On the other end of the telephono line we’ve got Donnie Van Zant! The middle brother of the legendary family of the South talks about the recently recovered lost concert, the collaboration with his brother, the tragic plane crash in 1977, .38 Special… and the ghost of Ronnie. He is great to talk to with his Southern accent and humorous despite the fact that’s 8 AM in Jacksonville. Interview: Yiannis Dolas
Rockpages.gr: How did your collaboration with Johnny as Van Zant brothers come up in 1998 when you released the album “Brother To Brother”?
Donnie Van Zant: Well, my brother, the only way I can explain it is that in happened back in 1977. You know, that was when my older brother Ronnie was killed on the plane crash. After that a lot of things changed for me. One thing with John… I just told myself right then and there that I will make sure that I spend a lot of time, as much I can spend with him. Basically, I was just starting and I wanted to spend as much time with him being brothers more than anything. So, when these opportunities came up to do musical projects I jumped on it, he did too.
Rockpages.gr: How come you haven’t recorded any other show, except from this one that was released?
Donnie Van Zant: Haha! You know that’s weird, that’s the thousand-dollar question right now… me and Johnny were talking about it. We didn’t do any videos and we just recorded live, you know… we had no intentions to put a live CD out. What happened was that we went out on the Gretchen Wilson tour, she is a country artist here. We were promoting our first country record at the time and the tour was called “Redneck Revolution” which fitted us perfectly. So, we went out and did probably 40 shows with her and came back home, but we still had some time off, Johnny with Skynyrd, me with .38 Special… so, we called our agent and asked him to book us some more shows, so we played another 15 or so, and that one in Valdosta, Georgia had to be one of them. Then Larry Junstrom, the bassist in .38 Special, had just bought Pro-Tools recording equipment and he wanted to try it out really. So, he called me up and asked me to record our show there, I didn’t care, and when I asked Johnny about it he said: “what’s the worst case scenario? We get to hear what we sound like!” hahaha!
Rockpages.gr: Do you remember anything specific from that night, January 28th 2006? That was ten years ago!
Donnie Van Zant: Yeah! You know what was cool about it was that Valdosta, Georgia is not far from where we live in Jacksonville, Florida. So, we had a bunch of family members there and a lot of friends. It was already an exciting night for us just having everyone with us. So, I knew it was going to be a special night, I just didn’t know how good it was!
Rockpages.gr: Is there any chance that you guys make another record, what do you think?
Ronnie Van Zant: You know what? I say “never say never!” Because, I will be truthful with you, we write constantly! I mean when he is home and I am not doing other projects and stuff we just constantly write. We probably have enough songs to do another two records. So, it’s just a part of our lives, it’s what we actually do, sort of our hobby: writing songs. We are next door neighbors, so it’s very easy. Johnny has a little office and we get together and bang them out, you know…
Rockpages.gr: The first two albums you did together I’d say that they are closer to hard rock, while the last two are closer to country. Why did you do that? Was that intentional, did the songs come out like that?
Ronnie Van Zant: You know what? The first two we actually meant them to be more hard rock. The country ones we were actually in the studio making another rock album when our management called us up and asked us if we were interested doing a country record, and we both looked at each other and went: “sure, we’ll do it!” And to be truthful with you it wasn’t that big of a jump for us, because the songs that you hear on our country records, we did two, are not that much different than what I would have done in .38 Special… and especially for Johnny with Skynyrd. It wasn’t that big of a jump for us to do that. Our brother Ronnie again always wanted to do a country record. So, we are sort of living his dream too! I think it was a cool thing for both of us.
Rockpages.gr: Are you officially considered retired?
Donnie Van Zant: You know what? If this is retirement I am doing more work than I should… hahaha! You know, what happened was that I was out on tour with .38 Special somewhere in Texas, I can’t remember where we were at, but it was Texas, and it was our first show… I was getting ready for the show there and I had some bleeding from one of my ears and that freaked me completely out! And then it stopped and went ahead, but I had a really hard time on that particular show. I couldn’t really hear chords very well and between you and me I was singing out of key and that was really embarrassing! So, we had a few more shows and then I called my specialist and when I came how I went to see him and he couldn’t see where the bleeding came from, but he told me to take a hearing test. Obviously, I agreed to it and when I did the hearing test I haven’t realized how much of my hearing I have lost. I knew I was having problems, but I’d never admitted to myself… but, I have lost probably about 75% of high and mid range, so I got about 25% left here, so I am doing what I can…
Rockpages.gr: Does this time in your career when you are not that busy with music make you reflect on your past, change your mind about things or stuff you did, maybe even have regrets?
Donnie Van Zant: You know what? I actually had a great life! I can’t complain brother! By the time I went on the road with .38 Special… that was 40 years ago! I’ve had a blessed life! One thing I’ve been able to do, playing with .38 Special, being able to get my family and do things I didn’t even dream about when I was a kid. I feel really good about that and I am able to spend a lot of time with my family now.
Rockpages.gr: .38 Special are still active. Do you think that you might do another album with them at some point?
Donnie Van Zant: You know, I can do that, but I can’t go out there and do 90- 100 shows a year… do that many dates out on the road anymore. But, studio-wise I am OK there for a certain amount of time, even after that my ears are getting fatigued very quickly. So, after that I just have to stop and let’em rest and go back out, you know? But, yeah! I am still a member of .38 Special, worker-wise anyway. I look forward to doing some recording with them. Again, I wrote many songs that are perfect for .38 Special.
Rockpages.gr: Lately Ricky Medlock re-formed Blackfoot, although this time the members are new, since he hand-picked them. Maybe someone may say that Skynyrd did the same with Johnny being the lead singer. What’s your opinion about that? Big, legendary bands that can change their lineup and last longer. Maybe members that weren’t there the first time around?
Donnie Van Zant: Yeah, you know what? I don’t know much about Blackfoot… except I like Ricky Medlock a lot! But, with Skynyrd I remember when they decided to go out and do the reunion tour… I forget what year that was… that was 10 years since the crash… so, all the living members got together and wanted to go out… they made this music and it was great music and they wanted to continue making it. The last thing they wanted was people to remember was an airplane crash. It was still weird to me about somebody else singing my brother’s song (he laughs)… and that included Johnny of course! I went to a show here in Jacksonville and I watched them and I was just blown away by them. Johnny does an unbelievable job and indeed Ronnie would be very proud. So, I
think they should carry on music forever!
Rockpages.gr: Where were you that tragic day when the crash happened? What do you remember from that day?
Donnie Van Zant: Ahh… yeah, I think it was about 6:30 in the afternoon when I started hearing things or 6:45, somewhere around there… we were down Riverside Avenue. Skynyrd and .38 Special actually have their rehearsal halls right next to each other and I we were working on our second album at the time… “Special Delivery”… and had a couple of friends come there… then, someone said “something really bad happened and you have to go home”… when I got home I found out that there was a plane crash and all of that. So, it was pretty dramatic!
Rockpages.gr: Also, the live album “Red, Wide And Blue” comes as a special scrap book edition as well. can you tell us a bit about that?
Donnie Van Zant: Yeah! Actually, it’s my dad’s book! He always wanted to do that! We sorta laughed about it at first because I didn’t know if he was serious or not you know? But, he got it all together, all the pictures and everything! He put it together and it never got out from a publishing company, but he sold it on his own and it did unbelievably well! Even better than books that were published by companies did. He just sold it from his house through word of mouth. He did very good at it! I hope that people enjoy “Red, White And Blue” as much as we enjoyed making it. It was a cool project. An album that wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did happen and I hope people enjoy!
Rockpages.gr: You were the brother in the middle between Ronnie and Johnny. How was childhood and growing up all together?
Donnie Van Zant: Well, Ronnie blew it for me a lot! Hahahaha! I got to pay for all the mistakes Ronnie did you know… hahahaha! When it came to getting a car I didn’t get one, so I had to go out there all summer long and save my money to get a 75$ car you know… but, it was fine man! I have no complains, looking back on it I am so glad Ronnie got everything that he wanted to get. He actually got a little place on the lake and he loved fishing and living on the water, experienced that. He worked really hard for what he did and he got to experience very little bit of it, not too much that’s for sure!
Rockpages.gr: There have been many stories, and lots of them are published about Ronnie’s spirit, even Ronnie’s ghost, people seeing Ronnie fishing or wandering around… do you believe any of that? Have you seen any of that?
Donnie Van Zant: You know… I WISH! I would love to see him again! I don’t care how! Hahahah! But, firstly I haven’t! I’ve been always a true believer and that… I believe in spiritual beings and stuff like that and I can tell you that through all those years of playing there were times when I thought Ronnie was on that stage with me, I could feel him! And it was sort of weird but I could! As well as other people, my mother and father, my sister… so, yes I do believe it but I haven’t seen Ronnie. I wish I could!