By Jeb Wright
Not many men are more ‘southern rock’ than Rickey Medlocke. He was raised by his grandparents, one of which was a musical legend named Shorty Medlocke. He had such a close relationship with his grandparents that he called them his ‘ma and pa’ in the interview below, and also credits their rearing him as saving his life.
It’s obvious he soaked in everything that was ‘Shorty Medlocke’ growing up. Musically, it’s in his DNA, but his family was more than just musical; they were good parents that allowed him to follow his dreams.
The first dream he followed was with Lynyrd Skynyrd… as a drummer! Subsequently, Medlocke had a different musical vision that, at that time, Skynyrd could not accommodate. Like Shorty, Rickey played more than just one instrument. He longed to step away from the drum kit and play guitar, write songs and lead his own band.
Exit Skynyrd and enter Blackfoot, the louder and harder rocking band in southern rock. With this band, Rickey shined. He was the leader… and at first, he and his band members worked together as a team, making their mark on rock and roll history. The team spirit, however, fell apart. Inner band tensions led to inner band jealousy. Medlocke forged ahead without his old band mates with new versions of Blackfoot, but eventually that band ran out of steam the group found then end of the road. Fate intervened, and in 1996 he found himself back with the band where his story began, this time as a guitarist. He’s been a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd ever since.
The story of Blackfoot does not stop there. In the interview that follows, Medlocke reveals plans for Blackfoot to rise from the ashes. The twist is that there will be no original members in the band. This will be a Blackfoot that crosses generational lines, younger/new members with a sound that mixes the classic with the modern day all wrapped-up around a new album of original music. Blackfoot is now Jeremy Thomas on lead vocals, Tim Rossi on lead guitar, Brian Carpenter on bass and Matt Anastasi on drums.
Read on as Rickey explains how the idea came to be and how he is making it come to fruition.
Jeb: Tell me about this new project that you’re doing. I think a lot of people are going to be excited. You have added ‘producer’ to your hat collection!
Rickey: [laughter] As many records as I’ve been involved with, and as much studio time as I have had in my life… I have kept this under my hat for quite a few years, but I have always wanted to, at some point in my career, in later years, I wanted to get into producing. It kind of fell to me naturally.
Jeb: You told me you had big news. Come on now, what is it?
Rickey: Here’s what we’re doing: I guess you knew this from talking to me before, but for seven years the original guys had made a deal with me to use the name ‘Blackfoot’. Well, at the end of the agreement they came to me and they wanted to buy the name, but they couldn’t come up with the funds. The name reverted back to me and I was ready to just put it aside and not really do anything with it.
We have different business dealings with people here at home, and one guy came to me and Al Nalli, my manager… Al and I are still together after all of these years. This guy comes over and he hits us with this idea of taking four young musicians and recreating, for a younger generation, Blackfoot. At first we were like, “I don’t know.” It was not because we didn’t think it would work, but rather that it was a really huge undertaking. We knew a hotshot guitar player here in town. He had a great bass player with him and they were doing kind of a three-piece blues thing around some of the night joints in town. We’d wanted to get involved with this guy anyway.
We set forth finding the right guys. We had a couple of guys up in Nashville that we thought could work out, but they walked without really giving it a chance. We let the two guys, the guitar player and the bass player, go out and find guys on their own. They finally hit upon two other guys, a slamming drummer and a great singer. When our partner came back to us and said, “Are you willing to do this?” We said, “You know what? It’s been three, going on four generations since the original ‘Foot. The older generation is never going to accept the fact that somebody can come in and call it ‘Blackfoot’, and so forth and so on.
Jeb: The old school have a hard time with replacement players in Skynyrd. It is even more difficult to accept an entire band with no one who was born when the band was formed, but I have to admit, it is interesting, conceptually.
Rickey: It is just like what Skynyrd faces all of the time. Lynyrd Skynyrd is also going on three to four generations, and the major part of our audience is the second half, of the second generation, and all of the third, and it is even starting to get younger than that now.
Jeb: So you decided to do this. How is it going?
Rickey: We decided we were going to give it a shot, but the deal was that it would fall under our production company. I said that if we did this, I was to produce and record the record and help write the songs and appear on the record in some sort of cameo appearance with guitar, or whatever. Now, I am about two-thirds deep into a brand new record with these guys. In fact, as soon as I am finished talking to you, I will be back to the mix room to mix things up for a couple of labels who are coming to hear this new stuff. We figure the record buying public anymore is from about 35 years in age and down. These are the people that go on the ‘net and listen to stuff, download it and pay for it like that. They will buy two, or three, songs and they are done.
The guys have been out and played some shows and they went over major. Some people have commented that they came to see them with a great big question mark and that they were leaving thinking this band was great. The way to do this Jeb, is that you have to come forth with a great record for the younger audience that buys Black Stone Cherry and Blackberry Smoke and bands like that. The older audience is not going to buy and we know they are not going to. The older audience is probably not going to go to the shows. You figure that second, and that third generation are going, and they are the target to go after.
I am really happy to say that this thing is slamming. I’ve co-written songs with a writer friend of mine, a guy from up in Minneapolis. He is an incredible lyricist. The two or three guys who write in the band have also written songs. I just cut a track that Marlon Young from Kid Rock’s band—my better half, Stacey, sings with Kid Rock. She had this song of Marlon’s in her music and let me hear it, and I flipped on it and called him. He said, “Be my guest. It’s never been recorded, or pitched, and nothing has ever happened with it. The only thing I’ve done is that demo of it that you heard. Go for it.” I just tracked it and it is a great song. Lyrically, it is beautiful. It is an epic tune that just builds and builds and builds into a guitar ending. It is not like “Free Bird” or “Highway Song.” It would be more like “Layla” or something of that nature.
At this point, like always, Lynyrd Skynyrd is number one on my agenda, but this thing has become number two and I will devote whatever time I have when I am away from Skynyrd to do this. It is coming along great and I am happy about it and I am proud of what I am doing. Hey, there is another step in Rickey Medlocke’s life.
Jeb: When you texted me and told me you were producing a band, I was just kidding when I replied, “Better make it sound better than Blackfoot.” How little did I know?
Rickey: [laughter] All seriousness aside, here’s the way I look at it. In Europe people have got wind of it as the band played a couple of festivals there and it really went down great. Let’s face it Jeb, rock music is at the bottom of the pecking list here in the United States. Our airwaves are dominated by what they call pop/country or bro/country or just plain pop music. Everything is fragmented. Sometimes I don’t even recognize what it is. I am not saying that’s my age, because I listen to a lot of new artists. For rock music, it is bad.
Here’s the deal… when I look at Lynyrd Skynyrd going to New Zealand and Australia last year, it was unbelievable. Not too long before that we played a festival in Brazil and it was unbelievable. They knew every song. We go to Europe and it’s the same thing. We go to Canada, and they are a great audience. Here, the legacy is huge and it carries over and it does great, but when you are talking about new music that is a whole different story. To bring forth new music in Europe and Canada, South America, Mexico and the rest of the world, you are talking about a wide open market for rock music.
I got a text message from a friend of mine over in England who said, “I heard you’re producing a record for a heavy rock band. God knows we need something fresh in Europe.” I guess word is that people are done with the Thrash stuff and they need new rock music. I believe that is why Blackberry Smoke and Black Stone Cherry are doing so well over there, as it is new and fresh. Guess what? That is where we are going to target. You target the places that you know you can take it, and you work the guy’s butts off to break the record. That’s the plan.
Jeb: Southern Rock music is a special genre. It was music that made you feel you were in a family. It makes sense to me in a way to pass the baton and create a legacy.
Rickey: Jeb, think about something… Blackfoot was a southern rock band, but it was a heavy southern rock band. What I have tried to do with these guys, my vision, the way I heard everything in my head, was for those guys -they love southern rock- but they also love modern new stuff. My idea was to give it that southern bluesiness air about it and touch on that, but yet it would be New School as well.
I believe that I’ve captured that with the help of four really talented guys. They are not really young, as they are in their early thirties. Once their website is up and going, you will be able to visit it. It will be www.blackfootband.com. In the next week or so there is going to be a new track from the new record on the website.
I did a remake of a song that I used to do with the old Blackfoot when I had versions of the band touring around. It is an old song by Procol Harum called “Whiskey Train.” We did it in a different way. I made a cameo appearance in the middle of it playing the second part of the lead break. I also play some slide with the guys on the album to give it that flare, but it fits right in with what they are doing. It is heavy drums and guitars, and its heavy bass laden. The guy that sings has got a gravelly, almost Bob Seger-ish voice. It is really good and I am excited.
I have a cutting room here in Fort Myers, and I cut the stuff over there and I play around with it over there. When I get tired I come home and I have a mix room in my house. I put a mix room in a mother-in-law suite in my house and that is how I spend my days.
Jeb: Will they play the classics as well in their own style live?
Rickey: Oh yeah. I told them, “Look guys, for the time being you are going to have to do the classics.” They are doing “Train Train,” “Highway Song,” “Wishing Well” and “Good Morning” and all of these songs, but what they’ve done is that they do them, and at some point in the song, they flare off and make it their own and then they bring it right back to the classic. I said, “Guys, you take the songs and you do it the way that you interpret them. Stick to the classic format but veer off and do something really cool that will draw the people into them again.” They do that. They are a great band and I am hoping the best for them. You know how these guys are, they want to get out on the road and prove themselves. I look at it and I have to laugh. I tell them, “I will give you the vehicle to do it, in the means of a new record, and you have at it all you want.”
Jeb: What it is like seeing this come back to life? Blackfoot, that is… You are in a very unique situation. It is your band, it is your songs, and you have not even been playing these songs…
Rickey: Let’s go back a little bit. Let’s go back to ten years ago. I had started thinking about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing when I reached 65 years of age. I will be 65 soon. Back then I said, “I want Skynyrd to still be going and making new music. I want Skynyrd to be touring because I promised Gary and Johnny that no matter what I would be there until the very end of this band.” I will be, barring any unforeseen thing and… knock on wood, I will be there until Gary Rossington one day decides he’s had enough. At this point, right now, I do not see any letting up for this band. We are getting ready to look at recording new music, which excites me because I love being a part creating new stuff for this band.
Ten years ago, other than saying I wanted to see the Lynyrd Skynyrd thing through, I started saying that I would love, at some point, to find a band and/or bands to produce new music and put records out. I wanted to bring creativity to the forefront to things that I’ve learned, and things that I know and love.
All of a sudden, it come around about three or four years ago, I, all of a sudden, by way of my gal Stacey… about seven years ago she had a ProTools set up on her laptop. She wanted to get this up and going, so we took a room here at the house and we let her have her space to record her music and shop her stuff and still be involved with Kid Rock, and since then, she’s been involved with Meat Loaf, and she’s sang with Skynyrd when one of the girls couldn’t make it. Now, she is back with Kid Rock.
We set her ProTools up and I went about finding someone who could teach her and get her into it. I opened it up and I looked at it and it hit me that ProTools is not that difficult. It seems like it would be difficult, but if you look at it, it is a tool to being able to record anywhere, as long as you’ve got the right gear. I told her and I told my manager, three, or four years ago, that I was going to learn it. Fast forward four years later and I am producing a band on it and I have two rooms that I mix and record in here at my house and I am very happy with it.
Jeb: Rickey, what do the other guys think about this? Are they angry?
Rickey: The guys are not going to be angry. You know, I want everybody to have their side gigs.
Jeb: No, not they Skynyrd guys, I mean the Blackfoot guys.
Rickey: Well, Jeb, I will be honest with you, man. I have always wished the best for those guys. I know that I am not one of their favorite subjects, and that’s a shame. It is just the way it is. There is a lot of things that happened way back a long time ago that couldn’t be erased; a lot of personal things that had to do with my family and things that were said about them and so forth and so on that just couldn’t be erased. I thought it best at the time to walk away from the situation and not look back.
I have always loved the art of music and I’ve loved being a musician. I am a musician first. I never got into this, to be really honest, and people will laugh at this when they see it, to be a rock star. I got into music because my granddaddy Shorty Medlocke was in music. He was my all-time hero, and he was my mentor and my musical mentor. My grandfather was the best parent, along with my ma, my grandmother, that anyone could ask for. They saved my life, and for that I am in their debt.
When it comes to things that happen along the way, then you can’t forget those things too easily and I walked away from it. I was a musician first. I wanted to keep the legacy going. Those guys didn’t want to keep it going with me and we parted company. To this day I always wish them the best. It broke my heart when Jak [Spires] passed away. I didn’t like that, at the time, and I didn’t like seeing it. I am glad that I got to be by his side in the hospital the day before he passed away and hold his hand and try to make peace with him. I don’t know if he could hear me or not, but I stood by his bedside and I tried to make peace with him. I told him that I loved him as a brother and I walked away. If that is not good enough for everybody, then I’ve got a finger in the air—there you go. That is the way it has always gone.
I’ve been back with Lynyrd Skynyrd almost twenty years. To be honest with you Jeb, I’ve enjoyed that whole time with those guys. They have been my brothers and really, to be honest with you, I don’t regret things… don’t get me wrong, I look back and I say to myself, “Maybe this is where I should have been all along.”
When I first got back, Gary Rossington and I was sitting on the tour bus in London, England… We were doing a European tour. Gary looked over to me and he said, “Where were you on that day?” I said, “What are you talking about, Gary?” He said, “Where were you when we took off from Greenville?” I said, “Gary, ironically, I was right down the road in Columbia, South Carolina.” I said, “The wheels of fate almost crisscrossed.”
I told him that for a long time I had thought that maybe if I had been there that I could have made the difference in the decision that was made to get on that airplane. Gary looked at me and said, “You couldn’t have made the difference because it was meant for you to be here now, and you’re here now and that’s what counts.” He was right. I have been there ever since 1996. Here is it 2015 and I have been there 19 years with this band. We have no plans of shutting down. We have plans to keep rolling. We are going to Canada and Europe and we are looking at going around the world and doing limited shows here in America. There is Rickey Medlocke for you, from then to the present day!
Jeb: You strike me as a guy that is headstrong and pretty together. I have been told Ronnie Van Zant was that way as well. Did you guys butt heads, and is that why you didn’t stay in Skynyrd in the first place?
Rickey: No, we never did. Ronnie knew what he wanted and he had a vision. I was the same way. I knew what I wanted and I had a vision. My thing was that I never really questioned myself Jeb, that things were not going to work out for me in the music business. I never did. I will tell you when I came close to it… after the original Blackfoot had broken up I had different versions of the band going. We were doing well, but I had put out a couple of records that never really got noticed or did anything.
I lost my dad in 1982, then all of a sudden my ma, who used to always tell me, “The Skynyrd’s are coming to town” -and she was always happy about telling me that- she had a massive stroke and laid in the hospital for seven weeks. Right before she passed away she told me, “Don’t worry. Things are going to work out for you after I’m gone.” I really didn’t understand what she was talking about. When I got the break to go up to Atlanta and be with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the Free Bird the Movie celebration and they were talking about me coming back to the band, it hit me. This is where I belong. It came around at the perfect time.
Ronnie, I’ve got to tell you, even after he had passed, and right on to today, Ronnie has influenced me. There are certain things I remember about him. Ronnie would bully his way through any situation and he never looked back. We never butted heads. He loved my dad, Shorty. He wrote “Curtis Lowe” for him. He dedicated their Nuthin’ Fancy and the song “Made in the Shade” to him. He used to come over and he loved to watch my old man play his Dobro on his knee. There was a mutual respect there where he knew what I was doing and that I was a real musician. He knew that I knew what I was talking about.
Gary would support this… there would be times in Muscle Shoals where I stood in the room with him when he was singing, and I was right next to him, and he would stop and ask me, “Does that sound all right? Is it flat or sharp?” For that little time, and for the years before that in the club areas and stuff like that... I loved the guy.
In my book, there is nobody that was ever better than Ronnie when it came to writing lyrics. He had his thumb on the pulse of being able to write songs with very clever lyrics that people could understand. The guy just had an uncanny sense about himself and he was a true artist. He was a true lyricist. He was a true singer and he loved what he did. He went out of this world loving that and you know what, hopefully one day, I hope I get to see him again and shake his hand and give him a hug, and that’s the real deal.
Jeb: Tell me about Shorty playing with you and playing “Train Train.”
Rickey: I will send you a picture of the old man and me on a tour bus. He toured with the band. He would come out and play “Train Train” on stage with us on the harmonica. He would play “Rattlesnake Rock ‘N” Roller” and “Fox Chase” with us. He got his chance… I would introduce him to the audience as the world’s oldest rock star. He ate that up because the audience would just freak out. Here was this guy standing in front of them, blowing the harmonica, and it was amazing. Here is a guy in his late ‘60s, soon to be 70, and he was out there just rocking.
I have often said this of my dad, he played a lot of different instruments and he played them great. He didn’t just play one instrument great and the others so-so. He played a five-string banjo incredible. He toured with a lot of the old country guys out of Nashville. He played a fiddle incredible. He played Dobro, harmonica and upright bass incredible. He played guitar so great. His style was like Mississippi John Hurt. My old man loved the Delta Blues. That is what Ronnie connected to. My old man was a Delta Blues Country guy. He was bad-ass, man.
My old man was way more talented than me. I am glad I got a piece of that talent in my genes. His talent was just unbelievable. I am very grateful and thankful and honored that I was able to be around him in those days and learn. He was quite amazed at the level that I achieved. He was amazed that I took him along with me. To be honest with you Jeb, I look back at it now as “Train Train” was my way of saying ‘thank you’ to him for everything that he and my ma gave me growing up. They let me explore what I wanted to do in my life. Shorty Medlocke was a one of a kind.
Jeb: Last one: What’s the best advice Shorty ever gave you?
Rickey: When Gary Rossington got me into the band I quoted this to him and he loved it. I’ve quoted it to Johnny and I’ve quoted it to a lot of people. My old man said, “The way I’ve always looked at it, you can never get to be the driver of a Cadillac unless you can ride in the backseat first.” I said to Gary, “I am riding in the backseat with you.” That was probably one of the wisest things that have stuck with me my whole life. I am still riding in the Cadillac, except I think Gary, Johnny and I are upfront now. I came from the backseat on the passenger side up to the front seat on the passenger side.
Jeb: One day maybe they will let you take it for a spin around the block.
Rickey: [laughter] I am perfectly happy riding along!
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