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Southern appeal: Lynyrd Skynyrd sells out Shooting Star Casino

"The revamped Lynyrd Skynyrd takes the stage at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minn., Friday night." Courtesy photo

FARGO - It is 1,660 miles southeast to Jacksonville, Fla., but the Sun State's favorite sons, Lynyrd Skynyrd, have a spot in the hearts of folks on the northern Plains.

The Southern rock group was named Greatest American Rock Band by Forum readers in a poll earlier this year.

"That's a great honor. It's a great honor anyone holds you in that regard," says guitarist Rickey Medlocke. "That's a pretty heavy thing."

Skynyrd brings its rebellious rock north to play Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minn., on Friday night. The concert is already sold out, showing just how popular the group is away from its home.

Medlocke says Skynyrd's appeal has always stretched beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.

"This has been an ongoing thing for many years," Medlocke says of the "Southern rock" label. "It seems if you were from down there, you got labeled a 'Southern rock' group. I don't mind the band carrying that label. We've always thought of ourselves as a good blues rock group that happened to come from Jacksonville, Fla."

"I don't know if it's a Southern thing versus a Northern thing, it's just good rock 'n' roll," says Chad "Moose" Johnson, programming director at The Fox, 107.9 FM, explaining why a band so wrapped up in its Southern roots (and wrapping itself in the Confederate flag onstage) appeals to those up north.

He says the fact that Skynyrd's music is also influenced by country helps grow the group's fan base. Skynyrd played the country music festival WE Fest last August.

"I think it's just working-class music. Everyone can relate to 'Freebird,' " says Fox DJ Robbie Daniels.

Daniels and Johnson say "Freebird," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Gimme Three Steps" and "Simple Man" are in regular rotation at the station.

All of these songs were released by Skynyrd in their second album, 1974's "Second Helping." Three years later, three members of the group, singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his older sister, singer Cassie Gaines, would be killed in a plane crash. The band broke up but would re-form a decade later.

The crash and the band's influence inspired "Southern Rock Opera," a double-disc by the Alabama and Georgia-based rock group Drive-By Truckers in 2001.

"The band is always asked about the plane crash. We try to steer away from talking about it," Medlocke says, adding that he's only heard a couple of songs off "Southern Rock Opera." "It's one of those things we try not to think about on a day-to-day basis."

Medlocke started as a drummer in the group in 1970 but left to start his own band, Blackfoot. He re-joined Skynyrd in the mid-'90s at the request of guitarist Gary Rossington, the only remaining original member. Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's younger brother, took over vocals. Former Black Crowes bassist Johnny Colt recently joined the group.

Skynyrd will release its 13th studio album, "Last of a Dying Breed," in August.

Keith Johs, guitarist for the S.O.L. Band, which plays the Holiday Inn this weekend, says Skynyrd's appeal is in the quality of its songs.

"A good song is cool, but a great song lasts forever, and they have several 'great' songs ... they each tell a story," says the Fargo guitarist, adding that he always gets asked to play "Sweet Home Alabama."

"Is Skynyrd as deep as (Bob) Dylan or (Tom) Petty? No, not always," Johs says. "Their songs generally have a little swagger, some tongue-in-cheek or hidden meaning. It makes them fun and a bit dangerous at the same time."

Medlocke says whether Skynyrd is playing in the South or the North or overseas, he knows the crowd is able to let loose a little and just enjoy the music.

"Maybe if people around the world did that a little more often we'd be in a little better shape than we are in," he says.