This story originally appeared in The Tennessean
Forty-eight hours before rocking Nashville’s Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park to close out 2023, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Rickey Medlocke and Johnny Van Zant were seated in the shadow of the Grand Ole Opry at the Nashville Palace honky-tonk’s dance hall.
Though not original members of the seminal Southern rock band, Medlocke and Van Zant are keeping Skynyrd’s 50-year legacy alive onstage. And off stage, they’ll be getting some help from a new liquor brand: six-month-old Hell House Whiskey, created by the band in collaboration with Bespoken Spirits.
Marketing for the beverage claims that it “captures the spirit of an era.”
Especially for Skynyrd, 1970s rock was an all-in celebration. The band moved away from the sensibilities of British rock acts, amplifying and coarsening a visceral style of American blues, country, gospel and soul.
The bad’s “dirty, hot, gritty and grungy” aesthetic carries over to the band’s new whiskey. It encapsulates the same wild characteristics that set Skynyrd apart from other bands, according to the brand’s marketing campaign.
Naming a whiskey “Hell House” is an evocative choice that’s less about a sweet 90-proof bourbon than it is about Skynyrd’s golden era from 1973-1977. These were the years before a violent October 1977 plane crash near Gillsburg, Mississippi that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and Steve’s older sister — and backup singer — Cassie Gaines. Other band member — guitarists Allen Collins and Rossington, bass player Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell, drummer Artimus Pyle, and background singer Leslie Hawkins — also suffered severe injuries.
In the years before the crash, the band sold 15 million albums and toured almost non-stop.
In the last 45 years of the band’s lifespan, they’ve sold roughly twice as many records as their mainstream breakout era.
Hell House was a cabin that the band’s legendary original lead singer — Johnny Van Zant’s older brother Ronnie — rented for $50 a month. The place, which lacked air conditioning, sat on the banks of Peter’s Creek on the southwest side of the St. John’s River, 25 miles from downtown Jacksonville, Florida.
Songs from the band’s debut album “(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd),” including the iconic 11-minute-long anthem “Free Bird,” were developed in the space.
Why has Skynyrd endured?
“Our iconic songs haven’t failed in helping our fans through their lives,” Medlocke told The Tennessean while preparing to sign somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 autographs at the Nashville Palace.
Johnny Van Zant has served, in various iterations, as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead singer for almost four decades.
“It blows my mind that the songs are strong enough for multiple generations of fans to find something of themselves in them,” he added.
“My brother was a great communicator-as-songwriter who could be a relatable storyteller and advocate for hard-working people. Sometimes, it’s a song like ‘Simple Man’ where you want to be a good son and listen to your mother, or ‘That Smell’ and ‘The Needle and The Spoon,’ which are honest songs about drug abuse.”
Skynyrd’s relevance to country, rock’s perpetual pop moments
In every decade since 1977’s tragic plane crash, Skynyrd’s legacy has been essential in moments when Southern rock’s bluesy, countrified energy surges back to the mainstream’s forefront.
In 1990, the Black Crowes — another band with Atlanta’s rock scene in its roots — covered Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle” and achieved No. 1 rock song and top-40 crossover success. By 2002, Kid Rock used something akin to elements of Ronnie Van Zant’s swagger to broaden and countrify his initial rap-rock appeal via his hit 2002 Sheryl Crow duet “Picture.”
By 2006, clear tinges of what Skynyrd was at their ’70s peak — as highlighted by Van Zant as a frontman, heavy guitars and JoJo Billingsley, Cassie Gaines and Leslie Hawkins backing the group as the “Honkettes” vocal trio — emerged over the course of now 17 years of top-25 country radio hits for Eric Church.
2024 finds artists like Elle King and the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year Lainey Wilson — with whom Skynyrd shared a top billing and stage time at Nashville’s CBS-broadcasted New Year’s Eve festivities — perpetuating the band’s legacy.
“Skynyrd, like Lainey Wilson’s bell bottoms, always goes away and comes back in favor,” joked Van Zant.
“That trademark triple-guitar sound is amazing and never fails,” Medlocke said. “Lynyrd Skynyrd has a lyrical and musical catalog that allows you to party all night long.”
“Hell House embodies [Lynyrd Skynyrd’s] unwavering dedication to Nashville and [its] musical history,” Bespoken Spirits CEO Peter Iglesias added.