One of my favorite interviews from the last couple of years was with Donnie Van Zant of .38 Special and the Van Zant band. This was a really loose interview and was done on the release day for the Van Zant’s GET RIGHT WITH THE MAN debut country release. I cut a lot out of the interview because it is now dated. However, there’s still some interesting things in the interview. I also wanted everyone to check out Donnie’s sense of humor towards the end – you get a real good sense of Donnie’s character in this interview.
RAG – We all know you from your work in your respective bands. How did the opportunity come about to do a country record and why did you decide to go with the “country” label?
DVZ – It’s been a dream come true to get to do this together. We’ve been talking about doing a country album together for at least 10 to 12 years. It sort of fell into our laps – when we were trying to get it, we couldn’t get it. John Grady (president of Sony Nashville) and Mark Wright called up our management company and asked them if they could set up a meeting with us in Nashville to talk about the Van Zant brothers doing a country record. We thought it was a joke at first. We said “Yeah. We’ll meet with them in Nashville.” After meeting with those 2 guys for about 5 minutes, we said “We want to do it. We’ll find the time to do it.” Both of those guys are not just great people, they are both music lovers and we picked up on that immediately. Someone asked us “Why are you doing this?” It’s the love of music that drives us. I’m not trying to say I’m conceded or whatever. It’s not like we had to do this. I’ve been with .38 Special for 30 years now and we’ve done pretty good. We’re doing this because we’re real country lovers. Obviously, you want it to do good and sell a lot of records – you would be foolish to not want that. But, we really did it for the love of the music. I’m a real country lover. People get in my car and most of the time the radio is going to be on a country station. It’s exciting for us. Johnny and myself were driving in the car when we first heard us on the radio. We were like kids in a candy store. We almost wrecked the car trying to turn it up. It reminded me of how it felt when I first heard “Rockin’ into the Night” on the radio and how excited I was back then. It’s a great feeling to still feel that and to still have the love or spirit to keep doing it. It’s kind of like we’re rookies with attitudes! (Laughing)
RAG – GET RIGHT WITH THE MAN really nails down that real life, every day approach to things. I take it you didn’t have to change your writing style much at all for this project?
DVZ – All of these songs you hear on here are life experiences – either we lived ourselves or we watched someone go through. That’s what we’re all about. I think that’s something our brother Ronnie taught us many, many years ago – when you write songs, you write songs not with your head, but with your heart. If you do that, you’re going to be ok. If you’re going to be a songwriter, you mind as well just write about something you’ve lived through or someone else has went through. If you don’t do that, you’re wasting your time. This make believe song writing just doesn’t work. I think people can see through that. You’ve really got to write from that heart and soul.
RAG – You were doing some heavy publicity this morning – clear your head for me and throw out the “promotion” mode mentality and tell me what’s going through your head now that you have a country album out?
DVZ – Our dad was a truck driver for 35 or 40 years and our mother was a manager at Dunkin Doughnuts. As kids, we grew up on country music. We listened to Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis, Hank Williams, Faron Young, etc. – all of those kind of guys. So, we have that in our blood. Our brother Ronnie, before he was killed in 1977, actually wanted to make a country record and he was actually heading that way. The really cool thing about this project is that not only are we living out our dream – we’re sort of living out his dream too. It’s been a really cool experience to get to do this together with Johnny. With Johnny and myself, we just have a great time together and that’s what’s really cool about being able to do the project with him - to get to hang with him. We get to catch up on a lot of family issues and world issues. I think we have a lot of the world issues worked out now, so the president needs to call us up! (laughing)
RAG – I think that’s interesting that you decided to put “Sweet Mama” on the release.
DVZ – You know what? A weird thing happened there with that song. I actually wrote that song for .38 Special with Tom Hambridge and writer here from Nashville, who is a really good friend of mine, named Robert White Johnson. A lot of people ask me “You’ve just started coming to Nashville?” No. We’ve been coming to Nashville about 15 years writing with friends of ours. That song there showed up on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s VICIOUS CYCLE release. They were looking for a real up-tempo song and I think I had shown it to Johnny. .38 Special passed on it because, at that particular time, we were making the DRIVETRAIN cd and it just didn’t fit in with what we were trying to do. I think it was a little too country really. But, Lynyrd Skynyrd listened to it and loved it. So, they put it on VICIOUS CYCLE. They were going to release it as a single, but then they also went “You know what? It is a little too country.” So, Johnny and myself got together and said “You know what? We’re going to take it and put it on our cd and make it just a little bit different. What we did was just slowed it down a bit and country-fied it. It was pretty natural and easy to do. It’s a song about where we’re from. We were born and raised on the West side of Jacksonville, FL. To be truthful with you, most of our friends that we grew up with are either in prison or dead now. Music was really a great avenue for us because it kept us out of trouble to begin with. Plus, the song has lyrics in there about our mother, who was a great judge of character – she could look you in the eye and tell you whether you were lying or not. She also loved to gamble – racetracks, etc. and the song touches on all those things.
RAG – Why did you choose to bring in some co-writers and not just write all the songs yourself?
DVZ – I think we wrote something like 7 or 8 songs on there with other people. We really like writing our own music to begin with. But, as Johnny says “We were born at night, but not last night. We know when a good song comes in.” Sony actually brought in “Help Somebody” to us. We listened to it and after 2 listens, we really knew we wanted to do it. Those lyrics – “Hell yeah, I’m American” – it’s got classic lines in there – “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans” I thought those lyrics were pretty cool. We were sold on it.
RAG – GET RIGHT WITH THE MAN is not that far of a stretch from your respective bands. Was it tough to decide which songs to pick and which songs that you might have wanted to save for .38 Special or Lynyrd Skynyrd?
DVZ – Someone asked me the other day about doing a country music project. I said “You know what? What I’m doing here with the country cd is not that much different song wise than what I would bring to the table for .38 Special. I can really picture .38 Special still doing “Sweet Mama”. It’s just a boogie progression type of song. Put some steel guitars and a fiddle on it and it’s country! Same thing goes for Johnny and Lynyrd Skynyrd. We wrote a song together for Lynyrd Skynyrd called “Red, White, and Blue”. That was one of the biggest songs that Skynyrd has had since they got back together. In fact, it is the biggest song. I think that song might have been the start of people becoming interested in us doing a country music project together. That song actually got played on some country radio stations. It’s actually easy for the songs to go either way – country or Southern rock. We’ve just been some blessed guys.
RAG – It sounds like you’re really happy and confident with the songs. Myself, I think you’re going to take a lot of the country artists by surprise and come out of nowhere. I think you have a hit on your hands.
DVZ – That’s our goal! (laughing) Seriously, hopefully people are going to dig it. We put our heart and soul into it. Our name Van Zant is stamped on the front cover of it and we’re really proud of our name. Once they stamp our name on there, it has to be good or we wouldn’t put our name on there. We’re going to give the fans their money’s worth.
RAG – Anyone who has seen .38 Special knows that you can work a stage with the best of them out there. You may not be the prettiest, but you sure are a ball of energy up onstage – always leaving the fans entertained and with a smile on their face. Do you attribute that to being so grounded with reality and being in tune with what the fans want?
DVZ – (Laughing) You’re killing me. Prettiest. Good one. When .38 Special first got started, we went out on the road with ZZ Top a lot. We learned a lot from groups. We were young. We kept our eyes open and our mouths closed – just watching what was going on around us. Just watching those 3 guys in ZZ Top work the stage, we learned a lot from them on how to treat an audience. Even Kiss – that was the weirdest combination I think we toured with. But, I think that was the wildest show we ever did. The first 50 rows were kids with Kiss makeup on and here I am out there with a cowboy hat on trying to relate to that. It wasn’t working too well! (Laughing) But, I watched them. You pick up little things from all these different groups over the years. .38 Special has always been about being a live band. We try to get out into the crowd and make them a part of the show. If we can do that, it’s going to be a fun night. Even with that ugly guy running around the stage! (Laughing)
RAG – Any closing thoughts?
DVZ – I just want to clarify something, because we’ve had people coming up to us saying “Donnie Van Zant – formerly of .38 Special and Johnny Van Zant – formerly of Lynyrd Skynyrd.” Formerly? No! I’m still with .38 Special and Johnny is still with Lynyrd Skynyrd. I just want everyone to know that I’m still very dedicated to .38 Special and always will be. That’s my bread and butter. I’ve been able to do a lot for my family and I’m still very dedicated to the rock and roll. I started that band with Don Barnes, when we were just teenagers and I plan on being there until the last chorus of “Rockin’ into the Night” is sung. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year in .38 Special, which is really cool for me. I’m hoping the guys get together and get me and Don a gold watch or something! After 30 years of this rock and roll zoo, we deserve something! (Laughing) I really want people to go check out the new Van Zant cd GET RIGHT WITH THE MAN. If you don’t like it, we have a return policy – and that return policy is that Johnny will buy it back from you! (Laughing) Please put I’m JUST KIDDING in the interview! I’ve been telling people that and Johnny has been going “Donnie – You can’t be saying things like that man”. He gets all irritated. Make sure you put that in there though – I’ll get a kick out of it.