James Beaty: RAMBLIN' ROUND: How Merle Haggard inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd to keep rollin'

·6 min read

Jun. 13—A couple of song lyrics and a quote from Johnny Van Zandt sum up the reasons why Lynyrd Skynyrd band members have axed their plans to retire from life on the road after winding up what they intended to be the longstanding Southern rock band's final tour:

"You don't know what you've got till it's gone." — Joni Mitchell, from her 1970 song "Big Yellow Taxi."

"Big wheels rollin', gotta keep 'em goin', big wheels rollin', movin' on." — Merle Haggard, from his 1975 song, "(Big Wheels Rollin') Movin' On."

"You don't know what you've got till it's gone." — Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Johnny Van Zandt, in a June, 2021 interview, on resuming touring and live performances .

Members of the classic Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd have had second thoughts about announcing their retirements. They were only a couple of shows away from winding up their three-year Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour, intended to be the band's last tour before permanently quitting the road.

Then, due to the pandemic, they got an unexpected taste of what life off the road, without performing with the other band members, might be like.

That's why they've decided to not only honor those previously-cancelled dates, but to even add a slew of new live performances. And those plans to permanently retire? They've been shelved.

To make sure everyone gets the message, three band members gave an interview that's posted on the Southern rock band's website and YouTube.

Lead guitarist Rickey Medlocke, joined with founding Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington and lead singer Johnny Van Zandt, to talk about their change of plans in conjunction with the band's upcoming Big Wheels Keep On Turnin' Tour, set to kick-off on June 13 and which includes a stop in Southeastern Oklahoma.

The tour's title is a nod to Merle Haggard's song "(Big Wheels Rollin') Movin' On." Medlocke said Haggard's response to an interviewer who asked Haggard why he didn't retire from live performances has inspired Medlocke and the rest of Lynyrd Skynyrd to remember why they do what they do in the first place.

All three band members spoke what life had been like after live performances for them and just about all other musicians came to a sudden stop when lockdowns were abruptly put in place last year due to the pandemic.

"I've been locked up in my house for over a year," Medlocke said. "The only communication I had was FaceTime or on the phone. I talked to Johnny and and Gary on a regular basis; my loved ones, I talked to them. But it brought back a big perspective for me of how much I miss everybody and not to ever take it for granted again, you know, that it was always going to be there."

Medlocke said he heard from what he called "our band family" who felt deeply troubled about not knowing if the band would ever be able to play together again. Then Medlocke felt inspired by something Merle Haggard had once said about why he continued to tour and play live performances long after he could have retired from the road:

"But I tell you, I heard a great interview that a gal did with Merle Haggard and she asked Merle Haggard, 'Why do you go out and do this? You don't need to do this. Why is it you do it?'"

Then Medlocke told how Haggard gave the answer that inspired him and the other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd to resume live performances themselves.

"And he goes 'Because I'm a musician. This is what I do.'"

Medlocke picked up from there saying "And that's what we all do. We play, you know, no matter what comes around, we have to be out there playing for the fans.

"I agree with Johnny and Gary," Medlocke said of his fellow band members sitting next to him. "Music heals and for the fans it's important for us to go back out there and help this nation kind of heal itself."

Van Zandt then jumped in.

"I've got to tell you in my life, when I've had bad things happen, I've always listened to music. When I've had good things happen, I've always listened to music. So music is a great healer, so we were hoping to be able to do that."

Medlocke followed the tradition some guitarists have of personifying their instrument (think of B.B. King and his fabled guitar he named Lucille) when he spoke of when the band began rehearsals.

"Everybody got here and we've missed each other," he said. 'It's so cool and all of a sudden I put on my guitar.

"I hadn't had it strapped around my neck in it seems like forever and I missed it, and she said 'I missed you. Where the hell were you?'"

Van Zandt also addressed the impact of the band's abrupt end to touring in 2020.

"We didn't expect to be off this long," Van Zandt said. "It took us out of character." He said 2020 was supposed to the band's last year "and then all those dates went away, so were are here to say we want to try and make up those dates. We really missed being out there."

Lynyrd Skynyrd is not only making up those dates, they've added the new ones on the Big Wheels Keep On Turnin' tour.

"One thing for sure, 15 months later, I think we're ready to go again, right?"

"Yeah, we're ready, Rossington and Medlocke agreed.

Van Zandt returned to the theme of the beneficial effects of music.

"You know, music is a healer, not only for the fans, but for us," Van Zandt said. "You know, you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

Rossington concurred, spreading his arms with an expansive gesture.

"Yeah, just like he said, to heal ourselves and all the people who want to come and hear music again and try to get back to something normal," said Rossington.

Van Zandt said he thinks people need music and he asks the others if they agreed?

"Yeah, music make the world go round," said Rossington.

They sound a lot like the guys in McAlester who put together the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival: Blake Lynch, Josh Hass, Adam Gronwold, Kyle Spruce and Joey Clark, along with local sponsors who helped. Anyone who wants to feel the beneficial effects of music can check out the free John Fullbright concert offered June 12 in Downtown McAlester. That's followed by the July 3 concert with Band of Heathens and Hass.

Another thing: Van Zandt said although Lynyrd Skynyrd is returning to the road, members will be selective in planning their new tour dates.

Area Lynyrd Skynyrd fans will be glad to know it includes a scheduled Sept. 4, 2021 performance at the Choctaw Grand Theater in Durant.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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