Southern rock owes a lot to the late Ronnie Van Zant. Not only did the Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman establish a vocal and lyrical template for the genre’s singers, he also offered guidance to family members as they were trying to figure out their musical strengths.
Drummer Robbie Morris credits his Uncle Ronnie — and a bicycle-riding accident involving Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s younger brother — for shaping his career path, as well as Johnny’s.
Morris remembers Uncle Johnny borrowing his brand-new dirt bike circa the mid-1970s and going to Florida’s Jacksonville Speedway to jump its ramps. He returned with a broken arm.
“So I kind of borrowed his drums,” says Morris, who is only about two years younger than Johnny. “I couldn’t get anywhere on the guitar. We lived right next door to my granddad [Lacy Van Zant], so I’d go over there and play Johnny’s drums, and I got better than him.
“Uncle Ronnie came over and heard me playing one day and asked me to play ‘Free Bird.’ So we put the record player on, and I played along with ‘Free Bird.’ He said, ‘Robbie, you’re the drummer.’ The next day, he comes back and gives Johnny a brand-new PA because he knew Johnny could sing. He said, ‘Boy, you’re going to sing. You’re going to get out in front, just like I do, and you’re going to get over your fear.’ ”
And just like that, Ronnie Van Zant had established the voice and the backbeat for what would become The Johnny Van Zant Band, which released its debut album in 1980. While Johnny has since taken over the role in Skynyrd previously held by his brother Ronnie, Morris is now in the band Shanytown with his brother Ronnie — guitarist and singer Ronnie Morris.
Shanytown takes its name from a term Ronnie Van Zant would use to describe where the family (which also included 38 Special singer/guitarist Donnie Van Zant) lived in Jacksonville. On the band’s self-titled debut (reissued in September by Garage Door Records after a digital-only release in 2012), Shanytown resembles Skynyrd at times with its three-guitar attack and no-doubt-about-it Southern pride (see “Redneck,” the album’s opening track).
But Shanytown has a lot more going on, says Robbie Morris, who is careful not to use the phrase Southern rock in his explanation.
“I tried to make a record that doesn’t sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd, and I really don’t think it does,” he says. “Some of our stuff is more bluesy and British. And some of it is kind of country.”
Shanytown is currently working on material for its second album. Morris says the band has about five songs so far, and the plan is to begin recording early next year.
— By Chris M. Junior
Shanytown, from left to right: Tommy Bluestreetcar, Charles Moody, Ronnie Morris, Robbie Morris and Kevin Williams (Photo by Stephanie A. Hamilton)