Born in 1968 and raised dirt poor in America’s deep south, young Johnny Colt first picked up the bass harbouring the most timid of rock ‘n’ roll dreams. He wanted to make a living as a working musician. Weaned on torrents of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin and the full catalogue of classic rock staples, by the time he reached 18, Johnny had already quit school, moved to and from California and begun playing nightly gigs on the Atlanta club circuit.
In his mind, he had arrived. Not only was he bringing home a steady paycheque by playing bass, but he was making almost as much as his mother, who toiled full-time in a bank. Johnny could never have foreseen that he would soon set out on one of the most fantastic journeys in rock ‘n’ roll. In this interview, Johnny Colt tells Joe Daly about the journey, with images by Ilya Mirman.
1988 heralded the first major stop on his odyssey. Johnny hooked up with the Black Crowes, who were still two years from releasing their major label debut. Over the course of a decade he held down the Black Crowes’ rhythm section, selling millions of records along the way. They included the one-two punch of their multi-platinum debut, Shake Your Money Maker, and its legendary follow-up, The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion.
After leaving the Black Crowes in 1998, he navigated subsequent turns in the inexplicably underrated Brand New Immortals, eventually landing in post-‘Drops Of Jupiter’ Train in 2003. When Train went on hiatus in 2006, Johnny joined the reality-TV inspired Rock Star Supernova, later filming another reality television show with Tommy Lee called Battleground Earth. Radiating a broad Southern charm and an irrepressible enthusiasm, Johnny eventually landed his very own television show with the Travel Channel, titled At Full Volume. The network aired the show’s premiere, yet, like most pilots, the show went no further and Johnny found himself at the proverbial crossroads.
With his band on a break and his television show consigned to network purgatory, it was time for a painstaking self-assessment. Johnny had achieved nearly all of his musical goals and, as the age of 40 drew close, he found himself creatively stalled and spiritually unfulfilled. He decided to lear Train, and with it the entire music industry, vowing never to look back.
Part of the reason I left Train when I did,” Johnny explains to BGM, “was because I was having a hard time finding an archetype to help me understand what being a musician as an older guy would look like. When you see the blues guys and Keith Richards it makes sense. But I looked back and asked: ‘How am I gonna have that integrity?’ I realised that while I could see myself playing up to the age where I was, I didn’t have a vision past that. And I don’t like heading on any road where I don’t have some kind of direction. So I got on with the next huge challenge, which was journalism.”
Beginning as an iContributor to CNN, Johnny threw himself into learning the minutiae of television journalism, on both sides of the camera. Eventually he formed a full-service production company and secured a contributor deal with CNN, even scor- ing an award or two along the way. By 2012, the music industry was little more than a speck in his rear-view mirror.
As with all epic journeys, sweeping change arrives both uninvited and in the unlikeliest of forms. “In the spring of 2012, I was busy as hell with CNN,” Johnny explains.
“I was a journalist and I was 100 per cent dedicated to that business. All my music gear was packed. So there I was, working on a domestic feature where we’re taking on Chase Bank in the mortgage scandal, and the story’s about to run on CNN. I was in the middle of it when my phone began ringing.”
First it was his friend Brit Turner, from the band Blackberry Smoke. Johnny ignored the call and kept pressing on with his feature, even as more and more calls buzzed his phone. It was his wife who finally snuck past the defenders. If Johnny was irked that his momentum had been derailed, the fact that his wife was giggling did little to alleviate his stress, yet any consternation that might have been gathering force quickly dissipated when she shared the news: Rickey was looking for him. Gary too. That’s Rickey Medlocke and Gary Rossington, the dueling six-string pillars of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Goddammit!” Johnny exclaimed in equal parts frustration and excitement, because he instantly understood what was about to happen. Johnny immediately called Rickey, who confirmed his suspicions. Skynyrd were in the middle of tracking the last song of their new album, Last Of A Dyin’ Breed, when their bass player left. The next day Johnny flew to Nashville, where he sat down with Gary and Rickey, and within two days it was official: rhythm specialist Johnny Colt was the newest bassist in the Southern rock institution known as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Looking back on that meeting, Johnny says: “I needed to sit down with some men who were the real thing, who’d been there and back, and who were setting a good example. Playing their asses off, putting music first, taking care of their families and taking care of their crew.”
At that initial meeting, in the men seated across the table, Johnny realised that he had found his archetype. What he could not realise at that time was that he was about to crack the hidden formula for playing bass in Lynyrd Skynyrd. A subliminal code embedded into the rhythm section of Lynyrd Skynyrd 40 years ago, unknown to even Gary and Rickey.
“Here’s the thing about Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Johnny explains. “Lynyrd Skynyrd is more difficult to play, is more orchestrated and arranged and has a more expansive technical life than most people realise. If you listen to the arrangements, they have a formula: you’ve got these three guitar players in sync, putting melodies together and playing counter-melodies. Nothing is extraneous. They’re not jamming for a second. That’s the critical difference between Skynyrd and the Allmans: there is no jam- ming in Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
Johnny began deconstructing the Skynyrd catalogue through exhaustive listening and hundreds of hours of old video footage. The first thing he discovered was that, back in the 70s, when the band would write in a cabin called Hell House, Skynyrd’s classically-trained keyboardist Billy Powell and their former bass player Leon Wilkeson (now both deceased) would create their parts together in one room, while the three guitarists were off in another area working out the guitar parts. Consequently, the bass-lines and the piano are always connected.
“There’s a reason why, when you hear a cover band play a Skynyrd song, it never sounds right,” Johnny reveals. “It’s because Skynyrd’s rhythm section is unique in that there is no point in any Lynyrd Skynyrd song where Billy and Leon don’t know exactly what each other is playing the entire song.”
Like a skeleton key, the discovery of the intricate connection between the bass and piano opened a series of revelations. Studying footage of Leon in action, Johnny realised something else. “In reggae, even though there’s an illusion of swing, the drumming is always dead straight. The same thing is happening in Skynyrd: the drummer plays it straight. The drums certainly swing at times, but even when there’s swinging happening, it’s a standard style of straight rock drumming. What’s happening with the guitars is that they’re lined up and playing straight, but Billy and Leon are always driving towards elliptical patterns.”
At first Johnny could not find a rhythmic approach on bass that reflected that original Skynyrd sound. He could play the songs, but something was missing. He asked the other guys how Leon played his parts, but no one could recall. Finally, after revisiting an archive of old tapes of Leon playing, Johnny figured it out. “It hit me like a light,” he says. “Take ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. What I figured out was that while the band’s playing straight, Leon hits the downbeat but the strings are muted and his pick comes around in a circular motion and he does an upstroke on the muted pick. He’s using a pick and he’s muting the strings, so there’s a back- stroke, like a snare stroke.”
At the very next rehearsal, he mimicked this pattern, and immediately Gary Rossington – the only surviving original member of Skynyrd – turned and ex- claimed, “That’s it – I haven’t heard that shit since Leon died.”
In addition to Leon’s picking technique, Johnny also found that the bass and piano often operated in elliptical countermelodies, which invested the classic Skynyrd catalogue with its unique sound.
“I’ll give you an example,” offers Johnny. “‘Gimme Back My Bullets’. The bass climbs up from E, G to A and then it’s G, E to A. Billy’s playing the opposite notes: when you play E, G, A, he’s playing G, E, A. It’s inverted, and so it’s got that elliptical thing where they’re trading off every other time. It makes the bottom end of the record feel like it’s swaying from left to right. When they’re doing that, it gives it the grease.”
The material rehearsed, and the new guy fully indoctrinated, Skynyrd spent the balance of the summer touring the US, earning a bracing dose of critical acclaim for the new album, and culminating with a triumphant appearance at the Classic Rock awards show in London at the end of 2012.
Johnny Colt, the little kid who, 30 years ago, just wanted to be a working musician, now lives with a sense of profound gratitude. Reflecting on the experience of belonging to one of the bands that inspired him to first pick up a bass, Johnny cannot help but laugh.
“This whole gig is out of control. It’s just stupid how good it is.”