THE 1977 PLANE crash that killed Lynyrd Skynyrd leader Ronnie Van Zant and two band-mates has shadowed his two surviving brothers for most of their lives. Johnny Van Zant, who was 16 at the time of his brother's death, later joined with four of Skynyrd's surviving members and has been performing new songs and old hits like "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama" for the past 10 years. Last year, on the group's 17th album, Twenty, he and his late brother sang together for the first time—thanks to modern technology—trading verses on "Travelin' Man," a composition that Ronnie had recorded shortly before he died.
As the youngest of the family's six children, Johnny had known his senior sibling the shortest time, "so I kind of felt cheated," he says. Working with his old tapes and matching voices with him on the new cut "made me feel I got to know him better."
As with Johnny, "there is not one day that goes by that I don't think of him," Donnie Van Zant, 45, says of his late brother. The cofounder of .38 Special says that he was about to quit music for a job as a train switchman 24 years ago when Ronnie convinced him to hang on. Now he and Johnny have teamed up for the first time to record a CD of their own, Brother to Brother, which hit stores last week. If Ronnie's spirit were present when the pair holed up in a Tennessee hotel suite last summer to write their songs, neither of the surviving siblings is saying. "This album," says Johnny quietly, "is more for us."