25 Years Ago: Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 Tour Kicks Off
Nearly a decade and a half had passed since a plane crash permanently gutted Lynyrd Skynyrd, but on July 17, 1991, a reconfigured version of the band finally made it to their intended destination of Baton Rouge, La. to perform. This time it was under a slightly altered name in support of their new album, Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991.
The enormous success of the emotional, yearlong “Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour,” which went from 1987 to 1988, provided the impetus for new material from the group. Even with a drastically altered lineup, there was still money to be made on the legend of the Southern rock heroes, though there was a major issue as to who would get what financially.
The tragic 1977 crash took the lives of frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines. As detailed in Gene Odom’s 2002 book Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock, Van Zant’s widow Judy had agreed only to the tribute tour – the initial leg of it – and afterward remained in a bitter battle over the name of the band and the money involved. This lead to the famed “rule of three” agreement stating that three key members of the group from before the accident must be involved in any recording or touring to call it Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Not only was that requirement met at the turn of the decade, but the band halfheartedly attempted to separate itself from the original lineup by using the name “Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991.” Management and publicists encouraged the media to use the somewhat awkward new moniker, and while major publications like the Chicago Tribune and New York Times would diligently comply, over a short period of time, everyone – including the band – quietly dropped the “1991.”
The band's Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 studio album was, for the most part, poorly received, but the tour was widely anticipated as Lynyrd Skynyrd was becoming the type of artist new generations would discover through older brothers, uncles and eventually parents. As on the tribute tour, Ronnie Van Zant’s kid brother Johnny was at the helm of Skynyrd ’91, which kicked off the support tour for the record in storybook fashion, in the city where Convair CV-240 was on its way to on that fateful early evening in October 1977.
T-shirts and posters were sold that read, “Baton Rouge! After 14 years! We’re finally here…” Tickets were just $10, and anyone who had a ticket to the originally scheduled date at the L.S.U. Assembly Center in 1977 could bring a guest and use it for entry into the Riverside Centroplex, just a few miles up the road. According to press reports at the time, more than 100 concertgoers took advantage of the opportunity, and were also invited to private a meet-and-greet with the band.
A handful of new songs were played, but most people came to hear their catalog of hits. And the biggest change from the tribute tour was Johnny Van Zant actually singing “Free Bird” as opposed to turning the duties over to the crowd.
“It was hard,” he told the Hartford Courant that July. “But Ronnie was right; a song without words isn't a song. It wasn't meant to be an instrumental."
Heated debates have continued to rage in terms of the validity of the group in the 25 years since the Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 tour launched, especially now that guitarist Gary Rossington is the only original member left. But that hasn't stopped Skynyrd, one of rock's ultimate road warriors, from touring like clockwork each year.
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