How Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Mounted an Unlikely Return With ‘1991’
Lynyrd Skynyrd was torn apart by tragedy in the 1977 plane crash that killed three band members — and a decade later, their music brought the survivors back together.
The seeds for the reunion were sown in 1987, when Skynyrd veterans Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, Artimus Pyle, and Ed King enlisted Johnny Van Zant — younger brother of deceased founder Ronnie Van Zant — to front the lineup for what was meant to be a one-off tour in tribute to the band members who'd died 10 years before. Although his involvement kept things in the family, the younger Van Zant admitted he'd had second — and third, and fourth — thoughts about taking part.
"It took me two months to decide to do it," Johnny told Musician. "I wanted to talk with my parents, my sisters and my brother Donnie. They all felt Ronnie would have approved. Then I had a meeting with the guys in Jacksonville. Seeing them all together, there was no way I could refuse."
Hard as the decision was, the 1987 tribute tour — later captured on the 1988 live album Southern by the Grace of God — was so well-received that the reconstituted Skynyrd opted to keep going. Their decision wasn't welcomed by all corners of the fanbase — or Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines' widows, who took the new lineup to court — but a sense of unfinished business, and support from the fans who came out to the shows, called the group forward.
"I never dreamed I'd be doing this," Johnny told Mojo. "I had a new album of my own coming out, and I really didn't want to do it. I'm not Ronnie. If I sing like him sometimes, it's only because we slept in the same room, ate fried chicken together. ... I was a Skynyrd fan before I got into this thing, and I thought the fans would think it should be the end of it. Instead they've been unbelievably supportive."
The first fruits of the new lineup's labor were heard on Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991. That album arrived on June 11 of that year, and served up 11 new originals – led by the singles "Smokestack Lightning" and "Keep the Faith," both of which reached the Top 10 at rock radio. It obviously wasn't the same Skynyrd, but in a number of ways, they'd picked up right where they left off.
Listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd Perform 'Keeping The Faith'
Ultimately, however, Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 didn't come anywhere near the multi-platinum heights achieved by earlier efforts, petering out at a relatively disappointing No. 64 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, but the band members didn't seem to mind.
"There are ideas going on in everybody's head (about) what the next step will be," Wilkeson told the Chicago Tribune. "I'm twice as excited in anticipation of the next album as I was on this one. I sort of have the frame of mind about it as a new band. And this actually feels like a first album to me with this band, in spite of the fact that Skynyrd's been around. But it's not the same band, and we're as good and maybe even better."
Unfortunately, the band's brand of Southern rock wasn't the only tradition continued by the reunited lineup. Always volatile even at the best of times, Skynyrd continued to weather personal storms — starting with the acrimonious departure of Pyle, who left after contributing to Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 and was replaced by drummer Kurt Custer.
"It was great for the first 32 days until everybody in the band except me started doing cocaine and drinking champagne," Pyle told the Beach Reporter years later. "If Ronnie Van Zant is not your lead singer, it's not Lynyrd Skynyrd. Period. It's something less, something different."
Pyle's departure was just the beginning of a long season of change for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and would be followed by a number of comings and goings over the ensuing years. In time, Rossington would end up as the sole remaining original member — and a tireless standard-bearer for a band whose name became synonymous with the style of music, and a lifestyle, that they helped popularize decades before.
"It would have been a sin not to carry the music on," Powell argued to Uncut. "We're gonna go as long as we can." Added Rossington: "After all we've been through, we've gotten stronger over the years. To have Johnny there now is like having part of Ronnie there. You feel his spirit is on stage with us every night."
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