Van Zant Biography
Last updated: 09/20/2007 12:00:00 PM
With songs about sin, salvation, family, work ethic, values, independence and, of course, love, brothers Donnie and Johnny Van Zant make one big, bold statement on their debut outing for Columbia Nashville. And while these may be traditional country themes, Van Zant delivers them with in an often louder, sometimes more aggressive, always soulful manner not often heard in country music.
The Van Zant brothers sing songs that teem with authenticity. When they sing about an oak tree on the hill, it’s there. When they sing about being homesick, they know how it feels. When they sing about the pits of despair brought on by substance abuse, they’ve been there, done that. And when they howl about having a good time, Lord knows they’ve done that, too.
Get Right With the Man is billed as the brothers’ first full-blown country record, but the music very much remains true to the Van Zant legacy, a legacy of music that hits people where they live. “I hope people take a lot of journeys out of this record,” Johnny says. “Each song is like a miniature movie to me, and I hope each person takes that ride and enjoys it like we did.”
And, of course, a ride in this “country” is a relative term. “People ask us if we’ve gone country, I tell ‘em ‘we ain’t gone country, we were born country,” Johnny points out. Maybe so, but this is country music the Van Zant way, with a heavy dose of attitude and Southern boogie flair. These sibling members of Southern Rock’s first family make zero compromises in their music here. Still present are the searing guitars, pounding beats, prideful themes, and gritty vocals that the Van Zant brothers have been known for over thousands of shows, millions of records sold and countless hits as charter members of Lynyrd Skynyrd (Johnny) and 38 Special (Donnie).
Rather than changing their music to fit a country format, in many ways country music has moved into the Van Zants’ sphere of influence. So the Van Zants entered the studio last summer with some killer tunes, worked around their busy band schedules, and wrapped up around Christmas with a record that’s about as subtle as a shotgun blast.
With a fierce cadre of musicians that steps outside the typical Music Row studio lineup, the synergy is palpable. The complimentary personalities of producers Mark Wright (“up, up, up”) and Joe Scaife (“a laid back guy”) brought out the best in the brothers.
From the opening swamp-rock of the hard-charging “Takin’ Up Space,” right into the fiercely independent “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Tell Me What to Do,’ the brothers Van Zant leave no doubt that they’re on a mission. And when these brothers sing about Mama, this mama is a gambling, dirty-joke-telling Mama that nevertheless steers her boys in the right direction. To put it bluntly, this record kicks serious country butt.
And it ought to. The brothers had a hand in writing seven of the 11 cuts on Get Right With the Man, joined by an impressive list of Music City tunesmiths like Rivers Rutherford, Craig Wiseman, Al Anderson, Jeffrey Steele, Tim Nichols and other A-listers.
To be sure, some of these songs are more “country” in the traditional sense of the word than others. If the seize-the-moment anthem “Takin’ Up Space” the backwoods philosophy of “Lovin’ You,” the winking “I Know My History” and the rollicking “I’m Doin’ Alright” all rock righteously, others like debut single (and source of the album’s title) “Help Somebody” fit nicely alongside today’s radio-ready country offerings. Likewise, the regretful “Can’t Help Myself” (penned with the Warren Brothers) would be considered stone country in any era.
“Our Dad was a truck driver for 35 years and Mom worked at Dunkin Donuts, says Donnie, “and at home, man, country is what we listened to, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Mel Tillis.”
Like brother duos the Louvins, the Everlys and the Stanleys before them, you can’t fake this. These brothers swap vocals and stories with an easy grace and humor that only blood and a shared history can provide. “We were born on the West side of Jacksonville in a neighborhood that was literally called ‘Shanty Town,’ says Donnie. “Most of our friends ended up either dead or in jail, so we were the lucky ones.”
The Van Zant vibe is definitely a Southern thing, a working class, testosterone-loaded thing, but it’s so much more than that. Theirs is a worldview that transcends class, genre, geography and gender. If you’ve done any livin’, if you love anybody, if you have a heart and soul, if you’ve kicked up your heels on Saturday night and nursed a hangover at church on Sunday, chances are you’re going to totally get this record. “We set out to have fun on this thing, and be true to ourselves, and that’s what we did,” says Johnny.
A rousing reception from radio professionals during a live Country Radio Seminar showcase in March, as well as the fast start of debut single “Help Somebody,” indicates the country music community is more than ready for Van Zant. And while Van Zant would love hit country singles and huge sales, one of the objectives of the record has already been reached for a pair of brothers that live next door to each other but whose professional demands severely limit their time together.
“Recording this album just gave us a chance to hang out together,” says Johnny. And the death of the pair’s older brother Ronnie in the infamous 1977 Skynyrd plane crash places further value on their relationship.
“Right before Ronnie died, I was in the studio finishing up a 38 record and Ronnie called and said, ‘hey, man, let’s go fishin’ or something’. I wanted to finish the record, so we didn’t go, and we all know what happened, I promised myself I would never make that mistake with Johnny. He’s not only my brother, he’s my best friend.”