This week’s Free Ride muses on the songs of Donnie Van Zant, one of the famed trio of brothers from Jacksonville who turns 59 today. The Van Zants cut a wide swath through the terrain of southern rock from the 70s to the 2000s. Donnie, somewhat overshadowed by older brother Johnny of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame (who lost his life at the age of 29 in an airplane crash), established himself in his own right with 38 Special, cranking out memorable hits like Caught Up in You. He went on to work with little brother Ronnie in the group Van Zant.
To use a good southern expression, you can’t sling a dead cat in these parts without hitting some songs about freedom written or performed by one of the Van Zants. Donnie covers all the liberty bases – from being so caught up in a relationship that he never wants to set himself free, to attempts to get back on track from a troubled youth and prison time with freedom as his desire, to running on the edge with his heart on fire and listening to an engine scream (the only time his soul is free), to the patriotism of a flag whose colors don’t run (and when it comes to freedom, United We Stand). He’s caught up in love and crime and cars and the colors of Old Glory. It’s the essence of southern rock.
But if there’s one Donnie Van Zant song that to me epitomizes the edginess of southern rock, the anger underlying so much of the music, it’s the somewhat successful single from the Brother to Brother album he did with Ronnie back in 1998: Rage. Somehow, when country music sings about what’s wrong with the world, it makes you want to do some two-stepping. When blues singers bemoan the state of the world, it makes you want to squeeze your love a little tighter. When heavy metalists scream their rage, it makes you want to destroy something. But there’s something about southern rock, which I love by the way, that simply makes you want to flip the world a bird and gripe about the state of affairs. Which is why, I think, the Van Zants appeal so much to Sean Hannity. It’s the perfect soundtrack to his whining. Here are a few lines from Rage that speak, I think, to the whining and griping of a privileged people who are basically better off than any generation in the history of humanity, but feel like the world has done them wrong:
Let me loose, set me free
I’ve been burning endlessly
There’s no way back
Where I come from, misery
We’re living in a rage of fire
Drowning by the winds of change
No one has the right to come and take my rage
I got to know this rage
Oh so well
Time’s run out
Luck’s run dry
The world’s got me down!
Poor old Donnie. I hope he’ll find some time to be caught up with his love, take a ride in a fast car, and salute the colors today. Maybe that will let him loose and set him free from that pesky rage that has got him down.