GARY ROSSINGTON - THE HEART OF LYNYRD SKYNYRD
by Michael Buffalo Smith
When I called Glasgow, Scotland bright and early at around 7 a.m., wiping sleep from my eyes, it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon there. The lady who answered the phone had the sweetest Scottish accent as she connected me with Gary and Dale’s room.
Actually, a few minutes earlier, I had been connected to the wrong room, and may have actually been cursed out by Eminem, who was sharing the floor with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Of course, that’s probably not the case, it was likely just one of his homies. But still, I like to picture him getting bent out of shape when I asked for Gary Rossington. It’s fun things like that that make my job worth it all.
Speaking of making it worth it all, when you encounter a couple of people like Gary Rossington and Dale Krantz Rossington, with all their fame and all that goes with it, your first thoughts are “ are they going to be nice?” Let’s just go ahead and get that straight right now. Gary and Dale are not only nice people, they seem to have a spirituality and an honesty that helped to make this one of my most fun interviews ever.
Gary Rossington may be on a whirlwind world tour now, but a few months ago, he lay in a hospital undergoing a quadruple heart bypass. Recovery hasn’t been easy, but it is quite obvious that Gary is thankful for his life. After all, there was that airplane crash in 1977, and there have been other close calls as well.
Lynyrd Skynyrd this year celebrates their 30th anniversary. We spoke by phone with Gary and Dale about the band, the legacy that is “bigger than any one band member,” past glories with Skynyrd, Rossington-Collins, The Rossington Band, and much more. So sit back, pour up a glass of iced tea (and thank the Lord for those ice cubes), and enjoy a distinctly Southern interview with a good ol’ boy from Jacksonville, Florida - Gary Rossington.
Gary: Where are you at, Michael?
I’m in Greenville, South Carolina.
Yeah. Wow. I wish I was there. I’m over here in Glasgow, Scotland. It sure isn’t America. I love America. We’ve been coming here since the seventies. The first time we came it was cool to be in England and all that because we were big Beatles fans, and all those European groups, just like everybody our age at that time. When Beatlemania hit, England was cool, and to come over was great. But once you’ve done it, you know, you’ve done it. And America is so much better. You learn to appreciate things, even little things like ice. They don’t put ice in their drinks here. And they don’t have butter. They don’t use condiments very much. You have to ask for every little thing. It’s funny. We’re all Southerners, and when we get tea, the glass is full of ice with some tea in it. Over here you ask for ice and they’ll put one or two cubes in it. It’s crazy. Still, it’s a great place. We love it here. It’s just different, you know?
All the reviews and fan comments on the web regarding Vicious Cycle call it one of Skynyrd’s best records in years. What do you feel makes this one so special?
I think on this particular album we just tried real hard. We took three years to do it. Not intentionally, but, we were touring and doing projects. We were always writing and working on it. As a matter of fact, Leon (Wilkeson) is on it. He had started the record with us, and after he passed away we decided we needed to use at least a couple of songs with Leon on ‘em. Because it was him, and there’s a million reasons. We just redid “The Way” and “Lucky Man” and kept his bass parts and played to them. The writing was different. We wrote with a few different people to get a fresh feeling and have a little bit of a newness. We tried to make the songs more- I can’t say “like Skynyrd,” because we are Skynyrd- but just more our style. We tried real hard, and I think it shows.
“Red, White and Blue” is getting played on radio a lot. How does that make you feel?
Oh, it’s a great feeling. We haven’t had a song on the charts in a long, long time. (Laughs) “Sweet Home Alabama” and all of those get played a lot on the classic rock stations, but we haven’t had a new song played in a while. And the song, to me, is just about us and our fans. It’s all about what’s happening. It’s been 30 years since our first album, and we’re all getting more grey or white hair, we’re all working, and most of our fans down South have a little bit of a red neck, whether they admit it or not. (Laughs) And a lot of them will admit it right out too! But we just wanted to say we’re proud to be Americans. After 9/11 everybody started writing about it, but the song is really about us and our fans, you know.
You had Kid Rock on the album on a very different version of “Gimmie Back My Bullets.” How did that happen?
We just ended up just being friends with him. Through the years, when we played with ZZ Top and some other bands, he’d come out. And we’d go to some of his shows when we were close enough. He ain’t as crazy as everybody thinks. He puts on a little front there. And sitting in a hotel room with a guitar, we just sat around and played a bunch of old Merle Haggard tunes, and Hank, Jr., and Hank Williams, we played a lot of country tunes. We talked about old style music and what it’s all come around to, including rap. What he’s doing. But he does it all. He does rap, rock, blah, blah. He just puts it all together in one song. he’s a good guy. On that particular song, Ricky Medlocke just thought of a song that we could do that would have a little bit of a rap feel and a new kind of energy. Ricky put it together and sent it up to Kid Rock who has a studio at his house in Detroit. He just sang it a few times and sent it back to us to mix it. So it’s Johnny singing and Kid Rock. And at the very end, some of the ad libs are Ronnie. So it’s Ronnie, Johnny and Kid Rock on it. It’s pretty cool, you know.
I have read on the internet a few people complaining about Kid being allowed to redo a classic like “Bullets,” and I have said more than once, I may be wrong but I feel like if Ronnie were alive, he’d like Kid Rock.
Yeah, I know he would, because I knew Ronnie so well. Ronnie loved country music and Merle Haggard and stuff like that, and so does Kid Rock- he loves every kind of music. They would have gotten along and been friends, ‘cause they are both just down to earth guys when it comes right down to it. Besides, Ronnie was a songwriter. He’d like for his songs to be heard. And the biggest compliment you can give a songwriter is to play his song, you know? I’m sure he’s be pleased with it.
Everyone was very concerned when we heard about the recent heart problems and your surgery. How are you feeling now?
I appreciate that. I feel pretty good, but I’m a little weak. I don’t have as much stamina as I did have. I kind of wear out easy. I’m sure in a few months I’ll be healed up and be fine. But right now I feel good, and the shows are going good, and the traveling is not too bad or hard like I thought it would be. Everything’s working out real great. I had some great doctors there in Atlanta, great nurses. And I went to cardio rehab after the operation and they get you back in shape. It’s pretty neat. I went there for a month. They say it usually takes six months to a year to get over open heart surgery, but I feel real good, and I just thank the Lord every day for letting me live some more on this great planet, living and seeing things going on around me. It’s great. I’ve got a little pond out in my back yard, and every time I catch a little fish, or see my daughters, or have a good meal, or watch the sun set out there on the lake, I just thank God for it. Every little thing you just appreciate, you know?
Since you are in the middle of a European tour, I wanted to ask how you find the audiences over there, and are there any favorite places you like to visit while there?
We come here every few years. I love Japan myself, but I love Scotland and Ireland. We were in Ireland yesterday. One of Dale’s parents is from there, so she was real excited seeing her home land and all. It’s really pretty over here. It’s great.
We’re touring with Deep Purple, and they’re real big. they have a big following here.
Is Steve Morse still with them?
Steve is. He’s great. We see him every day. He’s not from here, of course. He’s an ol’ Southern boy. It’s good to have an American around us with them guys too. But it’s going well, the shows are pretty much sold out, and you can already see the fans singing the words to the new songs. And nobody’s walkin’ out or leavin’ when we start up on a new song, which is good. (Laughs) It’s like American audiences, they just come to rock and roll. We played Germany at the beginning of the tour, and they can’t understand you. Johnny would be standing there saying all his little things he says between songs, and they don’t understand a word. It’s funny. He’ll realize that after about thirty seconds of talking, and he’ll just say, “oh the hell with it, you can’t understand me anyway.” But if he says the name of the song, they’ll cheer.
After thirty years, what would you say have been some of the high points in your career thus far?
To me, it was me and Allen and Ronnie had this dream to make it big, and we were gonna try to make it until we died. That dream came true for us. I remember us three talking about it on the way back from England the first time, “We did it,” you know? That and playing with The Rolling Stones, and meeting Paul McCartney and John Lennon out in L.A. The people that you get to meet in this business that you never dreamed you’d meet. I met Jack Nicholson over in England at Knebworth, and we sat there in the dressing room and talked. Met a lot of big movie stars. A lot of people come to rock shows you wouldn’t think would. Some of my favorite people are the athletes. Ryan Klesko and John Rocker and Randy Johnson- a lot of football and baseball players- Doug Flutey. They always have free passes because they play at all the big stadiums, and they’re big shots in their towns. (Laughs) It’s fun to meet them, because I’m a big football and baseball fan. I watch every game of football, and I’m a big Braves fan. I like to watch the teams that I know somebody on. Those have been my highlights, and also doing some charities where people thanked you, or you knew it really helped some people out. A lot of people come up and say how much a song meant when they played it at their brother’s funeral or some people just got married and they played “Free Bird” or something, and they get excited telling you about what the song means to them. Things like that.
“Freebird” must be one of the most played songs in history. But a song like that just seems to always hold up.
I love playing it. It’s kind of like an anthem these days. Everybody knows it and wants to hear it, but my feeling is everybody has a certain time in their life when they heard that song a lot. Something was going on that they remember, and they relate to it. People have said, “Man, we used to dance to “Free Bird” in high school. That’s how I met my wife.” Everybody’s got stories, there’s good and bad stories about it. Not just “Freebird” but certain other songs. And that’s a great feeling to know a song touched somebody that way, that you wrote or helped write. Telling some kid to just be a “simple man,” or telling him to just do the right things, and it’s a great life, you know?
Everybody knows that Lynyrd Skynyrd has had quite a few deaths in the family, and I just want to get you to tell us the first thing that pops into your mind when I mention each of these individuals. Starting with Ronnie Van Zant.
First of all, he was like my best friend. We went bass fishing all the time together, and camping and doing things outside. We were teenagers doing things like that. I don’t remember any of the bad things or any of the bullshit things or the business stuff. And I remember playing live onstage with him. It was always great. He was a great guy and great fun to be with, and I miss him a lot.
How about Allen Collins?
Allen was crazy. You know how you have certain people in your life that you consider your best friend, well he was one too. We were like the three musketeers at one time. And then we were the two musketeers. (Laughs) And now, I guess, the one. But he was crazy. I don’t mean “crazy” crazy, but crazy for life. He loved life and loved doing anything he wanted to do, and would do it in a big flamboyant way. If he wanted to buy a car, he’d get the biggest and best, the most flashy and coolest car. He’d get the best. He was just a flashy kind of guy. When he played the guitar he was exciting and flashy. He just has a lot of rambunction in him. I loved and miss him a lot too. Both of them were great guys.
How about the brother and sister, Steve and Cassie Gaines?
They weren’t around as long as the other guys because we had just met them a few years before, so I don’t have as many stories. I just know they were great people, and they had a lot of stories themselves. Cassie Gaines was in the original cast of the musical Hair, which was the biggest play happening at the time. That was a big thing for her to have done. She was just so nice. She was like a big sister. She was a few years older than us, and kind of took care of us and helped us through little dumb things and little brotherly things. She’d sew a button on your coat or your shirt. She was just a great girl. And Steve, at that particular time- in bands, you buddy up with certain people at certain times for a while, and then you buddy up with another guy, and then another guy. At that time, I was buddying up with Steve a lot. He was a great, kind guy. Very natural, into nature. I loved and miss him a lot too.
And most recently we lost Leon Wilkeson.
Yeah, Leon. He was just such a nice guy. So down to earth. Leon was just Leon. He did so many funny things. We used to call him “Leon Spillkerson,” because he always spilled his coffee. or his Coke or drink. He was always doing so many things at one time, it caused him to spill things. And every time he came in or out of a room something would get knocked over. He was so funny. Out on the road, one of us would hear something fall or something and we’d say “there’s Leon!” (Laughs) He used to always press the alarm or bell buttons on the elevator- they’re emergency alarms really, you’re not supposed to touch them- but every elevator he’d ever get into, he’d push those buttons. So you could always tell Leon was coming by the bells ringing. Now, sometimes elevators would stop when you did that. He’d do that and we’d get mad at him. But he was just a great guy. He was amazing. I really miss him a lot. His loss is still fresh in our hearts, you know.
Definitely. I want to talk about guitars for a minute. Who influenced you most as a guitarist?
We were kind of British influenced, you know, by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Yardbirds, The Animals- all that kind of scene came out, and that’s what really got us. Then when I started really playing and trying to learn, it was Duane Allman. Duane and Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton- all the great blues cats. And Muddy Waters and B.B. King we started listening to a lot. We put all those together and kind of came up with our style. Allen and I would listen to those records and figure out leads and jam to them, get ‘em in our head. All those guys were just so great. Of course all the old British invasion bands. Every one of those bands were our influences.
What are your favorite guitars? I know you play an SG.
Yeah, I play a Gibson SG. I always play it on “Freebird.” I always played the slide part on that and still do today. Basically, I play a Gibson Les Paul. And recently they gave me a special edition signature model. They make it like mine, an old ‘59 reissue. They redid that, and they sell those. They did that for Duane too, and a lot of other folks as well. They put out this one with my name on it, and it’s a great honor, very humbling. I just love Gibson Les Pauls. That’s what I love and what I play. Now, the one I was playing most, with all the hardware on it weighed close to thirty pounds. Since this operation and trying to get back into shape and get my muscle strength back, they built me two guitars and they both weigh five pounds! They’re Les Pauls, and they sound just like my old ‘59, but they only weigh five pounds. It’s amazing, because I can’t sit there and hold up a thirty pound guitar for two hours each night in my condition right now. It’s like holding an acoustic guitar, they’re so light. You can just pick ‘em up and sling ‘em anywhere.
So many of us are big fans of both The Rossington Collins Band and The Rossington band, one question I just have to ask is, do you have any plans to let Dale do some lead vocals sometime?
Well, our record company, Sanctuary, has asked Dale and I to do a blues album. She’s still got her pipes. She’s a wailing, screaming...girl. We call her something else, but I’m not gonna say that. (Laughs) She’s a great singer, and everybody keeps asking us to do one, so I think after we finish this big long tour, we’re gonna take a few weeks and just me and her go in and do some blues tunes we’ve been writing, and some laid back pretty stuff- not Skynyrd stuff, of course- and some more Rossington Collins type tunes. So yes, there will be a time, and it’s coming soon. It won’t replace Skynyrd, because Skynyrd is bigger than any of us, but it will be something we do in addition to Skynyrd. I love to hear her sing, and it’ll be fun to do something other than Skynyrd. And blues guitar is my favorite to listen to anyway. I’ll break out all my styles and models and take ‘em into the studio and do ‘em all. And I can’t wait to hear her sing.
What are your immediate future plans with Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Well, actually we’re just doin’ what we do. We’re doing this tour that lasts until Thanksgiving, and that’s pretty much the whole year. And everybody’s got family, so we usually take the holidays off to spend with our families. We’re gone most of the rest of the year, so...So we’re doing that, playing and paying tribute to the guys who are no longer with us. And every night when we play we still feel them onstage. The audience feels it too, you can see it in their faces. I can feel Ronnie and Allen and Leon right there with me, and it’s a heavy thing, a spiritual thing that happens every night. I love it. We’re gonna keep doing that, pushing this Vicious Cycle record and showing them that we do new stuff too. We’re very, very proud of the old stuff and we’ll never stop doing it, but we’re proud of the new stuff too. We’re growing, and we still love to write songs. That and the blues album we talked about. We have two kids and we’re gonna be grandparents, so that’s really a biggie. (Laughs)
You’re going to be a Grandparent? That’s great.
Yeah, Grandma and Grandpa Rossington. That’s on our minds too, so we’ve got a big year coming up.