Originally created 08/11/00

Skynyrd just keeps on making music



It's become something of a rock cliche. Any band, at some point in its career, has had an overzealous audience member flick a trusty Zippo and send up a lusty cry for Free Bird.

Most bands ignore these entreaties for the classic tribute to Duane Allman. Of course, most bands aren't Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The Jacksonville, Fla., band, which soared to fame on the back of the famous power ballad, as well as hits such as Sweet Home Alabama and Gimme Three Steps, has been entertaining requests for its most famous song for close to 30 years.

The band, known merely as Skynyrd to its fans, headlines the Lynyrd Skynyrd Music Festival Sunday at Fort Gordon's Barton Field. Keyboardist Billy Powell, one of the few original members still playing with the band, said that audiences will see a great rock band giving its all and staying true to its musical roots.

"That's one of the reasons we've lasted so long," he said. "We're definitely a straight-ahead rock 'n' roll band. I've never liked the label Southern rock band they always stick us with. We're just a rock band that happens to come from the South."

Lynyrd Skynyrd has survived despite the deaths of three of its members in a 1977 plane crash, including singer-songwriter Ronnie Van Zant. In 1990, founding guitarist Allen Collins died of pneumonia four years after being paralyzed in a car accident.

The tribulations have united the group instead of tearing it apart.

"I think all the tragedies have made this band stronger," he said. "There seems to be something within us that makes us fight tragedy and not let it beat us. I think it's a lot like an athlete coming back from an injury."

Johnny Van Zant, younger brother of Ronnie Van Zant, joined the reformed Skynyrd in 1987.

"We all grew up together," Mr. Powell said. "We really are a family, and that's the reason we'll stay around because we're a family band. We don't drink and fight and do drugs like we used to. We support each other. It's become cool to see who can be the cleanest, the healthiest. Besides, we don't know how to do anything else. I certainly don't want to go back to being a waiter. That's the only other job I've ever had."

Even after 30 years, Mr. Powell said that he is still amazed by the people who come to the concerts and the level of dedication fans show for the music. He said it still thrills him to see 20,000 people willing to brave sometimes unpleasant elements to watch the band perform. And it reminds him why he continues to play.

"To see those die-hard Skynyrd fans sitting in a rainstorm, showing that kind of dedication, that's really the highest form of compliment," he said. "I want for them to leave thinking that we're still hanging in there and playing great music."

Mr. Powell said that despite hearing Free Bird night after night, and having played the song literally thousands of times, he still likes the sound of fans calling for the band's trademark song.

"I never get tired of playing that song," he said. "Of course, I'd pay everyone in the audience a dollar to never play Gimme Three Steps again."

On stage

What: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Music Festival, featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd, radio favorites Tonic, blues-based rocker Pat Travers and local acts Impulse Ride and Patrick Blanchard and the Big Mighty

When: Sunday, gates open at 3:30 p.m.

Where: Barton Field on Fort Gordon

Admission: $20 in advance, $25 at the gate. Tickets are available at Regions Bank offices, Pump 'N Shop stores, Fort Gordon Federal Credit Union, PX Customer Service, the Gordon Club or Gordon Lanes Bowling Center. Call 793-8552 or 791-6779.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or suhles@hotmail.com.