Gary James' Interview With Laurie Sidis Of
Lynette Skynyrd is the world's only all female tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Portraying Ronnie Van Zant in the group is Laurie Sidis. We talked to Laurie about what it's like to perform the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Q - Laurie, as tribute band interviews go, this is a first because Lynette Skynyrd is the only one of its kind in the world. Why did you choose Lynyrd Skynyrd?
A - I love a lot of bands from the classic band era, but definitely Skynyrd is probably my favorite. And also, there aren't any all girl groups doing it right now. I wanted to be unique. I wanted it to stand out. I want to be the only one. Like I always say, if it was easy, everybody would do it.
Q - Don't you think it would be hard for a European group to emulate the spirit of the Southern group?
A - I'm not necessarily sure that's so. If you watch some of Skynyrd's footage, a lot of it is from Europe. If you look up on YouTube back in the classic era of Skynyrd, it was in England during a drought and they were opening for The Stones and that was like a legendary concert. They blew The Stones off the stage. We (Americans) invented rock 'n' roll. Some might beg to differ, but that's where it started. It started here. And the world acknowledges that. I think there is a great respect for American music in Europe. We would love to go to Europe. We definitely have European fans who always want to know when we're coming there. But, easier said than done, right?
Q - Oh, the music business is so tough! The point I was trying to make is, it's difficult for someone who hasn't been raised in the South, who isn't steeped in the Southern culture, to carry that spirit forward. It would be difficult for an East Coast group to capture the spirit of a Lynyrd Skynyrd, I would think.
A - Well, same might be said for a bunch of girls from California, but I think we're doing a pretty good job.
Q - Yes, you are! I don't know how old you are, but I'm just guessing you never did get to see Skynyrd with Ronnie Van Zant in person?
A - Well no, I did. (Laughs). I was very young, but I actually did. My older sister took me to see Skynyrd. That changed my life forever. Yeah, I did see them with Ronnie.
Q - Where did you see them?
A - It was at the Meadowlands. A huge outdoor show.
Q - And that changed your life?
A - Oh, yeah. Well of course. At that time I was pretty young, so I wasn't thinking someday I'm going to have a band that does this. But I knew immediately when I started playing an instrument that I was going to do a band somewhat in that vein. At that time, when I first started playing, I started out as a bass player. I thought wow! It would be really cool to get a bunch of girls together to pay homage to some of my favorite classic rock bands out there. That was my original intention with Lynette Skynyrd. I was going to be the bass player. We couldn't find a girl who could sing low and we didn't want to change the key because then it's not Skynyrd. So, I ended up by default becoming the singer. Now I am, for better or worse, the singer of Lynette Skynyrd. So it worked out pretty well. People responded pretty well to it, even though at that time I was thinking, oh, we need somebody who's blonde like Ronnie and I'm a redhead. (Laughs). As far as being a direct copy, we're not trying to mimic them because clearly we're never going to do that. We are women, so we're never going to look like them and there's no one who was designated to be Alan Collins or Gary Rossington or Steve Gaines. It's kind of whoever is taking the guitar parts they want becomes that person for that song and we are not trying to look like them. We certainly would never dress up like men because I think that would really diminish what the band was about and what we are doing.
Q - What was the reaction of the audience on that first gig you played?
A - Our first gig was almost two years ago (2011). I booked the show on my own just to get us going because there's nothing like a kick in the ass of a first gig to get people working on the material. (Laughs). So, I booked a show at this outdoor club called The Blue Star and it's in downtown LA and I had some like-minded bands open for us. Then we came on and people were just bowled over. They were totally inspired and loved it. After that, we were hooked.
Q - Do you primarily perform on the West Coast?
A - Primarily, so far we have ventured out... The furthest we have gone right now is to Colorado. That's not to say we won't go further because we really want to and clearly our audience that really loves us is in the South. Honestly, we have our fans here in Southern California, but nothing like we've experienced in the South. I mean those people are just dying to see us. I don't think that any of the videos that are up on YouTube are representative really of what we do in a 'live' show. You can't possibly get the whole gist of what a band is doing just by watching on a little YouTube. You really got to go out and experience it 'live'.
Q - It's better than the old days when you had to send out a press kit!
A - Oh, I know. The technology has improved one hundred percent. So, that is a lot easier, but I'm still amazed that there are venues and clubs that are saying, "You gotta send your package here. We want a physical package." It's like, "Really? Can't you just click on our electronic pass kit?"
Q - I was talking to
Alex Ross of Supreme Entertainment Artists, and he believes the tribute business is oversaturated. But Lynette Skynyrd is truly one-of-a-kind, so what would it take to get you beyond the West Coast?
A - What that booking agent said is probably true because there are a lot of tribute acts out there. That's what's difficult, to rise above the muck because there are so many out there that are bad and they kind of give them a bad name. We definitely got from some venues, "Oh, no, we don't book any more tribute acts here. There's just too many bad ones. We book you, then we got to book everybody." So that can be kind of disheartening. For what we're doing, I'm so inspired by Skynyrd. Skynyrd is such a great story. And they tell great stories. They are legendary. So, I'm not gonna give up just because one guy said there's too many of us out there. And yeah, there's lots of Skynyrd tribute acts, but we are the only one that's women. So in answer to your question, what would it take to get us out of there? Talking business, we'd need at least one or two anchor gigs where we are making a decent amount of money and being given hotel rooms at least to make the other smaller paying gigs worthwhile so that we can get on the road. We are not opposed to roughing it once in a while, but at the end of the day, we're also not into pitching a tent and sleeping on the ground either, so we need to watch out for each other as far as that goes. I'm kind of like the matriarch of the band, for better or for worse. I'm mama Van Zant. I need to watch out for all my girls and make sure that they are taking care of and safe. So, I can't just say, "Okay girls, were going to go out on the road and every gig we're making only $300 and there's six girls in the band, so that's $50 a girl." It doesn't even pay for transportation. You are not going to be able to pay your rent. Sorry. That's not going to work, so I need to know that at least when we get back from a tour that everybody is gonna be able to pay their rent and keep a roof over their heads so we can continue making this music. It makes sense, right?
Q - Oh, sure. And it's a problem in this economy.
A - Yeah. Gas is really expensive. Out here (California) it's absolutely through the roof. Definitely here the economy is not so great. Also, pay-to-play is very prevalent here and you've got a lot of tribute bands out here who are paying to play. We will not do that. Under no circumstances will we ever be a band that does that. Once you are a band that pays to play, you are always going to be that band. People are, "It's not pay-to-play. It's presale tickets." It's the same thing. That was born here and I wish it would die here, but it hasn't. There's so many venues that require that of a band. We won't even go to those venues.
Q - Pay-to-play has hit the East Coast as well.
A - As long as there are bands out there that are willing to shell out money and dig into their pockets and take a loss, those clubs will keep doing it. If bands say "No, we're not going to do that anymore, we're stopping right now," that will go away. That's just based on greed. They don't need to do that. In this economy, if you own an establishment, you just need to think outside the box of ways to get people into your venue. It really should be left up to the band. Of course in Lynette Skynyrd we always do our part. I always make incredible posters for all our shows. Besides being the lead vocalist, I'm also a graphics designer. So, I make seminal collectible posters. Now, that's not enough to get people out, not in this day and age, but we always send out invitations. We always work our social media. And that's all a band can really do to get people out. The rest of it needs to be left up to the venue and if the venue is booking quality shows, quality music and making all their shows an event, people will come. People want to party. People want to celebrate. Human beings want to circulate within their tribe. As soon as venue owners and talent buyers realize that, the better off everybody is going to be, the band, the venue, everyone.
Q - Was it difficult to recruit band members for this project?
A - Yes, and it continues to be a difficult thing to do. (Laughs).
Q - You are looked at as if you are crazy.
A - Well, yeah. First of all, here in southwestern California it ain't easy to find women who like Skynyrd. So, if there's a female musician, there is a 50/50 chance whether or not they're really interested in the idea of playing Skynyrd and just Skynyrd. Nothing else. So that in itself, I had to find the fans. Some people have different motivations of why they've wanted to do it. A lot of that is, "Oh, I'm going to make some quick money." And it doesn't always work that way. There needs to be some sweat equity put into the band before we can make the big bucks. So, unless they were walking into a lip smacking opportunity, after a while they realize, "Wow? This is like any other band I've ever been in. I'm not making a ton of money here. I want to get paid like X amount of dollars for every show." Some people here in Southern California, some musicians want to be paid for their rehearsals. So, I'm not going to pay anybody for a rehearsal because, is this a labor of love? Well, yes in a sense it is. Do we want to make money? Of course we do. I'm not going to turn down a great gig, but at the same time it's very competitive so those gigs don't always come that easily. Some people get really dissatisfied that they haven't walked into a great opportunity from the get-go. We've had some amazing shows. We played for Lynyrd Skynyrd themselves, at the Lynyrd Skynyrd Barbecue And Beer opening. So, in answer to your question, I am the only original member of the band now. We've had people come and go. There's almost always a rotating membership. I would love it to be that it's a stable lineup so that there is not somebody who's always coming and going, but people come and go for what ever reason. If they get a better opportunity, they are out the door. If for some reason they can't make it work in their personal lives, they've got to go. So, it hasn't always been easy, but I really love the lineup we have right now, and especially my partner Cathy, the guitar player. She is an amazing band mate. She's a great guitar player. She is so obsessed with Skynyrd, more than I am dare I say. She is just an expert on Skynyrd, knows everything about them. Knows all those licks. She has taught so many different guitar players how to play this music and teaching them their parts. She knows every different guitar part for Skynyrd. She is the Skynyrd aficionado. The Encyclopedia of Skynyrd if you will. I don't think I could be doing this band if it was without her.
Q - Before this band, were you in other bands?
A - I've been in tons of bands, (Laughs) as a bass player. The band that I've been in and front is called Hallowed Engine. Really not very active right now, but not to say that we won't be. In that band I played bass and sing. It's nothing like Lynyrd Skynyrd. We did a couple of covers, but for the most part not a cover band. It was an original band and totally different than Skynyrd. I would say the best way I could describe it is female fronting Black Sabbath. Much heavier. The kind of songs we were covering were more like Blue Oyster Cult or James Gang. I've just been in tons of bands before that as a bass player.
Q - How is it that you can use Skynyrd in your band name? Did you get permission?
A - I don't think that you need permission to use the name Skynyrd. We can't call ourselves Lynyrd Skynyrd obviously and we don't want to. There's lots of other bands that use Skynyrd in their name. We did look that up. We don't want to stomp on anybody. It is similar to Lynyrd, but it's not, and I think it's the perfect name for what we are doing. We can't get too similar to them, but Skynyrd is okay. There's actually a comic strip called Bubba Skynyrd. I know that's a slippery slope, but we checked into that, so we can use the name. There's certain things we can't use. We can't use their logo and we don't. I've seen situations like that where you are using a likeness of a bands branding, then you can get in trouble that way.
Q - It's interesting that other tribute bands will use a title of a song naming a band, but with Skynyrd tributes that's not necessarily the case.
A - I think there's a band called Poison Whiskey and they are a tribute to Skynyrd. That's a Skynyrd song. It's interesting, before we started the band, one of the original members wanted to call the band The Freebird Girls. She didn't like the name Lynette Skynyrd. I was just thinking "Freebird Girls? I'm not feeling that one." It doesn't ring out like Lynette Skynyrd does and people really love that name. I knew it was going to be called Lynette Skynyrd. So, when these girls walked into it, some of them were like, "I don't know if I'd like that. I don't know if I like your logo." Those people eventually took themselves out of that game. I've always had a distinct vision of what I want to do with the band and how I want to proceed and how I want to be different from the other tribute bands. For instance, we are going to be doing an album really soon. We are doing an album actually and it's going to be coming out really soon called "Hot As A Fox In A Forest Fire". Most tribute bands don't do that. They'll have demos, but to actually put out a full-length album, that's kind of unheard of in the tribute band world. It's going to have ten songs from the classic era of Skynyrd. I think that's sort of going to put us a notch above the other tribute bands.
Q - Sure. You can sell merchandise on your website and at your shows. You can get airplay on local radio stations before you perform in a city.
A - That's what we're thinking.
Q - Before you go on stage, what do you do to get into character? Is there anything?
A - Well, I try to be Laurie and Ronnie. I try to definitely channel some of Ronnie's moves and his swagger. Certainly Laurie is very different from Ronnie. But I'm not like sitting backstage chanting, "Oh Ronnie, please take my soul and let me perform exactly like you," because I don't sound like Ronnie. I don't look like Ronnie. I do try to do some of his moves and some of the things he did. For instance, Ronnie never, never, ever took the mic out of the stand. He always had it in the stand and just carried it around, kind of stalked the stage. I'm a little bit more animated than that, so sometimes I'll just break out and start dancing and Ronnie would have never have done that. But I just can't help myself because the music just moves me so much. So, I'm not trying to be Ronnie Van Zant as I'm trying to emulate a vibe that he carried into the audience. I have gotten some of the greatest compliments about how we present this music. It's like "Wow, I haven't felt like this since I saw Skynyrd back in the old days. It was so exciting." That's really the whole goal, to get people excited about this music again.
Q - Now, let's talk about Lynette Skynyrd's performance in front of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Besides Gary Rossington, there are no original members in the band, are there?
A - No, you've just got Gary Rossington. You've got Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother. And Rickey Medlocke is the guitar player and early, early on was one of the drummers. I believe there was a point where they even had two drummers and Rickey Medlocke was one of them.
Q - What did Skynyrd say to you when you were done performing?
A - They loved it! They were all really intrigued and that was one of the reasons they signed off on having us play their grand opening party. "Really, there's girls doing this? This is amazing!" I think my favorite person out of the whole tribe of Lynyrd Skynyrd had to be Dale Rossington, because she was so sweet and motherly. She came backstage before we went on. She had to know we were all petrified. This is probably the biggest thing a tribute band can do, to play in front of the band they are paying homage to. It was scary. (Laughs). So, she came back to almost be a comfort and go, "Wow! I'm so amazed that you girls are doing this. You girls are great. I'm excited to see you. If you want, I'll come on stage and sing "Sweet Home Alabama" with you." I was like, "Okay. I'm going to keep you to that." So, when we got to "Sweet Home Alabama" I said "Okay Dale, c'mon, you promised you'd sing it with me." And so she brought Carol Chase up with her, the two Honkettes together, and they sang backing vocals for "Sweet Home Alabama". It was like having Angels flying over us. It was so beautiful. Those girls were just so flawless. Incredible singers. It was really fun. Probably one of the greatest moments on stage in my entire life.
Q - Did you tell Gary Rossington you saw him and Skynyrd back in the early days?
A - You know, Gary Rossington is a very private guy. He was very much sequestered. I'm not saying he was roped off, but I did not get a chance to talk to him. I think there were a couple of other girls in the lineup who were able to shake his hand, but after we played I was absolutely mobbed by the audience and I was trying to get to the guys in Skynyrd, at least just to meet them. The only one I really got to meet was Rickey. I didn't get to meet Gary. I was told by the other girls he loved it. The next night, Lynyrd Skynyrd themselves played and I bonded with Dale again. I saw Gary kind of off to the side, standing there with a bodyguard so people couldn't bother him. But he was watching the two of us and he was just grinning from ear to ear. He just really loved the idea that we were bonding with Dale Rossington, his wife. So, that was really fun. So, I didn't really get to meet Gary to get his thumbs up personally. But I have had many conversations with the original drummer, Artimus Pyle, who is no longer in Lynyrd Skynyrd.