There's a fine line between outlaw country and Southern rock. Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd figured out a few years ago that they shared the same audience, so why not give 'em a big ole dose of yee-haw at one sitting?
The Rowdy Frynds Tour is loose once again this year, but only for a limited time. Williams says he's done the 200-dates-a-year thing and has nothing to prove, so a 20-date tour held only on Friday and Saturday nights is good enough for him and his audience. "That's what he does," Skynyrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke says.
But that's not all he does. Williams' hand is firmly on the controls when it comes down to how the show is presented. Williams said in an interview last year with the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he detested all the extraneous visual crap that goes along with big tours. "I don't want to rely on pyros and friggin' videos and shit up on the screen to make my audience happy," he told the paper. "I hate all that shit. All I need is my guitar, a microphone and my audience."
Skynyrd has taken the hint and scaled back their visuals back as well. "We're just using sound and lights and a little bit of video, man, and just playing raw music," Medlocke says.
Medlocke has had a hand in that raw Skynyrd sound off and on for nearly three decades. His first stint with the band was as a drummer when Bob Burns left in 1971. "I really hadn't sat behind a set of drums in quite a while," Medlocke now admits. At the time, he was the frontman/guitarist for the Southern rock band Blackfoot. But when singer Ronnie Van Zant called, he told him he was ready to go. Two weeks later, the band was in Muscle Shoals recording the demo that would become their eponymous debut, containing the soon-to-be southern rock classics "Gimme Three Steps" and "Freebird." He left in '72. "I knew I was good, but I didn't think I was great enough to take these guys where they really should go and needed to go, so I opted out and went back to playing guitar," he says.
Burns stepped back in and Medlocke returned briefly in '73, giving the band two drummers for a short time until Medlocke left again to rejoin Blackfoot. This time he was gone 23 years before returning as a guitarist in 1996, and has been there ever since.
That's given him plenty of time to reflect on the popularity of the pervasive Skynyrd anthem "Freebird." "It's a mainstay now," Medlocke says. "You can be almost anywhere; I've been to shows before that had nothing to do with Lynyrd Skynyrd and you'll hear somebody yell out, 'Play "Freebird"!'"
The song was originally a love song. "In the early years, it wasn't going over as just a ballad," Medlocke says. "Then all of a sudden, they developed the guitar thing at the very end where it's almost like the bird is taking off and taking flight."
The guitarist believes the elevation of rock guitarists to god-like status helped the song take off. But the song has taken on a deeper meaning to many at a grassroots level. "We hear all kinds of stories where people -- their graduation song has been 'Freeebird,' or somebody lost a loved one and at the funeral the played 'Freebird,' and people, at their weddings they played 'Freebird,'" Medlocke says. "It's one of those tunes, man, that's just got an all-around special meaning to each individual."
The band's core audience has by now hit senior citizen status, but you'll see 15--year-olds singing along with the hits word-for-word at Skynyrd shows, as well. "The songs are magical and they'll be here a lot longer after I'm gone," Medlocke says. "And that's really the key secret to any band's success, having those kinds of tunes that people can relate to, never get tired of, and then their kids, and then their kids want to hear it and then all of a sudden here you go."
The set list is a time machine that opens with "Workin' For MCA," the tune that helped set the tone for Skynyrds' don't-fuck-with-me image. "Just pay me all my money mister," Van Zant snarls at his new record company bosses at MCA who've just signed him for the grand sum of $9,000, "and maybe you won't get a scar."
All the hits including "Sweet Home Alabama," "Gimme Three Steps," "What's Your Name," "That Smell," "Call me The Breeze" and a video of Ronnie singing on "Travelin' Man" get in before "Freebird" closes the show.
Williams'll be doing his hits too, including "Family Tradition" and "A Country Boy Can Survive." But don't expect any interaction between the two acts on stage. "When we get finished with 'Freebird,' we just do a quick out," Medlocke says. "We go because we've got to get to the next city. Hank does the same thing, man. When he gets finished with the show, he's out the back door and he wants to get in his car, get in his plane and get gone."
Fans that can't get enough of the Williams connection were scheduled to get a remotely related hookup when Skynyrd toured with Williams pal Kid Rock in August, but things didn't go too smoothly at a trial run at Madison Square Garden on May 15.
"There were a few complications between us," Medlocke says. "We're set to do some dates at the end of the summer, but I guess right now the way it stands, I think there's a few little complications about it so we're gonna have to see."
"I don't really want to elaborate on it, because that's the way I am," Medlocke chuckles. "I'll leave it to people's imagination."
The Rowdy Frynds tour plays Time Warner Cable Arena on May 31. Tickets range from $29.50 to $69.50.