Throughout its glorious history, country music has spoken to, and to a large degree for, a certain group of people. Not some Hollywood-manufactured ideal of a blue collar everyman, but complex, hard-working, plain-spoken, working people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. People concerned about their families, at peace with their God and in love with their country. That’s “country” as in America and “country” as in music.

The best country artists have a direct conduit from song to heart: Hank Williams’ crushing loneliness, Merle Haggard’s poetry for the common man, Johnny Cash’s steely sense of justice. Van Zant tapped the edgy side of this approach with their Gold-certified 2005 CD Get Right with the Man, and with their new release, My Kind of Country, on Columbia Nashville, Johnny and Donnie Van Zant fully express exactly what their kind of country is. And it’s something very special.

If Get Right with the Man was a coming out party for Van Zant, My Kind of Country is a full-blown coronation. These pedigreed brothers from Southern rock’s first family took a break late last year from their respective hard-touring bands (Lynyrd Skynyrd for Johnny, 38 Special for Donnie) to lay down a new batch of songs that takes the promise of GRWTM and delivers a true classic—totally contemporary, but with Van Zant style and timeless subject matter.

Johnny says both he and his brother were “tickled pink” when their first country album went gold, but they definitely were not content to stop there.

“When we did Get Right with the Man, we didn’t know how people would accept it, us coming from rock backgrounds and now doing a country record,” observes Donnie. “But it was cool. Radio accepted us with open arms, and we put the record out and it did real well for us, so it was a dream come true for both of us.”

The duo’s first-ever country single, “Help Somebody,” reached number seven on the charts, and the follow-up, “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Tell Me What to Do,” cracked the Top 15. It’s now safe to say country has embraced Van Zant, and with My Kind of Country the brothers show they’re here to stay.

We would say the pressure was off on Van Zant, but these guys never felt pressure. “Maybe me and Donnie are just too relaxed in whatever the hell we do, and I think that showed on the last record,” says Johnny. “We just go into it trying to have as much fun making the record as we can. For me personally, when a record becomes very hard to make and everybody is sweatin’ to come up with this or that, that’s when the records get to be hard. This record just came naturally, just like the last one.”

They may be relaxed, but these brothers are nonetheless determined. “A Gold record for me is successful on anybody’s terms, and when a record is successful, I think you’re always trying to top it and make it better,” says Donnie. “Our focus is to try and make it better in our hearts and soul. And I actually think song for song that this is a better CD than Get Right with the Man. I don’t know if everybody will agree with me on that, but I believe it.”

Donnie’s point is hard to argue. The songs on Country are musically diverse and explore a wide range of themes, but a central core remains: fierce independence and a heart as big as all outdoors. On “These Colors Don’t Run,” they proudly proclaim their patriotism and support for the troops without being confrontational in these divisive times. They kick up their heels in the 38-style on “If It Goes Down Easy” and realistically confront any parent’s biggest fears in the honest-to-the-bone ballad, “That Scares Me.”

No rookies by any stretch, the Van Zants have lived, lost and loved enough to have a damn opinion, whether it’s on tough choices in the soaring “The Hardest Thing,” what’s truly important in life with “It’s Only Money,” the treasure of friendship in the gorgeous ballad “Friend,” the joy and comfort of home in a haunting “Headed South,” or the importance of, well, getting right with the Man in the driving “We Can’t Do It All Alone.” These guys are fearless in the studio, mustering all the swagger and soul they’ve showcased on stage for decades and channeling it in a very personal and persuasive way.

Van Zant sing about real problems and concerns that keep real people up at night and bring them comfort in the daytime. The brothers co-wrote more than half the cuts and enlisted some of Music Row’s most expressive writers on others. The result is more than impressive, and the subject matter is universal.

“God and family are really important to the Van Zant brothers, so you’re always going to get that from us,” says Donnie. “But we were just looking for songs that touch us first. And if it touches us, maybe we can touch you with it, either by the way we perform it or the way we write it. We just look for songs that are true to life and no BS.
If it ain’t real, we won’t do it.”

Patriotism is a big part of that realism. “Right now, with the state that we’re in as far as the country—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran bein’ a bug in our ear—we’ve got to really stand behind our troops as far as being true Americans and a believer in this country,” says Donnie. “As far as writing-wise, the song ‘These Colors Don’t Run,’ and ‘My Kind of Country’ talk about what we think this country is all about.”

Oh yeah, that rambunctious, downright exhilarating title cut. If you call it redneck, you’d be vastly underestimating what is, at its heart, a love song hidden under a righteous thump and a stone-deep attitude. The people this song is for and about will recognize it immediately.

Throughout, this record teems with authenticity. “I guess some artists can sing about what’s not real to them or what they don’t experience,” muses Johnny. “But us, we have to go back to what we’ve experienced in our lives and sing about that.”

As expected, the musicianship is superb, and producers Mark Wright and Justin Niebank conjure a sound that alternates from mellow back porch to packed arena vibe. The brothers trade vocals effortlessly, harmonizing more than ever, and neither has ever sounded better vocally. Check out Johnny’s vulnerability on “Friend” and personable honesty on “That Scares Me,” or Donnie’s road-weary take on the haunting “Headed South.”

“I’ve been trying to tell them I can sing; I can do more than just yell,” Donnie says with an easy laugh. When it comes to vocals, “neither one of us really knows who’s gonna do what. You just have to be honest with yourself that whoever does the best job and can pull it off best and make it sound believable needs to be the one doing the song.”

Despite the demands of their respective bands, Van Zant managed 60 shows as a duo last year, much of it with Gretchen Wilson on the Redneck Revolution tour, and they plan on doing more dates this year. “It’s a ball doing shows together, watching Johnny trying to remember all these lyrics,” says Donnie. “We actually have enough songs with two country CDs to do a full-blown set!” adds Johnny. “We can play two hours now!”

So what exactly is Van Zant’s kind of country? “That’s a hard one to answer, but really our kind of country is about being who you are, being true to yourself, singing songs about what you know,” says Johnny. “Either what you know or what you’ve seen other people go through. And that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

Certainly the Van Zant brothers have etched their place in music history already. “We do this because we love it, and that makes a big difference,” says Donnie. “We’ve both done OK with our bands, but doing this together as Van Zant, we just have a ball with it, brother.
I mean if we can’t have fun doing this, we oughta retire.”

Fun for us, fun for them.
We guess that’s just the country coming out in Van Zant.