- - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Johnny Van Zant grew up in a house in Florida that had no air conditioning but plenty of Democrats.

“We didn’t grow up rich people,” said Mr. Van Zant, current lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and an outspoken Republican. “Nothing was easy for us coming up. But we were rich in family.”

Mr. Van Zant’s dad drove a truck, his mom worked at Dunkin’ Donuts — and his oldest brother, Ronnie, co-wrote the classic rock staples “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” All of them were Democrats.

But for the 25 years Mr. Van Zant has held down his brother’s spot out front of Lynyrd Skynyrd, he’s been a Republican. Had Ronnie not died in a plane crash in 1977, Mr. Van Zant thinks, he would be, too.

“I think, right now, he would be a Republican. I know what he stood for,” said Mr. Van Zant, who switched sides when Ronald Reagan took office, in a recent phone call. “I think, hey, everybody has a right to change their mind.”

Kid Rock (left) and Johnny Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd perform last ... more >

Mitt Romney and the GOP hope Johnny Van Zant and his brother’s famous songs can help change a few voters’ minds, too. The band — down to one surviving member from the classic Skynyrd lineup, guitarist Gary Rossington — is performing Sunday in Tampa at a fundraiser for the veterans group Citizens Helping Heroes as part of the festivities surrounding the Republican National Convention.

Mr. Van Zant said the party hasn’t asked the band to play anything in particular, other than “Sweet Home Alabama.” But it wouldn’t be a Lynyrd Skynyrd show without a run through “Free Bird,” which Mr. Van Zant promises he won’t turn into a political statement to slide alongside Kid Rock’s “Born Free,” the Romney campaign’s theme song. Of course, if that’s how you choose to interpret it …

“Our country’s [symbol is] a bird,” Mr. Van Zant said, “so it goes hand in hand.”

The band also is sure to pull from its new record, “Last of a Dyin’ Breed,” which was released on Tuesday. The album is full of material germane to the Romney message, particularly “Nothing Comes Easy,” in which Mr. Van Zant sings about paychecks getting smaller and prices going up.

“I think we could take a poll of our audience,” Mr. Van Zant said, “I think they would agree with that. When we write songs, man, we try to write to the common people.”

Those are exactly the voters Mr. Romney’s trying to bring into the fold. And few bands are more closely identified with the working-class South than Skynyrd. After all, this is the band whose anthemic “Sweet Home Alabama,” a top-10 hit in the mid-‘70s, rebuked Neil Young for his indictment of its native region in “Southern Man.”

Skynyrd’s endorsement of Mr. Romney aligns him with the band that best personifies pugnacious Southern pride — and made the Confederate flag its logo.

“For us,” Mr. Van Zant said, “the flag means ‘Hey, that’s where we’re from, and that’s what they used to use back then.’ My version of it is, ‘Hey, we eat grits, we say y’all.’”

And they do so, it’s probably fair to say, with rather more authenticity than Mr. Romney conveyed last spring as he campaigned through the South.