P’s and Q’s: Van Zant Love Jesus, Dixie Chicks and ‘Free Bird’
Country duo Van Zant doesn't mind if you yell "Free Bird!" at one of their shows. Brothers Donnie and Johnny Van Zant are proud of their musical heritage, hailing from one of rock 'n' roll's most famous families and from two of rock's most iconic bands: Lynyrd Skynyrd and .38 Special. The brothers have just released their second country album under the Van Zant name, 'My Kind of Country.' They recently sat down with AOL Music to talk about the new project ... and ended up breaking all the rules -- talking religion, politics and (gasp!) standing up for the Dixie Chicks.
What would you say are the biggest differences between your new album, My Kind of Country' and your first country album, 'Get Right With the Man'?
Donnie: Recording-wise, there's really not that much difference. What we were concerned about more than anything was just going in and having fun.
Johnny: But of course we wanted it to be a little different. We didn't want people to spend their hard-earned dollar and get the same record. But we do stick to what we know. What we're singing about is what we feel. And we wanted every song to be something for somebody . . . for them to be able to put themselves into it. To me, making a CD is like writing a book.
Donnie: It's stuff that we've either lived ourselves or watched someone else go through. Because in songwriting when you just make up stuff, it don't fly.
Donnie: When you hear the song, you think the most obvious thing to do would be to go to a bar-room and make a video. But [our director] Roman White had a different vision for it that really appealed to us.
Johnny: We got to play two shady characters, which kinda fits us. [laughs]
Donnie: You are sorta shady. He's now "Pierre" Van Zant after this video. [laughs]
'That Scares Me' is one of the more emotional songs on the album that likely hits home for a lot of people. Does that song have personal meaning to either of you?
Johnny: My daughter's boyfriend asked for her hand in marriage last year. It's turned out to be a long engagement, which we're happy about. And I have another daughter who's 16, and just the thought of her getting in cars with boys and driving off gives me a lump in my throat. Both of us are married, and to have our wives keeping the home fires burning and loving us for who we are is just a great thing. And we'd both be scared not to have that.
You also wear your patriotism on your sleeves with this album, especially on the song 'These Colors Don't Run.' Was it important to you to include a song supporting the troops on this record?
Donnie: The song is not a war song. It's actually about a guy who I knew some years ago. I used to go pick my daughter up in the mornings, and I'd see this old guy who had a flagpole in his front yard. And he'd raise it every morning and take it down every night. And you could see in his garage that he had an American flag in there, too. So this song is about a guy who believes that this country is Number One. Johnny and I definitely agree with that. We've had the privilege of traveling all around this world, and we know that the United States is the greatest country of all.
Johnny: With the war going on right now, we all know someone who's either been there or is going there. And even if we do pull out of there, I don't know if we'll ever win that situation. But there's a difference between pulling out and running. And when America's got its back up against the wall really bad, like 9/11, these colors don't run. We stick together. We are united as one. We support our troops and their families. Like when we were on tour with Bocephus [Hank Williams, Jr.], we were playing up in Maryland and went to Walter Reed Medical Center to give out t-shirts, sign autographs and just visit with the injured and the amputees. And these men and women who were hurting there all wanted to get well and get back to join their troops again. And that's a patriot right there. That's a true American.
This song supports the troops without taking a political stance. What's your opinion on artists who do express their political opinions through their music?
Johnny: We're just singers and songwriters. We're not politicians. But this is America, so if there's something that you believe strongly enough and want to put your butt on the line, then you have the right to do that. But never put down the President of the United States. [laughs] We caught hell for that. Oh wait, that was the Dixie Chicks. [laughs]
Donnie: That is what makes this country great. We all have our own opinions and freedom of speech to voice them. Those little girls [the Dixie Chicks], that was their freedom.
You do express your religious beliefs on 'We Can't Do It Alone.'
Donnie: We both wear crosses, and I can promise you it's not for fashion reasons. We both believe that Jesus Christ died on that cross and shed his precious blood for us. This world we live in is a very scary world. And I think the older I get, the more I realize that I need to get on my knees and pray, and put all my problems in His hands. The bottom line is, we can't do it alone.
Johnny: And this is our belief as Christians. But we're not trying to force it on anyone. As Christians, it's our duty to stand up for what we believe -- that's called testifying.
As a country duo, Van Zant is a relatively new act, while the two of you are really music veterans from your days with .38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd. How would you say your musical past has helped Van Zant versus how it has hurt you?
Donnie: Well, of course it doesn't hurt to have a little money. [laughs] I mean, we sold a few records. [laughs]
Johnny: We took a lot of what we did with Skynyrd and put it into Van Zant. You know, so many artists try to be something that they're not. And I think our fans realize that we're just being ourselves.
Donnie: There's not a song on here that .38 Special couldn't do. And I think the same goes for Skynyrd.
Have you found any differences in country fans versus rock fans?
Johnny: I've been with Skynyrd for 20 years, and we had this agent who apparently didn't know music. Why he was an agent, I don't know. But he called me up and said, "Hey man, there's this tour that we want you guys to be a part of. So I want to get your opinion." And I thought he was gonna say someone like Marilyn Manson or something. But it was Hank [Williams] Junior. And I was like, "What's there to think about that? What do you want my opinion about? That's a no brainer!" Hank Junior fans are Skynyrd fans. I think the people who listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd in the '70s are listening to country music right now. Same goes with our fans and Kenny Chesney. I met him way back when he made his first record, and he invited me out to his show. And when we got on his bus, he was watching 'Lyve from Still Town' from Lynyrd Skynyrd -- a DVD that we did. And he was like, "Dude, I watch this every night." And I got the biggest kick out of that. But that just goes to show you that the new generation of country artists grew up with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Ok, I'm going to run the risk of you hanging up on me right now, but I have to ask. Do you ever get tired of fans yelling 'Free Bird'?
Donnie: No way! [laughs] We did this Fourth of July thing with GAC, and in between songs during commercial breaks, people were going, "Free Bird! Free Bird!" And we finally felt like all the other artists who tell us all the time, "Man, do you know how many times I hear 'Free Bird' in between my songs?"
If you were to become a trio, who would you want the third member of Van Zant to be?
Johnny: Our brother Ronnie if he was around here, for sure. But I'm sure he's here in spirit. Would've been nice if it was the three of us, though.
(Ronnie Van Zant, the original lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, died in a plane crash in 1977.)
Donnie: We're two blessed guys here, to have successful careers with .38 Special and Skynyrd and then to have a gold record with Van Zant. It would've been cool to have him [Ronnie] here for that though.