Members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who will play Saturday at the Georgia Throwdown in Albany, are top, from left, Peter Keys, Michael Cartellone, Johnny Van Zant, and bottom, from left, Mark Matejka, Johnny Colt, Dale Krantz Rossington, Gary Rossington, Rickey Medlock and Carol Chase.
LOS ANGELES — Rickey Medlock sounds like a man who’s just been awakened from sleep. When the caller identifies himself, there’s a distinct “Who the hell is this?” pause.
When said caller explains that Medlock’s publicist set up the time for the call, the musician offers a sheepish if weary explanation.
“Man, we’re out here in Los Angeles, and we played a show last night,” he said. “I have to be honest with you, I’m just getting up.”
The caller suggests a later call, and Medlock asks for another hour.
“We haven’t been out to L.A. in a couple of years, and we played the Nokia Theatre last night,” a much more alert Medlock says during a subsequent call. “We’re doing a lot of press for the new record — we did a TV skit for ‘Soup’ on E! and did the Craig Ferguson show.”
The “new record” is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Last of a Dyin’ Breed,” released on Aug. 21 to glowing reviews and a spot in the Billboard album chart’s Top 15. The No. 14 opening week is the highest debut chart position for Skynyrd since 1977 (“Street Survivers”), and it’s the centerpiece for the band’s latest tour that will bring the legendary Southern rockers to Albany Saturday for the Georgia Throwdown music and arts festival.
“(Releasing an album of new material) shows the viability of this band,” said Medlock, who has been a permanent part of Skynyrd since 1996 and gained relatively equal fame as founder of fellow Southern band Blackfoot before that. “As a classic rocker you can rely on old material, but after a while that gets stale to you. And it can get stale to fans, too.
“If you, as an artist aren’t out their creating your art, you’re eventually going to fade away.”
Taught the banjo at age 3 by his grandfather, blues musician Shorty Medlock — who had a memorable cameo on the intro to Blackfoot’s biggest hit, “Train Train” — music was always a part of Medlock’s life. He grew up in the Jacksonville, Fla., area with the Van Zant brothers and other founding members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“We all kind of grew up together,” Medlock said. “We’d end up playing the same teen clubs and juke joints.”
Medlock’s disagreement with Blackfoot’s management in 1970 coincided with the departure of Skynyrd drummer Bob Burns and led to a call by the band’s founder, Ronnie Van Zant. The boys in Skynyrd asked Medlock to take over the drumming duties.
“We did all the stuff that would become their first album (‘Skynyrd’s First and Last’), but I decided I didn’t want to sit behind a set of drums,” Medlock, a renowned guitarist, said in an exclusive interview with The Albany Herald.
Medlock patched things up with management and called Blackfoot back together. They made the classic album “Strikes” and were soon being mentioned alongside Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band and other classic Southern rockers of the era.
Shortly after he disbanded Blackfoot in 1995, Medlock attended a showing of the Skynyrd film “Freebird the Movie.” Founding member Gary Rossington, who survived a 1977 tour plane crash that killed Van Zant and Steve and Cassie Gaines, called Medlock and asked him to consider rejoining Skynyrd as a guitarist.
He came on board in 1996 and has been a part of the band since.
“I realize not a lot of people have success with one band, much less two,” Medlock said. “I feel pretty blessed.”
Medlock said he and the band are looking forward to playing for “new and old fans” at the Georgia Throwdown. He spoke exclusively with The Herald about that show and his storied career.
ALBANY HERALD: You guys could really just rest on your laurels — play “Free Bird” forever if you wanted to — but you just released a new album. How did that decision come about?
RICKEY MEDLOCK: I’ve been in the band now since back almost 17 years, and we’ve put out a half-dozen records. We did our last studio album — “Gods & Guns” — in 2009 and toured on that for a while. In December of last year John (Van Zant, Ronnie’s brother), Gary and I got in writing mode and started writing. We’d been talking about a possible new album, so in late winter we went into the studio and got to it.
AH: The album’s getting good reviews and landed in the Top 20 right out of the gate. Is that gratifying for a band with your history or is it no big deal?
RM: This band is three generations deep; we have fans from 15 to 75. People love the old songs, but I think they enjoy seeing us come out with new stuff. We appreciate their support very much.
AH: I hear and read horror stories about bands going into the studio to record. How was that process for Skynyrd on the new album?
RM: This time we consciously went back and did things kinda old-school. We went into the studio, set up our gear, got our arrangements down, and as soon as we had them we turned the machine on and let it go. Everything you hear on the album is live. Here’s the deal: We’ve always been a live band anyway, so we tried to capture the spirit and energy of what we play live in the studio. We debuted at 14 (on the Billboard Hot 200), and now comes the process of staying up to promote the album. The record business is not like it used to be, so we’ve got to figure out how to do things smart. The secret now is to sell as much product as you can; it’s all about selling (concert) tickets and merchandise. The days of multiplatinum records and hits now are few and far between.
AH: What was it like for you in the early days, back before Blackfoot hit it big?
RM: All of us (in the bands) kind of grew up around the same area. I was with ‘Foot up north around ‘69 or ‘70 and I got disillusioned with our management so I opted out. Ronnie (Van Zant) told me Bob (Burns) was leaving the band, and he asked me if I still played drums. I went to Jacksonville and joined them. I played with them off and on for about three years, but I didn’t want to sit behind a set of drums so I went back to Blackfoot. We had our run, and when Gary (Rossington) called me in 1996, we decided to hook back up.
AH: How does it feel to have both of these legendary bands as part of your personal legacy?
RM: I feel blessed, fortunate. But it’s something I worked at. I went into this long tunnel called the rock and roll business, and here I am now after coming out the other end. For me, things worked out really well.
AH: How do you and the band feel about playing a first-time festival like the Georgia Throwdown?
RM: Hey, when a gig is booked, we’re going to bring Lynyrd Skynyrd to the stage. Whether this is the first time or the last time a show like this is going on, you’re going to have Lynyrd Skynyrd fans come out. We’re looking forward to coming down there and especially to playing for the fans down in Georgia.
AH: Everyone talks about the Southern rock sound of the ‘70s that you guys helped create. I’m starting to hear some of that influence in young bands coming along. Have you heard that in music you listen to?
RM: I listen to all kinds of music. I think if you turn off any particular kind of music, you short-change yourself. You’ve got to be open to everything, expand your horizons. I’ve always been into heavy rock bands, though, and as of lately I really haven’t heard any new bands that set me aback. The last rock band that I really liked was Chris Cornell’s band Audioslave. Those guys were good.
AH: It’s been an honor talking with you, and us Georgia folks are looking forward to having Skynyrd play at the Throwdown. Before you go, I’d like to ask you what kind of influence your granddad, Shorty Medlock, had on you as a musician.
RM: Oh, my God, I grew up in such a musical family, and my granddad was my total inspiration. You might not know this, but he was the inspiration for (Skynyrd classic) “Curtis Loew.” Ronny, Gary and Allen (Collins) used to come over all the time to listen to Shorty play. He was a tremendous influence on all of us.