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Johnny Van Zant – Vocals
Donnie Van Zant – Vocals And Guitar
Garry Mojo Hensley – Bass Guitar
Noah Hungerford – Drums
Mark Muller – Steel Guitar, Guitar And Fiddle
Bobby Capps – Keyboards And Vocals
Eric Lundgren – Guitar And Vocals
Steve Cirkvencic – Guitar
Matt Hauer – Guitar And Vocals

Putting labels on artists and the music they make can often be a delicate venture, but when you’re talking about a certain extended Van Zant clan from Jacksonville, Florida, declaring them to be The First Family of Southern Rock appears to be the perfect fit. “That works for me,” says vocalist Johnny Van Zant. “I don’t think there’s any other one out there, except for maybe the Allmans.” Adds his older brother, vocalist and guitarist Donnie Van Zant, “Obviously, we’re from the South and proud to be Southerners, so I’ll let other people speak to that. We just write and play music, and we try to do the very best we can.”

Over the years, the Van Zant family’s very best recorded output has most definitely impacted both fans and contemporaries alike, as legendary Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw (author of hits like “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man”) can readily attest. “If you were asked for the name that comes to mind to personify the body and soul of Southern Rock, you’d look no further than Van Zant,” asserts Shaw, who also considers the Van Zant brothers to be good friends.

It’s easy to see (and hear) why the Van Zants deserve such a lofty mantel once you grab a listen to the new Loud & Proud Records release Red White & Blue (Live), a recently unearthed live Van Zant show recorded on January 28, 2006 at Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Georgia. From the out-and-out exuberance of instant crowd-pleasers like “Takin’ Up Space” and “My Kinda Country” to the heartfelt message of their big Country Singles chart hit “Help Somebody” (which hit #7 in 2005) to the spot-on, butt-kicking covers of 38 Special’s “Wild Eyed Southern Boys” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” the Van Zant brothers are clearly firing proud and true on all cylinders.

“We wanted to make sure we included our own bands in this set, so we ended up putting those three tracks on there, and I think the people in the audience enjoyed that a lot,” observes Donnie, who’s also a cofounding member of 38 Special. “That was part of our history, and we wanted to make it a part of Van Zant too.” Notes Johnny, who’s been the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd for almost three decades running, “We got to sing ‘Sweet Home’ together, which we’ve rarely done — and, hell, I’d never sung ‘Wild Eyed Southern Boys’ before, so that was a cool thing to do! I got a lot of enjoyment out of that.”

Red White & Blue (Live) may very well have been lost in the winds of history if it hadn’t been for the man known as “LJ” — that is, Donnie’s longtime 38 Special bandmate, bassist Larry Junstrom. LJ asked permission to come out and record that special Wild Adventures show with his then-new Pro Tools rig. “LJ called me up after we had just finished being out with Gretchen Wilson on her Redneck Revolution Tour,” Donnie recalls. “We’d done between 35-40 dates on it, and we got home with some time between the next Skynyrd and 38 dates, so we called a booking agent and said, ‘Hey, book us some more shows! We’re having a great time!’ And LJ — he’s a gadget guy, that’s what I call him,” laughs Donnie. “He had just bought some mobile recording equipment, and he wanted to take it out on the road and record live shows. He said, ‘Donnie, do you mind if I come do it?’ So it was really for him, just to try his equipment out. Some months later, LJ called me up and said, ‘You need to listen to this live CD you did!’ I eventually got with him, and I listened to it. I knew it was a good show, but I couldn’t believe how good! It turned out great for us. It was very energetic, and very entertaining.”

Adds Johnny, “This whole thing started out with us wanting to hear ourselves live: ‘Hey, what do we sound like?’ And LJ had the new gear to capture it all. We were listening to it not too long ago when it was being mastered, and we went, ‘Yeah man!’ We were just hitting it left and right — song after song after song. We thought, ‘Damn, that sounds pretty good!’”

One of the most telling lines from the title track, “Red White & Blue” — a song the Van Zants wrote with Brad and Brett Warren, a.k.a. The Warren Brothers, which first appeared on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 2003 album, Vicious Cycle — is, “We’re trying to sing the truth to you.” That line alone encapsulates exactly why the Van Zants have always had such a deep connection with their audience. “I think that’s what we’ve always done,” Johnny agrees. “That’s one of the reasons both Skynyrd and the things we’ve done as Van Zant have been around so long. We really don’t know how to do anything else except sing about what we know, and try to tell the truth. I try to be as honest as possible, and I think people see that. We’re not trying to be anybody we’re not.”

Concurs Donnie, “We’ve always tried to be true with people and give them what we think they want while being true to ourselves. I think that comes across in these songs. They’re songs we’ve lived ourselves, or watched someone else go through. That’s the only way we can write songs to begin with. You can hear that here on this live album. You can’t fool people. This is all real-life stuff to us, and we take it very, very seriously, let me tell you.”

By now, the Van Zant audience connection has criss-crossed multiple generations, something both Donnie and Johnny feel was initially established by their late brother Ronnie, the spiritual leader and original lead vocalist and chief songwriter for Lynyrd Skynyrd. “The audience that came out to our show was very broad; that’s all I can tell you,” Donnie reports. “We had people our age, older folks, and teenagers. This music crossed over to a lot of different age brackets. Again, I think it’s because they were getting live, real songs. People relate to that. It’s the reason Lynyrd Skynyrd got so big. My brother Ronnie wrote songs about truth, songs about what he lived, and what he saw other people go through. As long as you live by that and write about that, people can see it.”

Honoring Ronnie’s legacy also meant delving deeper into the family’s country-tinged roots. “I’ll be honest with you — my brother Ronnie had always wanted to do a country album,” Johnny confirms. “So we said, ‘Let’s do it for him.’ And then, all of a sudden, we got a hit! We got caught up in the moment because, yeah, it was fun, and it was great! Country music was really open to us. We went to all the awards shows and all the things we were nominated for. It was a great time for us, and I’m glad that we did it.”

Adds Donnie, “The truth of the matter is, it was easy for us to do, because we grew up on country. My dad was a long-distance truck driver and my mom was a manager of a Dunkin’ Donuts shop. Back then, if your dad drove a truck, that’s what you listened to — country. Mel Tillis, Hank Williams, Faron Young, and George Jones were all people we listened to. We were very influenced by all of that. And Johnny Cash was a real big one too. We just loved getting that rebel feel from him!”

Not only did the Van Zant brothers connect with country, they also grew closer to each other. “38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd are both working bands,” Donnie explains. “We’d each go out and do 90-100 shows a year, not including your travel days. You start adding on the days that we were gone from home for a long time, and I didn’t even see Johnny for months. So when we had the opportunity to get the Van Zant project together, the main reason was I figured we’d get to hang together a lot and we’d write songs together. We’d always done that anyway. Good family time — that’s exactly what it was. We got closer, and he’s probably one of my best friends — not just a brother.”

Johnny appreciates being able to share the fruits of his and his brother’s onstage collaborations with everyone who wants to hear them. “I’m glad that we’re putting out this live record,” he grins. “Not only for the fans, but for us too. I always say, ‘We’ll see what the fans think.’ This live album is like walking down Memory Road. I can listen to it and know we were having such a good time doing it — and it’ll probably inspire us to do more. Me and Donnie write all the time, so we’re going to see where it all goes. It’s in our DNA. In fact, right now, I’ve got two new songs of ours in my truck!”

Concludes Donnie, “We’re actually next door neighbors, and we write constantly. Heck, we’ve probably got another one or two records done already. The meaning of it all to me is that it’s about God, family, work ethics, and values. You put that combination together, and you have Donnie and Johnny Van Zant, because that’s what’s most important to us.”

When you put it that way, calling the Van Zant clan The First Family of Southern Rock just might not be enough. In fact, they may very well be The First Family of American Music. It really doesn’t get any more Red White & Blue than that.

The Van Zant Players:

Johnny Van Zant – Vocals
Donnie Van Zant – Vocals And Guitar
Garry Mojo Hensley – Bass Guitar
Noah Hungerford – Drums
Mark Muller – Steel Guitar, Guitar And Fiddle
Bobby Capps – Keyboards And Vocals
Eric Lundgren – Guitar And Vocals
Steve  Cirkvencic – Guitar
Matt Hauer – Guitar And Vocals

Van Zant - Red, White & Blue


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