Rock and Roll Hall of Famers aren't supposed to be vital recording acts once they earn a place alongside the founding fathers of the music industry in Cleveland, but don't tell Lynyrd Skynyrd that.
The pride of Jacksonville, Fla., who put "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Free Bird" into our lexicon some four decades ago, not only remain a successful touring act (they come to the Lowell Memorial Auditorium on Saturday night), but they remain a force on the Billboard album chart.
Indeed, while the band has not seen any of its studio albums earn a gold or platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America since its 1977 album Street Survivors went Double Platinum, the band's two most recent albums -- 2009's God & Guns and last year's Last of a Dyin' Breed, which came out in August -- both reached the top 20 on the Billboard album chart.
The absence of gold or platinum certification is as much the result of people not buying albums in an era of downloading single songs rather than full-length, long-play works.
"Our last couple of albums charted really well," lead singer Johnny Van Zant said in a recent phone interview. "We have a base of fans who love Lynyrd Skynyrd and will go out and buy new stuff. For us, it's very important to not just sit and play the old stuff. We're always going to be fond of the old stuff, that's what made Lynyrd Skynyrd, and we're going to play those songs. But we're also going to be creating new stuff. As long as we have the urge to keep doing that, that's what sets us apart from bands of that era who are still out there. We still have something to say."
That extends to the band's hometown NFL team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, of which Van Zant is a huge fan. "We're ready for a whole new team, are you kidding? The cool thing is, the owner (Shad Khan) is really trying. I hope he'll keep the team here. People want to support it and people also want to see a winner."
The band's 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside legendary acts of yesteryear Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis and the Sex Pistols could have been seen as a coronation of sorts, but it merely served as a milepost on the band's 40-year journey through personal trials and tribulations.
Everybody knows about the 1977 plane crash which killed lead singer and founding member Ronnie Van Zant and while it directly led to the band breaking up after the tragedy, the band reformed a decade later with Ronnie's younger brother Johnny taking over as lead singer. And while the band's 1987 reformation was meant to be a one-off occurrence, the band decided to stick together.
Through a number of lineup changes caused by death, disagreement, or band members choosing to leave, Lynyrd Skynyrd endures. In fact, its current lineup features only one original member -- lead guitarist Gary Rossington -- but the remaining members aren't exactly a Skynyrd cover band. Indeed, the band's drummer is Michael Cartellone, the former drummer of hard-rock supergroup Damn Yankees, while the new bass player is Johnny Colt, formerly an original member of The Black Crowes and briefly with Train.
"When we go in the studio, we work hard on a record and try to do the best we possibly can," Van Zant said. "Some bands might go out and collect a paycheck. That's not us. This band has always been a live band, but making a new record is important to keep it current."
Not only that, but they've been feted by such disparate acts as Dream Theater, Kid Rock, Taj Mahal, Metallica and Widespread Panic, all of whom have covered the band's songs either live or on an album.
And, of course, the band had a "rivalry" with Neil Young in the 1970s where their classic "Sweet Home Alabama" acknowledges Young with the line, "Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her. Well, I heard ole Neil put her down. Well, I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don't need him around anyhow."
But it seems as though people need Lynyrd Skynyrd in their lives. Witness the enthusiastic reaction the band got for its opening set to ZZ Top at the DCU Center in Worcester a decade ago. More recently, the band opened for Kid Rock at the Comcast Center in Mansfield in 2009 and then headlined with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts opening at Meadowbrook on Lake Winnipesaukee, and the crowd went crazy the entire time. (You'll get another chance this summer to see Skynyrd when the band tours with Bad Company. Expect a show either at Comcast Center or Meadowbrook, or perhaps both, to be announced in a few months.)
Indeed, the band is a mainstay on the summer concert scene, but winter tours such as Saturday night's show in Lowell, are less frequent. Van Zant is excited to play indoors.
"For me, if they're Skynyrd fans, there's no difference. To me, at some of the outdoors shows, there are a lot of people and it's hard to connect. I like indoor shows better. Nobody's going anywhere. People have more of an attention span in the winter. I love touring in the winter. Music's a great thing to come see in the winter. You're not in the rain. You're not freezing your butt off. You're inside. The music's loud and the beer's cold."
Suffice to say that, while times change, the love for Lynyrd Skynyrd endures.
Oh, and in case you're wondering whether they'll play "Free Bird," Van Zant said, "Of course we're going to play 'Free Bird.' Why wouldn't we play 'Free Bird'?"
Lynyrd Skynyrd plays at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $69.75 and $57 and can be purchased by phone at www.lowellauditorium.com, by phone at (978) 454-2299 or at the box office.