For brothers Johnny and Donnie Van Zant, the question is almost unavoidable these days.
“People have been asking us why we’ve gone country,” Johnny tells CMT.com. “Hell, we haven’t gone country. We were born country. We love country music. Our dad was a truck driver, so you know what we were listening to. Growing up at our house, it was George Jones and Merle Haggard. I remember as a kid that Faron Young was a big influence on me.”
Recording as the duo Van Zant, it’s not surprising that the music on their new album, Get Right With the Man, sounds a lot like Southern rock. After all, Johnny has served as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead vocalist since 1987 when he first filled the void created after their brother Ronnie Van Zant was killed in a 1977 plane crash. For three decades, Donnie Van Zant has led .38 Special.
Referring to their debut in front of radio’s decision makers, Donnie says, “A program director came up to me and Johnny right after our show at Country Radio Seminar and said, ’You know, it’s not like the Van Zants have gone country. It’s sort of like country has met you halfway.’ And it’s the truth.”
Or maybe country music has met them more than halfway.
Country music was a lot different in 1974 when Lynyrd Skynyrd scored a breakthrough hit with “Sweet Home Alabama.” That was the year the CMA’s song and single of the year awards went to Cal Smith and songwriter Don Wayne for “Country Bumpkin.” Charlie Rich gained album of the year honors for A Very Special Love Song, and Danny Davis & the Nashville Brass scored the last of their sixth consecutive wins as instrumental group of the year.
Thanks in large part to acts like Hank Williams Jr., Travis Tritt and Montgomery Gentry, Southern rock is now part of country music’s essence. And both Van Zant brothers witnessed the evolution.
In the ’90s, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s booking agent proposed a series of concerts with Hank Williams Jr.
“I said, ’Man, I think it’s great,'” Johnny says. “But our former management called up and said, ’Oh, man, that’s a bad thing. He’s got a country crowd, and you guys have got a rock crowd.’ I said, ’You’re totally wrong. These two crowds will blend together totally.’
“Sure enough, the shows were really successful for us. And, of course, we’ve been coming up to Nashville for years, writing songs, and I’m going, ’These people ain’t writing nothin’ that we don’t write. These are the same kind of things that we write that are getting on Montgomery Gentry records.'”
As they’ve moved closer into the country fold, the brothers have been surprised to learn some of their fans have famous names.
“It’s amazing to us how many country stars have come up to us, just flabbergasted about meeting us,” Donnie says. “I’m thinking, ’Man, this is wild to me.'”
Johnny adds, “And then you’ve got Tim McGraw going, ’What would country music be without Lynyrd Skynyrd?’ Kenny Chesney is a big Skynyrd fan. He called one day and said, ’I’m watching your Vicious Cycle tour DVD on my bus.’ So you could see it kind of coming.”
Before signing with Columbia Records’ country division, the Van Zants recorded two albums as a duo for Sanctuary Records that rock a little harder than their newest material. On the other hand, they’re not in any way distancing themselves from rock on Get Right With the Man.
“If you listen to this record, there’s some rock, but there’s also a blend of country,” Johnny said. Adds Donnie, “What we wrote for this record isn’t all that far different from what, as a songwriter, I’d bring to the table with .38 Special. The same with Johnny.”
Extolling blue collar values such as ethics and the importance of family and friends, Get Right With the Man is — in its own way — an inspirational album.
“Anytime I’ve been down, I’ve looked to music,” Johnny says. “Anytime I’ve been up, I’ve looked to music. Hopefully, that’s what the listener will get from this.”
“All of these are songs that we either lived ourselves or watched somebody else do it,” Donnie notes. “They’re true songs, and it’s all about truth and honesty.”
The brothers co-wrote seven songs for the album, collaborating with veteran Nashville songwriters Jeffrey Steele, Tim Nichols, Rivers Rutherford, Craig Wiseman and Al Anderson. Kip Raines and Steele co-wrote the first single, “Help Somebody,” that jumps from No. 28 to No. 24 on Billboard’s latest country singles chart.
“The first time we heard it, we went, ’We’ve gotta do this,'” Donnie says. “It had a great lyric and the melody was great.” Johnny offers, “It says, ’Hell, yeah, I’m American’ in it. I love that. That won me over right away.”
Among those playing on the album are keyboardist Reese Wynans and bassist Michael Rhodes. The Van Zants became friends with Wynans in their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., long before he joined Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band, Double Trouble.
“Reese played in a group, Second Coming, which had [future Allman Brothers Band members] Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley in it,” Johnny explains. “So we met him, many, many years ago. Michael Rhodes was out with Peter Frampton when Frampton was opening up for Skynyrd, so I’ve known him a long time, too.”
With both Lynyrd Skynyrd and .38 Special booked almost solid for separate concert tours this summer, how will Van Zant manage to bring their live show to country fans?
“Hey, it’s only 89 dates this year,” Donnie laughed. “That’s not solid.”
“I want to be there for the last note of Lynyrd Skynyrd, for the last note of ’Free Bird,'” Johnny said. “We want to take this on the road. We’ll find time. We’ve got the same management, so it’s all about scheduling. I think we can do it. We want to do it, I can tell you that.”