Putting labels on artists and the music they make can often be a delicate venture, but when you're talking about a certain extended Van Zant clan from Jacksonville, Florida, declaring them to be 'The First Family of Southern Rock' appears to be the perfect fit. That works for me, says vocalist Johnny Van Zant. I don't think there's any other one out there, except for maybe the Allmans. Adds his older brother, vocalist and guitarist Donnie Van Zant, Obviously, we're from the South and proud to be Southerners, so I'll let other people speak to that. We just write and play music, and we try to do the very best we can.
Over the years, the Van Zant family's very best recorded output has most definitely impacted both fans and contemporaries alike, as legendary Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw can readily attest. If you were asked for the name that comes to mind to personify the body and soul of Southern Rock, you'd look no further than Van Zant, asserts Shaw, who also considers the Van Zant brothers to be good friends.
It's easy to see (and hear) why the Van Zants deserve such a lofty mantel once you grab a listen to the new Loud & Proud Records release Red White & Blue (Live), a recently unearthed live Van Zant show recorded on January 28, 2006 at Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Georgia. From the out-and-out exuberance of instant crowd-pleasers like Takin' Up Space and My Kinda Country to the heartfelt message of their big Country Singles chart hit Help Somebody (which hit #7 in 2005) to the spot-on, butt-kicking covers of 38 Special's Wild Eyed Southern Boys and Lynyrd Skynyrd's Call Me The Breeze and Sweet Home Alabama, the Van Zant brothers are clearly firing proud and true on all cylinders.
We wanted to make sure we included our own bands in this set, so we ended up putting those three tracks on there, and I think the people in the audience enjoyed that a lot, observes Donnie, who's also a cofounding member of 38 Special. That was part of our history, and we wanted to make it a part of Van Zant too. Notes Johnny, who's been the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd for almost three decades running, We got to sing 'Sweet Home' together, which we've rarely done and, hell, I'd never sung 'Wild-Eyed Southern Boys' before, so that was a cool thing to do! I got a lot of enjoyment out of that.
'Red White & Blue (Live)' may very well have been lost in the winds of history if it hadn't been for the man known as LJ, that is, Donnie's longtime 38 Special bandmate, bassist Larry Junstrom. LJ asked permission to come out and record that special Wild Adventures show with his then-new Pro Tools rig. LJ called me up after we had just finished being out with Gretchen Wilson on her Redneck Revolution Tour, Donnie recalls. We'd done between 35-40 dates on it, and we got home with some time between the next Skynyrd and 38 dates, so we called a booking agent and said, "Hey, book us some more shows! We're having a great time!' And LJ, he's a gadget guy, that's what I call him, laughs Donnie. He had just bought some mobile recording equipment, and he wanted to take it out on the road and record live shows. He said, "Donnie do you mind if I come do it?' So it was really for him, just to try his equipment out. Some months later, LJ called me up and said, You need to listen to this live CD you did!' I eventually got with him, and I listened to it. I knew it was a good show, but I couldn't believe how good! It turned out great for us. It was very energetic, and very entertaining.
Adds Johnny, This whole thing started out with us wanting to hear ourselves live: ˜Hey, what do we sound like?' And LJ had the new gear to capture it all. We were listening to it not too long ago when it was being mastered, and we went, ˜Yeah man!' We were just hitting it left and right ” song after song after song. We thought, ˜Damn, that sounds pretty good!'
One of the most telling lines from the title track, Red White & Blue, a song the Van Zants wrote with Brad and Brett Warren, a.k.a. The Warren Brothers, which first appeared on Lynyrd Skynyrd's 2003 album, 'Vicious Cycle' - is, We're trying to sing the truth to you. That line alone encapsulates exactly why the Van Zants have always had such a deep connection with their audience. I think that's what we've always done, Johnny agrees. That's one of the reasons both Skynyrd and the things we've done as Van Zant have been around so long. We really don't know how to do anything else except sing about what we know, and try to tell the truth. I try to be as honest as possible, and I think people see that. We're not trying to be anybody we're not.
Concludes Donnie, We're actually next door neighbors, and we write constantly. Heck, we've probably got another one or two records done already. The meaning of it all to me is that it's about God, family, work ethics, and values. You put that combination together, and you have Donnie and Johnny Van Zant, because that's what's most important to us.
When you put it that way, calling the Van Zant clan 'The First Family of Southern Rock' just might not be enough. In fact, they may very well be The First Family of American Music. It really doesn't get any more Red White & Blue than that.