Rock and country group
The name Van Zant figures prominently in any discussion of Southern rock. The late Ronnie Van Zant formed Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1970 and served as its lead vocalist and principal songwriter until a plane crash claimed him and two other band members. With Ronnie at the helm they released five albums yielding the chartbusters "Free Bird," "Sweet Home Alabama," and "Gimme Three Steps." In 1987 Lynyrd Skynyrd's remaining members reunited with Ronnie's younger brother Johnny Van Zant on lead vocals. Through various lineup changes, they have released seven albums and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. While Lynyrd Skynyrd was making its mark in the seventies, brother Donnie Van Zant formed the more pop-oriented .38 Special. Between 1977 and 1997 they released ten albums and garnered hits with "Rockin' Into the Night," "Hold on Loosely," "Fantasy Girl," "Second Chance," and "Back Where You Belong." Since 1985, Johnny and Donnie have periodically worked together under the moniker Van Zant, and have released four albums demonstrating a variety of styles and influences. Van Zant has retained not only the classic rock audience but has attracted country music fans as well, in part due to the placement in regular rotation of several Van Zant pro-American videos on Country Music Television.
Donnie and Johnny first teamed up for the 1985 AOR release Van Zant. The tunes were mostly up-tempo rockers, with almost no genuine blues or country influence. Every aspect of this album, including the cover art depicting the letters VZ suspended in space, suggested a knock-off of ZZ Top's 1985 album Afterburner. This first collaboration was largely dismissed by critics as a failed commercial experiment. Their subsequent success in genres better suited to their talents generated enough interest to warrant release on CD.
Van Zant's 1998 release Brother to Brother found the Van Zants right at home, with a Southern country-rock album in the tradition of bands like the Outlaws, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Molly Hatchet. Though it lacked the raw power of Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers, it demonstrated how new millennium country music had broadened its appeal by melding with 1970s-era country rock. In a 1998 interview with The Tennessean, the Van Zants explained why Brother to Brother was so warmly received in Nashville: "We've had people telling us forever and ever, ‘Man, you oughtta do something together,’" according to Johnny. "Actually, we wanted to do a country record at first," Donnie said. "And they laughed at us. … We were raised on country music."
Three years later, the brothers released the grittier Van Zant II, dedicated to their beloved late mother, Marion. The album opens with the rousing "Oklahoma," a tribute to the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing. In a similar vein, "Is It For Real" questions the morality of modern society. "Heart of an Angel," "Imagination," and "Alive" are reflective country ballads. The rest of the set is the kind of high energy music listeners should expect, given the contributions of name guitarists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jerry McPherson, and Pat Buchanan. As Johnny stated in a 2001 promotional interview for SPV Records, Van Zant II was a labor of love for all involved: "When we put down Brother To Brother we actually had a few months off from touring, so we completed it in about a month and a half. Van Zant II has been a two-year process, to be honest. We just did it in our off time. Vacations were definitely out of the picture. Because of the time element, we weren't able to go into the studio and demo these songs; we simply wrote using a little ghetto blaster. You go talk to any of these guys about playing on the Van Zant brothers CD and they'll all say they had a blast because they are used to playing a certain way for producers, and we let 'em go for it."
In 2005 the brothers Van Zant finally found a spot on the country charts with Get Right with the Man. As they explained on their website, this was not a departure, but a long-awaited homecoming: "People ask us if we've gone country, I tell 'em, ‘We ain't gone country, we were born country,’" Johnny was quoted in a press release on the duo's website. "Our Dad was a truck driver for 35 years and Mom worked at Dunkin Donuts," said Donnie. Their country roots were evident in ballads like "Help Somebody" and "Things I Miss The Most." Songs like "Takin' up Space," "Nobody Gonna Tell Me What to Do," "I Know My History," and "Been There Done That" portrayed Donnie and Johnny at their surly best. But for the banjo and signature steel guitar, any of these hard-driving tunes could have worked on Brother to Brother, Van Zant II, or any number of Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. The warm reception afforded Get Right with the Man was tarnished slightly by copy protection software that was included in the CD's distributed by Sony. Some customers were annoyed and advocated a boycott. In response, Sony pulled the affected CDs from the market. In the summer of 2007 Van Zant was projected to release My Kind of Country. A single from that collection, "That Scares Me," was released in April of that year.
Van Zant, Unidisc, 1985.
Brother to Brother, CMC International, 1998.
Van Zant II, CMC International, 2001.
Get Right with the Man, Sony, 2005.
My Kind of Country, Sony, 2007.
For the Record …
Members include: Donnie Van Zant (vocals); and Ronnie Van Zant (vocals).
Released first album, Van Zant, 1985; released Brother to Brother, 1998; released debut country album, Get Right with the Man, 2005.
Addresses: Management—Vector Management, Ken Levitan and Ross Schilling, P.O. Box 120479, Nashville, TN 37212, phone: 615-269-6600, fax: 615-269-6002. Web site—Van Zant Official Website: http://www.thevanzants.com.
Rolling Stone, June 2, 2005.
The Tennessean, April 18, 1998.
About: Country Music,http://www.countrymusic.about.com/ (February 12, 2007).
About: Country Music,http://countrymusic.about.com/od/news/a/blvanzant_cma.htm (February 12, 2007).
All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 12, 2007).
Country Music Televison,http://www.cmt.com/artists/az/van_zant/bio.jhtml.com (February 12, 2007).
Get Ready to Rock,http://www.getreadytorock.com/rock_stars/van_zant.htm (February 12, 2007).
Van Zant Official Website,http://www.thevanzants.com (February 12, 2007).