Lynyrd Skynyrd will play in Portland

Unable to picture himself spending his life sitting behind a set of drums, Medlocke quit Lynyrd Skynyrd just before they burst onto the music scene 30 years ago. Only fate a few years later prevented him from traveling with his friends on the fatal plane crash that claimed the lives of three members, including leader Ronnie Van Zant.

Medlocke returned to the fold eight years ago to help Lynyrd Skynyrd resurrect the band’s patented triple-guitar attack.

He has never been happier.

“Now I am able to help the band stay in the mainstream of being a rock band,” Medlocke said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s my calling to be with them now. Fortunately, that’s the way the dice rolled for me.”

Medlocke will join the rest of Lynyrd Skynyrd in a return engagement to Maine next week. Their concert at the Cumberland County Civic Center will feature a walk through the band’s 30-year history and showcase a few songs off “Vicious Cycle,” the band’s first studio album in four years.

Spurred by the success of the first single, “Red, White and Blue,” the new album has already sold more than 300,000 copies (“amazing for a classic band like Lynyrd Skynyrd”). Medlocke predicts the record will surpass gold status before the end of the year.

Two original members remain in the group – guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell. Hughie Thomasson, formerly of the Outlaws, completes the guitar triumvirate. The rest of the band includes drummer Michael Cartellone, new bassist Ean Evans and singer Johnny Van Zant.

Van Zant has successfully taken over the role from his late brother, who died in the 1977 plane crash in a Mississippi swamp. The crash also claimed guitarist Steve Gaines, his wife and backup singer, Cassie Gaines, and the band’s manager.

Bad luck continues to follow the band. Allen Collins, who was seriously hurt in the crash, was paralyzed below the waist in a 1986 car accident and died four years later. Bass player Leon Wilkeson, popular with fans for his collection of hats, died in his sleep three years ago. Then last year, Rossington barely escaped death when he underwent emergency quintuplet bypass surgery.

“Man, we all just held our breath,” said Medlocke. “We all thought, ‘oh no, not again.’ But Gary is something else; he’s tough. He’s playing great on stage.”

Despite all the tragedy and cruel fate that has impacted the band throughout its existence, Lynyrd Skynyrd has remained a staple on the concert scene. The band has sold more than 25 million albums and has released several timeless hits, including “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “What’s Your Name” and the anthem “Free Bird.”

“I’ve been asked so many times what is it with this band,” said Medlocke. “Tragedy seems to follow the band around constantly. Ronnie Van Zant and the guys they really shook the world. They made history. There were so many great songs in four short years. People really took to them and loved them. Then, all of a sudden, tragedy struck with the plane crash. After that it was just one thing right after another. And it still continues today.”

Medlocke, who began playing the banjo at age 3, left the band in the early 1970s to play guitar for Blackfoot.

He maintained a friendship with the band and nearly found himself on that fateful flight.

“I saw Ronnie and the guys before they took off for the Street Survivors tour,” said Medlocke. “I was asked if I wanted to tag along with them for a week on that leg of the tour. By chance I ended up getting some shows with my band Blackfoot. So I wasn’t part of that whole thing that went down in ’77 although my heart was with them and I lost a serious friend in Ronnie.”

Ronnie’s widow was largely responsible for getting Medlocke to return to the band. She invited him to attend the premier of the movie “Free Bird” and play in an all-star jam in December 1995. A couple of months later, Rossington and Johnny Van Zant invited him to join the band.

Medlocke expects to remain with Lynyrd Skynyrd until the end.

“We’re musicians,” Medlocke said. “We love to play. We’ve got to keep on keeping on until one day when Gary and Billy and Johnny and maybe myself say, ‘You know what, we’ve had enough. It’s time to shut it down and do a farewell tour and let that be it.’ But for right now ,that’s not any time soon.

“I intend to be here until the last note of “Free Bird” is struck.”

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