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Lynyrd Skynyrd's Soul Survivor: Gary Rossington Looks Back

The lone founding member of the influential Southern rock band takes stock

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

Gary Rossington ©Retna Ltd.
Gary Rossington (©Retna Ltd.)

In 1964, so the story goes, Gary Rossington and Bob Burns were watching a Little League baseball game in their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., when Burns was hit in the head by a foul ball off the bat of a kid named Ronnie Van Zant. After Van Zant ran out to make sure that the unconscious Burns was OK, the three kids became fast friends and discovered that they shared an interest in music. Soon enough, they formed a band -- known first as the Noble Five, then as My Backyard and finally, as a backhanded tribute to their gym teacher Leonard Skinner (the nemesis of all longhaired students at Robert E. Lee High School), they became Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Almost 50 years and 30 million album sales later, guitarist Rossington is the final connection to the legendary band's founding lineup. In 1977, singer Van Zant, along with two other band members and their road manager, was killed when the band's rented plane crashed into a swamp in Gillsburg, Miss. Original guitarist Allen Collins and bassist Leon Wilkeson, as well as most of the other musicians who came on board during the group's early years, have passed on. (Drummer Burns is still with us, but he hung up his sticks in 1974.)

Yet this week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers are releasing their 13th studio album, aptly titled "Last of a Dyin' Breed." It's the first new Lynyrd Skynyrd album since 2009's "God & Guns," which entered the Billboard charts in the Top 20, their highest debut since 1977. Skynyrd's roster today includes Rossington; two long-term members (singer Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's younger brother, and guitarist Rickey Medlocke); and some more recent additions, including new bassist Johnny Colt, formerly of the Black Crowes.

Speaking from his home in Atlanta, prior to the launch of yet another tour -- "I'm just chilling a little" -- 60-year-old Rossington says that he considers the later editions of Skynyrd to be "a tribute to the music and the cause, the memories and the name" of the Southern Rock pioneers. As the last link to the original spark that resulted in such anthems as "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama," though, he sees that interest in the band has only expanded over the decades.

Listening Booth: Hear the new album, 'Last of a Dyin' Breed'

"In the old days, it was all younger people," says Rossington, who is being inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame as a songwriter in October. "Now it's two or three generations out there every night -- families, babies, teenagers, older adults like us. It's great to see such a mixture of people, and as long as they want to hear the songs and the stories, we'll try to keep passing it on."

MSN Music: Do you feel an extra responsibility as the one founding member of the band still up there onstage?

Gary Rossington: I think Johnny, me, and Rickey read the audience; we know when it feels right. There are certain songs that we might like that don't go over as well sometimes. You never really know, so we change it up here and there, play a variety of the older stuff because there's so much in the catalogue, and add a new one when we have new music to play.

It's all about the music, and you just want it to always sound good and try to please the people. We want to keep the integrity of the band's name -- most people know that this is not the original band, but that we're keeping the dream alive a little longer.

There's so much mythology around the early days of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the famous "Hell House" where you practiced and the early struggles. What do you first think of when you look back to those days starting out?

I have great memories, it was a great time. We were all kids, and we just fell in love with music through the Beatles and the Stones, and we had a dream about making something good. Me and Ronnie and Allen were like the Three Musketeers: We had a dream and a cause.

The early days, when you really think about them, they were kind of hard. We had no money, just a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But you mostly just remember the good memories, you sort through the best memories to keep.

More: See behind-the-scenes video of Lynrd Skynyrd in the studio

What principles do you think were established back then that you still try to maintain today?

I guess to always try to be a hardworking band, to always show up on time, to give 110 percent onstage or in the studio. And also, to maintain the high standards we've had with the music. It's all about the songs -- that's stronger than anything, bigger than any of us.

What are you most proud of about Skynyrd's accomplishments?

I'm proud of a lot of things, but the best I see, now that I'm older, is playing for people and looking at the faces, and in "Free Bird" or "Simple Man" or "Tuesday's Gone" -- the emotional songs -- to see people singing and crying, and see that the music can make emotions come through so strongly in people. I think Ronnie and Allen and the guys would love to know that the music still does that to people.

What do you think is most misunderstood about the band or its history?

I don't know about that. I think our die-hard fans have their own stories about the songs and about hearing them in their lives, and they have great stories, so there's more positive than dark things

When we first went out on the tribute tour, there were some different feelings and emotions, when certain members didn't work out and we had to make some changes. But that's all long past and now there's no hard feelings as far as I know. Really, most stuff is good, except for some of the bigger stuff going on in the world.

This October will mark 35 years since the plane crash. Do you think about numbers or landmarks like that?

It's hard to believe it's been that long. It was a tragic, terrible day. It's hard to ever get over it. I think about it, talk about it most every day, it feels like yesterday in certain ways. It's hard to go on and keep living, but if you want to keep going, you have to just do it.

There's a lot of pain and feeling, and with every year that passes, it's just a bad memory. I'm just glad to still be here, playing the music for people who want to keep hearing it. You're only on this earth for a few minutes in the grand scheme of things, so I want to keep spreading the music while we can.

Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN, and was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tracks. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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Aug 28, 2012 6:20AM
Setting in 10th grade English Class just waiting on the bell to ring. wearinging a short sleeve western shirt untucked and half buttuned up, apair of Levis bell bottoms and cowboyboots, my hair was curly and past my ears , stuck out as much as it as it hung down. I was sad for pepole I never new, but said a silient prayer
Aug 26, 2012 8:56PM

this may sound stupid, but i remember as a kid (pre-teen) going to see GREASE in the theatres and before the movie started they would play a short tribute to the time i had know idea who they were or what happened..this was in theatres in maryland...i think i went to see GREASE something like seven times and everytime before the movie would start they would show this short tribute to the band....since then i have always had a fondness for skynyrd and a lot of other southern rock...."tuesdays gone" one of my favs.

Aug 26, 2012 7:01PM

I can remember it as if it was was the late 70s, cruising Jefferson Street in Napa, California in my Z28, friends in the back seat, all of us talking at once, windows down, the radio blaring a favorite song, checking out the hot girls and not knowing what a mortgage was, and couldn't have cared less..  5 bucks would give me a half tank of gas, a dinner at McDonalds, and still leave me with money left over.  It was a good time,  Fast forward into the 80s, I was in the military, still checking out hot girls, having to spend a few more bucks for gas, but that's ok.  Now, go forward even faster, where today, as a father and a husband, I know damn well what a mortgage is, and I'm hoping I have enough money for gas.


But when I hear bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, I'm taken back to those simple times, and that is what makes bands like these so great.  And for a few moments, I'm back with my old friends, drving in that black and gold Z28, and checking out those hot girls.  We love ya, Skynyrd, thanks for the music.

Aug 26, 2012 4:22PM
As much as I respect Gary Rossington, the author of the article left out that there ARE other surviving members...namely Ed King, Bob Burns and Artimus Pyle.  Ed was there in the beginning as well as Bob fact, that's Ed you hear playing the opening licks of Sweet Home Alabama...just sayin'
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