Songwriter Interviews

Rickey Medlocke (Blackfoot, Lynyrd Skynyrd)

by Greg Prato

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Certainly, Rickey Medlocke played a huge role in helping create the style famously known as "southern rock." First, he founded Blackfoot, then put it on hold to join up with Lynyrd Skynyrd during their formative stages, before returning back to Blackfoot (and scoring big with such classic rock standards as "Train, Train" and "Highway Song"), and then rejoining Skynyrd for good in 1996.

Blackfoot got a makeover in 2012 when Rickey rebooted the band with a whole new lineup: vocalist/lead guitarist Tim Rossi, vocalist/guitarist Rick Krasowski, bassist Brian Carpenter, and drummer Matt Anastasi. Rickey no longer tours with the band, but works behind the scenes as a writer and producer. Their latest album, Southern Native, is expected in August 2016.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How does songwriting in a band nowadays compare to the '70s and '80s?

Rickey Medlocke: Back in the day, you had a couple of guys - three at the most - that collaborated. And they pretty much collaborated all the time together. Today, there are a lot of songwriters out there. You'll see - which I happen to not necessarily agree with - more than three guys on a song, which I think brings in too many different views on the song that you're going after.

I've seen songs written nowadays by five or six guys, and that's a lot of input into a song, trying to hone it down into a certain direction and lyrical content. Back in the day, with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Blackfoot, there were only a couple guys within the band who wrote songs. You knew the direction that you were going after, you knew the direction of the group. And I believe from the music right through the lyrical content, it was all in one direction.

Rickey worked on some tracks with Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1971-1972 when the band recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, whose owners were the house musicians known as "The Swampers" (see: "Sweet Home Alabama"). The resulting album, which contained classics like "Free Bird" and "Simple Man," didn't find a distributor. When we spoke with one of the Swampers - bass player David Hood - he explained that the tape got kinked sometime after it left the studio, so when it was played for record companies, it got flipped and sounded terrible.

Rickey returned to Blackfoot and Skynyrd tried again with Al Kooper producing at a studio in Georgia. These sessions resulted in their first album, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, released in 1973. In 1977 a plane crash killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and left other members badly injured. The following year, unreleased songs the band recorded in Muscle Shoals were released on an album called Skynyrd's First and... Last. Two of the tracks are songs Rickey wrote: "White Dove" and "The Seasons."
Songfacts: Two songs you wrote on Skynyrd's First and... Last album - "The Seasons" and "White Dove" - don't sound like typical Skynyrd songs.

Rickey: Actually, the inspiration for both of them was I was a big Neil Young fan at the time. I used to love his records, and Neil Young was the inspiration for both those songs. When I came to the band, I played them for Ronnie [Van Zant], Gary [Rossington], and Allen [Collins], and they loved them. When we went to record in Muscle Shoals, they suggested that we do the tunes, and there you go - that was the history of it.

A name often linked to Blackfoot is that of Shorty Medlocke. Shorty was Rickey's grandfather (born Paul Robert Medlock in 1910 - the "e" was added to the end of his last name later), who was the son of a Georgia sharecropper and a descendant of the Blackfoot Confederacy. A harmonica, banjo, and guitar player, Shorty grew up playing blues and bluegrass music, and eventually played in Nashville with the likes of Roy Acuff and Hank Snow. Shorty and his wife wound up raising Rickey, who refers to Shorty as his "old man."

Shorty's compositions appeared on several Blackfoot albums, including "Railroad Man" (which he sang on) and their Top 40 hit "Train, Train" (which he played harmonica on). He also co-wrote the songs "Fox Chase" and "Rattlesnake Rock n' Roller" (the latter of which he played banjo on). Shorty passed away in 1982. [Check out an interview with Blackfoot and Shorty from 1981 here].
Songfacts: Was Shorty Medlocke the inspiration for the Skynyrd song "The Ballad of Curtis Loew"?

Rickey: Absolutely, he was. The first time I was in the band, Ronnie, Gary, and Allen used to come over and hang out at my parents' home, and my dad used to play the blues for us. When you hear the line, "He used to own an old dobro, used to play it across his knee," that is very true - that's the way my old man did it. Ronnie took his inspiration from the blues, and thinking of my old man. There you go - that's the way it came out.

Songfacts: In "Train, Train," the girl goes to Memphis, but where does the guy go?

Rickey: He's on the train going wherever. My old man wrote that song way back in the '30s, and there was an original recording of it done later on. I knew the song, and as a matter of fact, I used to listen to my old man play it. It was just laying around, and when we were doing the songs for the Strikes album, we had gone through so many tunes, and we wanted to finish the record off in a good fashion, and we needed some kind of final tune. What was cool was that was the very last song to be arranged and to go on the record. and it ended up being the most classic one and one of the hits off the record, along with "Highway Song."

Songfacts: What was the inspiration behind "Highway Song"?

Rickey: The original guys in Blackfoot, we were going from North Carolina up to Jersey, to play a series of shows. Jakson [Spires] and I wrote pretty much all the material for Blackfoot. I was in the back of the van that we were riding in, and I had the music to it. We were on Interstate 81 going north, and we were right around Winchester, Virginia, and I started playing it. I wrote the opening of the lyrics, "Another day another dollar, after I've sang and hollered," and it took off from there.

What's really interesting in the song - and not too many people know this - but the last verse, we had two albums out before that, in '75 and '76, called No Reservations and Flying High. And when you hear the lyric go, "Yes these big wheels are ready to roll," "Big Wheels" was a song. "We've been flying high and so low," that was another one off the record. "Lord, and all this madness," that was another song. We did the whole verse with title tracks in the verse! It's kind of a cool piece of trivia, y'know?

Songfacts: "Diary of a Working Man"?

Rickey: I had been watching a movie of a guy that was just so down on his luck. It was on late one night at about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and at the end, the guy is beyond despair - his wife had left him, took his kids, had no money. The same old storyline that's true with a lot of people. And at the end of the movie, it was kind of like a really weird twist: you see the guy, and he's very angry, and all of a sudden, it shows this anger in his face, and the screen goes dark. You go, "Wow. They left us hanging." And then a gunshot rings out. And you really don't know if the guy actually shot himself or not. So that's the way we did the song - you really don't know at the end if he did it or not.

Songfacts: Would you happen to recall the name of that movie?

Rickey: You know what brother, I really don't.

Songfacts: What about the title track for Southern Native?

Rickey: That took on a whole different thing about writing about a southern native. It's kind of a self-explanatory thing within myself, because I live down near the swamps, down near the Everglades here in Florida.

My dad was a Native American, and my mom a little bit of Native American, but basically from the south. I collaborated on that song to give it a vibe of the south without overstating and overdoing it. You go to writing about maybe a certain place in the country or a certain ethnic thing of people there, and you can kind of overdo it. You can go too far. But I believe that the lyrical content is right on point, and I was happy the way it came out.

Songfacts: Before, you mentioned being a fan of Neil Young's music. Who are some of your other favorite songwriters?

Rickey: Of course, the combination of Lennon and McCartney - brilliant. Those guys, what can you say?

Ronnie, even when I played with him, a brilliant lyricist. He made you feel you were right there. It was almost like an artist with an easel, painting a picture. I just thought he was a very unsung southern poet. Great songwriter.

Bob Seger. Talk about a guy who could paint a picture with lyrics - he was one of them.

Another one of my favorites was the combination of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Elton John could come up with all the music, but my God, Bernie Taupin came up with just brilliant lyrics.

Songfacts: Do you recall who some of Ronnie's favorite songwriters were?

Rickey: He loved Neil Young. I know there has been a lot of controversy about Neil Young and Ronnie having some kind of tiff [again, "Sweet Home Alabama"], but they really didn't. I remember Ronnie used to love a lot of blues musicians, like Son House, Robert Johnson, and people like that. Muddy Waters. He also used to love - only because his dad was a truck driver - Merle Haggard and people like that. He was a guy that took inspiration from everyday life. What you hear, he lived it, and that's one thing that I admired so much about him: he lived what he wrote about.

July 14, 2016.
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Comments: 2

  • Joel Denson from Clute, TxI have known for a very long time about Ricks' remarks about the Lyrics in Highway Song
    that are comprised of the song fact there is another one that was not mentioned( sorta kinda " Im' Justa Stranger on this Road" referencing Stranger On the Open Road from" Flying High" album

    I saw early Blackfoot a lot in the 70's in Houston ( Been a since )
    I met the Band ( Leaving Houston For San Antonio in A VW bus) The very first time I went to see them... at a local free show at what would become a Historic venue not having any Idea who I was coming to see play... Blackfoot opened up for another band
    who I also had no knowledge of... From San Francisco "Clover" members of this band included
    a guitar player that could later be seen as a member of the Doobie Brother John Mc Vie and on Harmonica an unkown player Named Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News
  • Ron from Swamps Of James Bay (moose Factory, Ontario CanadaGood to hear some history of some classic Blackfoot songs; I being a Cree and knowing that there were others playing music was in inspiration.... these songs brings back memories great band, the only regret....I never had the chance to see them live, would have loved that
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