Family business: Jimmie Van Zant carries on the tradition set by his legendary cousin
by Erin Williams
Special to The Star
Aug 19, 2012 | 5990 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Growing up in a musical family is one thing, but when you have to literally wade through a living room full of instruments on your way to school, you kind of have no choice but to pick one up and figure out how it works.

Such was the case for Jimmie Van Zant, whose cousin Ronnie was a founding member of legendary rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ronnie would bring his band over to practice when Jimmie was a kid.

Now a rocker in his own right, the Florida native is on the scene with a new album “Feels Like Freedom,” and is making a pit stop in Anniston at 9 p.m. Saturday as a headliner for the annual Rumble on Noble motorcycle and street festival.

Van Zant talked with the Star about weathering the music industry, the open arms of the motorcycle community, and how he keeps his shows all in the family.

Q: You were only 19 when your cousin Ronnie Van Zant died. What was it like growing up in a family full of such musical energy?

A: My house was on a dead end street, so Ronnie came over and said ‘Aunt Viola, can we practice in your living room? Every time we go somewhere to practice, the police shut us down for the noise.’ And she’d say ‘Yeah, come on in, boys.” And I’m like, 9 years old at the time.

How many people get to wake up in the morning to go to the bus stop to go to school and there’s band equipment in the living room?

I’d get out of school before they would, and I’d come home and I’d beat on the drums, and I’d put the drum sticks through the drum heads because I didn’t know how to hit them. I’d pick up guitars and break the guitar strings. Me and Johnny (Van Zant), we’d just kind of watch — it was just an everyday thing for us. It was a great time, and I learned a lot through the years.

Q: The music industry has gone through some radical ups and downs in the past decade. How have you managed to stay afloat?

A: There’s been a lot of groups that haven’t been able to keep themselves afloat. It’s been a real struggle for a lot of them, but fortunately for me, I had some root background with my family and a lot of road education, so I was able to cut corners in a good way and sacrifice and weather the storm, so to speak. Now that I’ve picked up the sails a little bit and I’ve got some wind behind me blowing the sailboat, I’m doing great.

Q: Your latest album, “Feels Like Freedom,” was recorded in Nashville. Does it carry that solid country energy or is it more rock ‘n’ roll?

A: I came out to Nashville and got with some writers that had written numerous No. 1 hits for Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Big Rich. We recorded at Sound Kitchen, which is a famous studio here in Nashville. It was kind of like a family there — there was no egos, everybody felt comfortable. It kind of felt like you were sitting at your family dinner table on Thanksgiving. It went real smooth, and I think that shows in the record.

Q: The process seems real relaxed, but the album has a lot of energy behind it.

A: It’s kind of a redemption record, so to speak, where some of the songs talk about your past and what was happening then, and what’s happening now, or yesterday and today. There’s one there that’s crossover gospel, but it’s still kind of rock. It’s kind of a Southern country-rock kind of record.

Q: Do you ride motorcycles regularly?

A: I do — I haven’t ridden in a while. I’m a rider enthusiast.

The bike scene has been my livelihood through all the years. Playing those bike rallies — people come from all around the world to go to the Daytonas and Sturgises, and they’ll come up and say ‘Hey man, we’d love to get you playing here in my state or my neck of the woods,’ and ‘Here’s a business card — call this promoter.’ I’ve picked up a whole lot of work through the years.

I get a lot of support through the whole organization of riders … they’re great people, and I think through the years riders got a bad rap just because they wear a patch or whatever. But they’re just great people, having a good time.

Q: What is a Jimmie Van Zant show like?

A: It’s kind of like I invite you to our dinner table. If I go out and play and I do all my own stuff, they still kind of want to hear “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Freebird,” some of those other songs. I try to give them a little bit of everything from the family.

Some of the critics will say “Man, you’re riding off their coattail — why don’t you do your own thing?” And I say, “Listen — Imagine your mom and dad had a pizzeria, or a little business they were running, and they pass on or retire and they want to pass it down to their children — do you go out and sell the business, or do you keep it running, after all the years they put their hard work into it?” Me personally, I want to keep it going.

Erin Williams is a graduate of Faith Christian School and the University of Alabama. She is a performing arts aide for the Washington Post Style section.

Rumble on Noble

Friday


Kick-off party with JB Walker and the Cheap Whiskey Band, at Mt. Cheaha Harley-Davidson in Oxford.

Saturday

Noble Street, downtown Anniston

Main stage

• 2:30 p.m. — McPherson Struts
• 4:45 p.m. — JB Walker and the Cheap Whiskey Band
• 6 p.m. — Military tribute program
• 7 p.m. — Connor Christian and Southern Gothic
• 9 p.m. — Jimmie Van Zant

9th Street stage

• 3:45 — Dustin Benefield
• 6:30 p.m. — McPherson Struts
• 8 p.m. — Voodoo Jones
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