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Published: Sunday, 6/19/2005

Family ties: At last, the Van Zant brothers team up on a country album

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Johnny Van Zant, left, and brother Donnie. Johnny Van Zant, left, and brother Donnie.
CHAPMAN BAEHLER / AP Enlarge

There is one thing that's immediately evident about Donnie Van Zant - the man knows how to laugh.

"Someone told me the other day, `You sure do laugh a lot.' I said, `What would you rather I do, laugh or be a jerk?' "

And then he offers a hearty laugh to drive home the philosophy he has decided to live by.

He's in an upstairs office of his Orange Park, Fla., home, briefly eluding his eight grandchildren, who have been scurrying around his four-acre estate, clamoring for the attention of their grandfather, who is home for only the second day in the last 2 months.

He's been able to escape the grandkids for about an hour, but not the reach of his wife, Ashley, who rings Donnie on his cell phone.

"Hey, baby. The light bulb? Sure, I'll fix that."

He hangs up and laughs again. "I've got a honey-do list. No, seriously. She gives me a honey-do list. I have a terrible memory, and she writes everything down for me, then I do it."

So, Donnie Van Zant, a rock music icon, is hiding out in an office from his grandkids and running down a list of chores from his wife?

Yep, and that's pretty much how he wants it to be.

"Life is about family, man," he says.

And the Van Zant family is legendary in the world of music. Donnie is entering his 30th year as the lead singer of .38 Special. His brother, Johnny, is the lead vocalist for Lynyrd Skynyrd. For the first time, Donnie and his younger brother have collaborated on a country album, "Get Right with the Man," which sold more than 40,000 copies in its first week of release earlier this month.

And of course, the inspiration for both Donnie and Johnny was their older brother, Ronnie, who founded Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band signed its first record deal in 1973, and a string of platinum and gold albums followed, fueled by hits "Sweet Home Alabama," "Saturday Night Special," "Gimme Three Steps," and "Free Bird."

"I can remember Skynyrd practicing in my living room. I'm this kid with a buzz cut, watching my brother sing and seeing how much fun he was having. I remember thinking, `Hey, I can do that.' I got into this because of him," Donnie says.

A couple years later when the railroad came around offering Donnie a job and a steady paycheck, Ronnie took him aside.

"He told me, `You've got music in your blood. You owe it to yourself to give it one more shot.' That's when I formed .38 Special."

On Oct. 20, 1977, life changed forever for the Van Zant family.

Lynyrd Skynrd was at the height of its popularity, in the midst of a wildly popular tour, with sold-out dates each night. On that fall night, a plane carrying the band between shows in Greenville, S.C., and Baton Rouge, La., crashed near Gillsburg, Miss., killing Ronnie and bandmates Steve and Cassie Gaines. Also killed were assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray. The other band members were injured.

Days before the crash, Ronnie, feeling burned out from the increasing demands of stardom, had tried to convince Donnie to get away with him for a while.

"Two things that Ronnie hated were the telephone and shoes, but he called me up and wanted me to go fishing. I was working on a .38 Special album and told him I was too busy. He called me up again, and I told him I just couldn't do it. A couple days later his plane crashed. I promised myself right then and there that I'd spend time with my younger brother Johnny. I'd make the time for him. Now, he's not only my brother. He's my best friend."

When Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed 10 years after the crash, Johnny took over his brother's role as lead singer. Donnie couldn't bring himself to perform the songs of his former mentor, so he continued pumping out records with .38 Special.

The one thing the brothers always longed to do was cut a country album together, but the opportunity never presented itself until they walked into the office of Sony Nashville president John Grady.

"The situation was perfect for us. [Producer] Mark Wright and John Grady got in touch with us and asked if we'd be interested in doing a country record. We about jumped over the moon. It took us about five minutes to decide this is what we wanted to do," Donnie says.

"Get Right with the Man" is "pretty much what I do with .38 Special," he says. "In some Special songs, if you'd insert a fiddle, it'd be country."

The early reviews of the album have been overwhelmingly positive, and the first single, "Help Somebody," has climbed into the Top 20.

Country radio typically leans toward a pop sound, but executives have opened their arms to the Van Zant brothers. Their Southern rock sound is unique in country today. And the project has been embraced by fans of both Skynyrd and .38 Special. More surprisingly to Donnie, the brothers have been welcomed by other country artists.

"I met a lot of these guys at the Country Music Television awards, and we didn't know they were so into what we've done. I didn't know we'd been such an influence. I about flipped out when I had guys like Montgomery Gentry, Jon Randall, and Buddy Jewell me how much we influenced them."

Donnie is still the front man for .38 Special, putting on about 120 shows a year. Johnny is out front for Lynyrd Skynyrd, although he's been on vocal rest for several weeks, having a hard time shaking a case of strep throat. The brothers are hoping that by the end of this year, they'll be able to clear some time and take their country music on the road.

"We're real happy with how this project turned out. We're happy with every song on there. I really don't think there's a weak one. We want to be able to take this out there and show it off. And you get me and Johnny on a stage, it's a circus."

He's a grandpa now, but Donnie is embarking on a new venture after having lived the life of a rock-and-roll icon for 30 years.

"The big difference now is that I can actually remember what I did last night. We've partied with the best of them and taught them how to party, to be honest, but to last 30 years, you've got to learn to pace yourself," Donnie says.

Then he adds with a hearty laugh, "But we can still go at it when we have to."

Contact Brian Dugger at: bdugger@theblade.com or 419-724-6183.



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