Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington once joked that it'd take the band 10 years to revisit all the places they've been on tour.
"I don't know if we can last 10 more years," singer Johnny Van Zant says with a laugh. "If you're 20 years old, it's a lot easier than it is at our age. But you know what? It's still fun for us. We hate the traveling part, but love playing."
Van Zant, 59, has been the frontman for the Southern rock band since 1987, when he took over for his late brother, founder Ronnie Van Zant, who died in a 1977 plane crash along with guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines.
Lynyrd Skynyrd embarked on a farewell tour last year, which picks back up on April 27 with a headlining slot at Stagecoach festival in Indio, California, and continues through late September with 23 shows across the U.S. Enduring hits "Free Bird," "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Simple Man" are set-list staples, although Van Zant says he enjoys peppering in more obscure tracks such as "Red White and Blue" and "Skynyrd Nation" to appease their longtime fans.
He chats with USA Today about saying goodbye, releasing new music and overcoming loss.
Question: Why did you choose to add more dates to your farewell tour?
Johnny Van Zant: Fortunately for us, people still want to hear and see us, and it's just rolled on. We started this because of Gary's health problems. He has a bad heart, and we wanted to let people know that, "Hey, our time is coming to an end." We wanted to do it right and I think so far we have. So we're going to keep busy probably for another year and then see what happens next year, as long as Gary's health is OK.
Q: How is he feeling now?
Van Zant: He's doing really good right now. He had a pacemaker put in a while back. Gary loves to play. We've still got another record to make and are going into the studio pretty soon to cut a few things, so we’re just keeping on while we can.
Q: When do you expect to release the new album?
Van Zant: A lot depends on Gary's health. His health is good now and he wants to go in and start recording a few tracks here and there. We might just (release) them track by track, and then after we get it all done, put it together as a CD. We've had songs for a while, but we haven't been able to get in and actually finish recording. Gary's health got a little bad and we had to postpone, but we'll eventually get it.
Q: Former Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King passed away last fall. How does it feel losing him?
Van Zant: I played a lot of shows with Ed King in 1987 and '88. He was one of the premier guitar players and I hated to hear that he passed. I knew he had some health troubles, but God rest his soul. He left quite a mark here on Earth.
Q: Along with your brother, Lynyrd Skynyrd has lost many members through the years. How has that affected your own views on mortality or the band's legacy?
Van Zant: I appreciate things more. I lost my oldest daughter the year before last to cancer. She was 35. But I'm a Christian, and I'm a true believer that there's a heaven above and I will see her again. Being a parent who's lost a child, you can go against God or with him, and I chose to go with him. He has a bigger plan for all of us.
I never thought I would be in Lynyrd Skynyrd. I remember seeing the band rehearse and play, and going, "Wow, I want to do that one day" — and here I am! I've been in it 33 years this year. Sometimes it seems like 33 seconds. So we don't know what path God's going to lead us down and what our mortality is, but I've got a lot of things to live for.
My dad said it best. We’re Southern, and he said, "You know, I may be getting too old to cut the mustard, but there's a few collard greens I want to stir.” That's the way I feel: I'm not too old to get up there and rock and roll. Having been through so much stuff, we really appreciate the playing time now. Where it used to be drugs and sex and all that crazy stuff, now it’s really the appreciation of the fans and being in that moment. There's nothing like it – it’s the best drug in the world now.
Q: How do you hope the band will be remembered?
Van Zant: I think "Free Bird," "Sweet Home" and "Simple Man" all speak for themselves. I really do. Those songs will be around for a long, long time. I always hoped our music would reach the common people. Sure, we have doctors and lawyers as fans, but a lot of our fans are the common people of America and I think that's pretty cool.
Q: Last October, a federal appeals court ruled that ex-drummer Artimus Pyle can release his biopic about the band's plane crash, which he survived. I understand you previously sued him over the biopic. Are you still fighting it?
Van Zant: We're over fighting. We just wanted the story to be told right. There's a documentary out called "If I Leave Here Tomorrow." Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins started this band. Who else should tell the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd? That's the way I felt about it. But I'm not a lawyer or politician – thank God, they'd hate me more than Trump. I can't rule the world, so I just wish him the best of luck.
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