IN FOURTH GRADE I TOOK MY BIRTHDAY MONEY and bought two cassettes – R.E.M. and Blackfoot Strikes! R.E.M. because Rolling Stone magazine said it was really important and Strikes! because the cover was cool. I was going through a difficult era of death, divorce and concussions and Blackfoot seemed like hard music by tough people made for surviving hard times. R.E.M. sounded smart and important but a perhaps a little beyond my reach. I listened to the R.E.M. a time or two. Blackfoot, I wore out.
Flash forward to freshman year. Lynyrd Skynyrd was the Spring Break concert and my friend girl from Abnormal Psych convinced me to go. It was a crazy April night, pouring down rain and unseasonably cold but the arena was full of sun-damaged blondes in denim halter tops and dudes with confederate flag do-rags and prison tattoos. And a smattering of college students, walking around half-dazed and confused in the age of indie rock.
The scene was tense until Skynyrd hit the stage with “The Needle & the Spoon” and all those classic hits kept coming, “Simple Man” and “Tuesday’s Gone” and by the time those North Florida boys kicked into the lick of “Sweet Home Alabama” we were all in one accord.
Two hours later, the lights went down. A huge mirrored ball in the middle of the arena began to spin, scattering slivers of light across the crowd. Then — that immortal organ riff and crying slide guitar. Cigarette lighters and cell phones lifted, felons and honor students, beauticians and Greeks, Psych majors and bikers slinging arms around each other’s necks and singing with all our hearts ’bout this bird you cannot change.
“Damn, man,” Friendgirl exclaimed when the show was over and we walked back into the chill, “that was like friggin’ church!”
Late night now and I’m driving through the hills of Tennessee, listening to “Train, Train” and “Call Me the Breeze”, thinking about days gone by….
Rickey Medlocke was an original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, front man of Blackfoot and current guitarist for Skynyrd again. Connected through a mutual friend, I call him up just to talk a little Classic Rock.
Tell me about when Blackfoot was the house band at Dub’s topless bar on the outskirts of town in Gainesville, Florida.
You know that story?
Jim Dandy told me to ask you about it.
Jim! Oh man. Dub’s was a dive. There were dancers on both sides of the stage and we played five sets a night, six days a week. Every Thursday night was wet t-shirt contest and all the students from University of Florida would come and that place would be crazy. It was not an easy gig. Blackfoot worked our asses off, paying dues. It was brutal.
Shorty grew up the son of a Georgia sharecropper with five children and they lived across the road from a black family who were also sharecroppers with a big bunch of kids. Every Sunday they’d all get together and cook and play music. So Shorty grew up in blues and bluegrass and went on to play in Nashville with Roy Acuff and Hank Snow. My mom was real young when I came along and she gave me to Shorty and his wife to raise. I was born with a low-grade form of cystic fibrosis so Shorty cut his career back a lot to be there for me. Acuff wanted him to move to Nashville but he built his career in Florida and taught me to play. I started banjo at three, guitar at five and drums at eight. Shorty had a show on the local channel in Jacksonville and I was on there with him from 53-58.
Do you have Shorty’s version of “Train,Train”? I always wanted to hear that.
Yeah, man, I’ve got the original 45. There’s a ton of Shorty’s old music and memorabilia here. I’d really love to get it in the Hall of Fame there in Nashville, somehow. That’s a goal of mine one day.
Strikes was a great record to make, a good time for the band.
We were going through a rough patch in life and I played “Highway Song” and “Left Turn on a Red Light” over and over. Those were my songs to keep moving on.
That’s a cool story, brother…. You know, “Left Turn” was a big song for us live, lot of people loving that song. We’re sitting on platinum and Atlantic wouldn’t put it out as a single. They just wanted to move on to the next record. That’s how the labels do with their market testing and all. They’re not in touch with the people. But yeah, that song was about life getting messed up. You make a mistake and next thing you know everything’s screwed. You took a left turn on a red light.
What’s the story on “Highway Song”? It was a huge radio hit in the days of disco and new wave.
Me and Jak (drummer Jakson “Thunderfoot” Spires) were in the back of the van riding down the highway in Winchester, Virginia, one gig to the next and I’m playing those chords over and over. Then the words just hit me. Highway song, you sing it on and on, lonely as the road I’m on. We wrote that song in fifteen minutes, tops. The good ones come quick.
I was down on Music Row recently talking to some studio pickers and a big name country act – someone mentioned Blackfoot and everybody’s eyes lit up, talking about how the band was so underrated, awesome live show. You guys get a lot of respect in Music City.
Man, I appreciate that. Good to get respect in Nashville. There’s a reason they call it Music City, you know? I hear Johnny Depp is a big fan too.
Yeah, I saw him wearing an old tour shirt once. Maurader, I think. I was checking out the Blackfoot website and heard the new song, “Whiskey Train”. Good stuff. It’s got that classic Southern Rock sound.
It was done on the fly! Rock and roll, man. You gotta catch the fire and not overanalyze things. No autotune, analog much as you can. Get the spirit right.
There’s a lot of people who think of the original Skynyrd as the guys that went down in the plane. That’s not true, though. I was one of the original drummers, original songwriters for the band.
Why did you leave?
I was sort of a Charlie Watts type player, laying the groove down. The boys liked that but I felt like they needed someone better and I wanted to be out front playing guitar and singing. They asked me back in ’96 and it’s been eighteen good years now.
Seems like Skynyrd is moving more towards country music these days.
I think country music has moved towards us. If “Sweet Home Alabama” came out today it would be a country hit. But we were always country. Me and Ronnie and Allen — we always listened to stuff like Haggard and Buck Owens, George Jones and Hank. I like some of the new stuff too. That Vince Gill guy, he’s great. Me and my lady like to listen to Vince. God bless Taylor Swift man, but that ain’t country.
My university hired Skynyrd for Spring Break – this was the era of Nirvana and Pearl Jam – and the arena was about half college kids and half hell-raising bikers and rough-cut women with bad tattoos. But once the lights went down and the music started, all that faded away.
It’s the songs, man. Classic songs always remain. Think about it, Jamie – Skynyrd has crossed three generations now. August was forty years since the first record. But I just wonder what’s gonna happen when the classic bands are gone? America is nothing but pop now. There’s no rock music scene anymore.
You think that’s why so many classic rockers push on? Because there’s no one to fill their shoes? KISS, Sabbath, AC/DC, The Stones – they’re all still out there. How do you deal with the wear and tear of traveling when you’re not twenty-five anymore?
It’s for the love of playing music. I guarantee you Keith Richards still loves it. I don’t care what he looks like on the outside, that’s one beautiful sumbich right there. I’ll be sixty-four in February but every time I pick up my old guitar, I feel seventeen again. We’re artists, brother, that’s what we do.
Hey, I know you just got off a long tour so thanks for taking time to talk today.
Ah man, you know, the road. My wife sings with Meat Loaf and when you’re both gone for weeks at a time you get home and everything hits. The air conditioner’s broke and you spend all your down time catching up again. But I appreciate you calling, stay in touch.
JM Blaine’s Selections from the Music of Rickey Medlocke & Friends