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Gary Rossington: The Simple Man Who Made Lynyrd Skynyrd Endure

So it’s 1987, and me and my buddies, all home from college, pull into a bar somewhere out in the sticks near Aurora, Illinois. It borders an abandoned railroad spur and corn and soybean fields surround the gravel parking lot. A rank of gleaming Harleys resting at a slight tilt sit muffler to fat muffler along the walkway. You’d think this wouldn’t turn out so well — Midwest college boys mingling with the Lords of Anarchy. But all you gotta do when you walk inside is listen to the music.

The jukebox is playing “You Got That Right” by one of those few bands both outlaws and punk kids could bond over: Lynyrd Skynyrd. Next thing you know, we’re shooting pool and chilling with the bikers (albeit with wary hands on our wallets) as another “best of” cut, “Gimme Three Steps” kicks in.

Some bands can do that. They can take completely foreign social groups and unite them behind a sound just too damned hot to resist. Lynyrd Skynyrd was just such a band. With their distinctive Southern blue-collar sound that took rock and roll, the Delta blues, and gospel and Cuisinarted them into a distinct musical offering that still resonates today, they were one of the most enduring acts of the classic rock era.

This week, the last surviving member of the original lineup that emerged out of Jacksonville in the late ’60s passed away. The guitar work of the late Gary Rossington, dead at age 71, has been heard by generations. In fact, who doesn’t instantly recognize his melancholy slide guitar in the classic “Freebird” that came to define the band? But now he joins the rest in what Pink Floyd would call the great gig in the sky. But Skynyrd certainly left their mark while in this world.

Starting in 1969 when they officially became Lynyrd Skynyrd, the hard-drinking, hard-playing band was the vehicle through which front man, co-founder (along with Rossington and drummer Bob Burns), and undisputed leader Ronnie Van Zant could bring his simple good old boy perspective of the hard world he saw to life. But though it was Van Zant’s words and voice that we most associate with the band, it was the driving guitar work that made Skynyrd such a stand-out in a crowded field. With the dueling electric sounds of Rossington, along with such guitar virtuosos as Allen Collins, Ed King, then Steve Gaines, few bands could top them in raw energy and quality of musicianship.

Rossington’s story is a classic rags-to-riches tale. A lower-middle-class Southern boy, he dropped out of high school to concentrate on music full-time. In interviews over the years one saw a portrait of a content man, despite his tumultuous path, who loved his family and friends, fishing, and music, and not much else. As such, it took someone with a forceful personality like the mercurial and driven Van Zant, three years his senior, to be the father figure Rossington never had (his own dad died when he was an infant). Van Zant also pushed the band to reach its potential, with a no-nonsense approach to practicing until they played with one voice, like a heartbeat.    

Lynyrd Skynyrd — named in part as a back-handed homage to their high school P.E. teacher Leonard Skinner — worked hard and paid their dues while accolades came slowly at first. Indeed, a series of record labels declined to sign the band … even though the demos included the iconic “Freebird.” But eventually their appealing sound and working man lyrics caught the attention of Blood Sweat & Tears musician/producer Al Kooper, who in 1972 signed the band to his Sounds Of The South label, with distribution from MCA records. The subsequent five years saw a series of successful albums, acclaimed hits, and packed concerts that put Lynyrd Skynyrd well on its way to superstardom.

Then tragedy struck. On October 20, 1977, while en route to an LSU gig, their chartered plane crashed in the Mississippi swamps. Along with the two pilots, the dead included Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie, and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick. Most of the other passengers were severely injured and took months to recover, including Rossington with steel rods placed in his right arm and leg.

A soul-searching hiatus followed the crash. After his recovery, Rossington worked on other projects, including the Rossington Collins Band, which released two albums before it was disbanded upon the tragic death of Collins’ wife. (A devastated Allen Collins spiraled into alcohol and drug abuse and was paralyzed in a car accident in 1986. He died in 1990.) Lynyrd Skynyrd finally reunited in 1987 with Ronnie’s kid brother Johnny at the mic. It was a daunting challenge to fill his brother’s shoes, but for decades the younger Van Zant, with a similar voice and look, managed to make the role of front man his own. And so, the band lived on.

Skynyrd was not without controversy. Few bands partied as hard and their drunken fistfights, usually courtesy of the rough-and-tumble Ronnie, made headlines. For Ed King, the California outsider who created the famous opening guitar riff in “Sweet Home Alabama,” the drunken brawling and physical and verbal abuse, usually at the hands of the hot-headed Van Zant got to be too much. He left the band in 1975. Steve Gaines replaced him a year later. King would return for their reunion lineup.

Although they eschewed politics, Skynyrd has been seen by many as a proud voice of an otherwise besieged Old South. Indeed, “Sweet Home Alabama” was a direct rebuttal to Neil Young’s song “Southern Man” in which the Canadian attacked the South for its racism and what he saw as religious hypocrisy. (Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her / I heard ol’ Neil put er down / Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.) To underscore this identity, for years the band’s stage backdrop featured an oversized Confederate battle flag. As times changed, however, the band realized that what the flag meant to them, a mere symbol of their Southern roots and heritage, was a sign of hate for many Americans. Rossington would insist that they meant no offense, that for them music — much of which in their case was influenced by black artists they respected — was about uniting people, not driving a wedge in between them. And so in 2012 they did away with their trademark rebel emblem and replaced it with an American Flag. He offered: “We didn’t want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.” Such ability to adapt could offer a hint as to the band’s longevity.

For me, however, the reason I still listen to the boys from Jacksonville, some 50 years after so many of their iconic tracks were laid, comes down to the simple fact that Skynyrd was a damned good band, from the songs to the musicians to the message. There was an honesty to them as one can hear in “Don’t Ask Me No Questions And I Won’t Tell You No Lies.” However … If you wanna talk fishing I guess that’ll be okay. And they stayed tied to their hardscrabble roots which appealed to so many who may have found themselves out at a honky-tonk after a hard day’s work looking to shoot pool, throw darts, watch some sports, and sidle up to the bar to decompress over shots and beer while “Simple Man” plays in the background.

Rossington was one of those simple men who’d have been just as comfortable drinking with his audience as playing in front of them. In his case, however, the drinking and drugs were a struggle over his long career, especially in the years following the plane crash during which pain killers fueled his consumption. In 1976, he was involved in an alcohol and drug related solo car crash. Van Zant and Collins wrote “That Smell” about the incident, referring to the odor of alcohol in the wrecked vehicle. Yet, as if to live out the title of their aptly named album “Street Survivor,” Rossington and Skynyrd endured, albeit in several iterations. They were still touring right up until Rossington’s passing last Sunday.

Some might argue that with only Rossington of the old guard left up on stage, today’s incarnation of Skynyrd seemed to be more of a tribute band than the real deal. Still, one got the sense that so long as their co-founder lived, a tenuous connection to the original magic of the 1973-1977 group at their zenith remained. When asked in 2022 why he still played with the band, his answer was simple: “It feels good still. And the crowds keep showing up an likin’ it. And I like to keep the brand goin’, with Ronnie and Allen and Steve an all those guys who aren’t here anymore, to keep their dream alive.” 

But with his passing the end of a music constant has finally come to pass. Married to the same woman since 1982, and a father of two daughters, Gary Rossington struck me as a decent, affable guy. The man experienced the death of loved ones more than most. But thanks to his gift for making a Les Paul sing, he managed to pull himself away from what could have been a life of quiet desperation in Florida to tour the world and bring music to generations.

And so long as there are ramshackle pubs out on deserted country roads playing host to bikers and college kids alike, all peacefully shooting pool and clicking whiskey bottles under the same roof, Rossington’s contribution to one of the electric guitar era’s most popular and enduring acts, and thus the larger Southern rock genre, endures. 

Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader, musician, and writer whose articles have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, National Review, The Federalist, Zerohedge, Substack and other news outlets. He is the author of the acclaimed World War II novel Of Another Time And Place. Brad’s newest best-selling novel, The Extraordinary, is about a teen-aged boy on the autism spectrum telling us in his own words how he and his family cope with his war veteran father’s PTSD.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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