist and co-founder Allen Collins died in 1990. He had been paralyzed in a 1986 drunken-driving car crash.

Medlocke rejoined the band in 1996 as a lead guitarist and vocalist — at the request of guitarist Gary Rossington, by then the final remaining member from the band's beginnings.

And the sadness continued.

Band members Leon Wilkeson (2001), Huey Thomasson (2007), Billy Powell (2009) and Ean Evans (2009) have died since Medlocke's return.

The latter three helped write the songs on Skynyrd's latest album, "God & Guns."

"Every time we've lost somebody, our choices were to either find someone and continue to play the music that everybody loves to come out and listen to, or to call it a day and fade into the sunset of rock 'n' roll history," Medlocke said.

"Our choice now is what the choice has always been, and that's to be creative and go forward and keep playing the music. That's what we're doing."

The current Skynyrd lineup includes bassist Robert Kearns, keyboardist Peter Keys, drummer Michael Cartellone and guitarist Mark "Sparky" Matejka. Carol Chase and Dale Krantz Rossington are backup singers.

Medlocke said Kearns and Keys have stepped in admirably for the musicians they replaced.

"Robert Kearns looks just like Leon (Wilkeson) up on stage, and if you closed your eyes while Peter's playing you'd swear Billy was back," Medlocke said. "We feel like these guys are here for a reason, like the One Up Above brought them to us."

One song from "God & Guns" that fans will love, Medlocke said, is "Skynyrd Nation." The song features Medlocke and Johnny Van Zant sharing lead vocals.

Another more recent Skynyrd tune in the set list is "Red, White and Blue" from the 2003 album "Vicious Cycle."

"That's been a good song for us." Medlocke said. "It did well on the radio, and sales-wise, the album did real well for us.

"We try to mix it up, bring something from each era," he said. "We've toyed with the idea of playing at least one song from every record."

Asked which classic Skynyrd songs he most enjoys performing, Medlocke listed "Simple Man," "The Needle and the Spoon," "Tuesday's Gone" and "That Smell."

"I love them all, truly," he said. "A lot of those songs still give me the chills — the old chicken skin — when I'm out there."

Johnny Van Zant recently disputed criticisms that members of Lynyrd Skynyrd continue to play just for the income.

"I don't think any of us need the money. It's just that we love the music," Van Zant said.

"It's bigger than the money. It's not even about that anymore.

"We have to make a living, sure. But it's about the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd and what it stands for, what the fans are all about."

Medlocke, now 61, said losing so many friends along the way has made the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd appreciate every chance they get to go out on stage.

"We were all born to play music. I know I was," he said.

"And we're very thankful for all of the fans who have stuck with us."

If you go

lynyrd skynyrd

What: Southern rock band in concert with ZZ Top

Where: Intrust Bank Arena, 500 E. Waterman

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

How much: Tickets $28-$93, available at the arena box office or Select-A-Seat outlets. Charge at 316-755-SEAT or www.selectaseat.com.