Gary Rossington Discusses 'One More for the Fans!' and His Life and Times with Lynyrd Skynyrd - Guitar World

Gary Rossington Discusses 'One More for the Fans!' and His Life and Times with Lynyrd Skynyrd

Author:
Publish date:
Gary Rossington the last original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd_1.jpg

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More from the Road is among the greatest live rock concert albums—in the pantheon alongside the Who’s Live At Leeds, the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same.

It captures the band of misfits from Jacksonville, Florida, at their absolute instrumental peak, featuring the scalding three-guitar lineup of Skynyrd co-founders Gary Rossington and Allen Collins and then-newcomer Steve Gaines.

The 1976 double-LP also introduced the definitive 13:30 version of “Free Bird,” which became a Top 40 hit, a staple of FM radio and one of the most enduring rock songs—and punch lines—of the late 20th century.

“Free Bird” was Skynyrd’s “Whipping Post,” the 22-minute song recorded live in 1971 at New York City’s legendary Fillmore East by a band they idolized, the Allman Brothers.

It was also, along with the follow-up studio album Street Survivors in 1977, the last great hurrah for Southern rock, a style that apparently none of its trailblazers ever intended to invent.

“We just wanted to be a rock band,” says Rossington today, via phone from his mansion in Georgia. “Sure, we were from the South and we grew up on blues and country, but we really loved the blues and rock that was coming from England, and that’s what we wanted to play.” Like the Allman Brothers’ Dickey Betts, who thought of his band with Duane and Gregg Allman as progressive rock, Rossington made peace with the brand over time.

Today, Rossington, who’s 63, says he’s also made peace with his demons. The original Lynyrd Skynyrd were a hard-partying bunch, inclined to an excessive amount of excess—booze, drugs, groupies and fights that sometimes sent its members to the hospital, all chronicled in Mark Ribowsky’s new book Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The first half of that title is pulled from the opening lines of “That Smell,” a song original Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant wrote for Street Survivors after Rossington smashed his new Ford Torino into an oak tree and a house while on a bender.

“I did get in a car wreck, but we got a good song out of it,” says Rossington. “I still remember the day we cut that in the studio. My guitar sound was hot…with the feedback.

“Eventually I learned that drugs are just horrible for you,” he continues, “but that’s the way it was in rock and roll in our time. I can’t do any of that stuff now. I’m not in such great health. I’ve had some heart problems and I’m on the straight and narrow. It’s a lot better than being fucked up all the time, and I thank God I made it through those days.”

Rossington is the sole survivor of the original incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd, which lasted for 11 years. The group’s decade-long hiatus began with a nightmarish post-concert plane crash on October 20, 1977, near Gillsburg, Mississippi, that killed Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray just three days after the release of Street Survivors.

The accident understandably hangs over Rossington’s conversations about the band like a ghost. He rarely mentions it directly, preferring to complete relevant sentences with terms like, “until, well, you know…” or simply pausing to skip a beat.

He understandably prefers to dwell on the positive stuff, including the concert the current version of Skynyrd—featuring him, Blackfoot frontman Rickey Medlocke and Mark Matejka on guitars—played on November 12, 2014, celebrating One More from the Road. Like the original, it was staged at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre and recorded. It’ll be released later this summer as a DVD and CD called One More for the Fans! featuring a slew of guests including Gregg Allman, Peter Frampton, Robert Randolph, Warren Haynes, Blackberry Smoke, Charlie Daniels, Jason Isbell and John Hiatt.

“All the guests got to pick a Lynyrd Skynyrd song,” says Rossington. “I wish all the guys who wrote them could have heard it. I think I had the most fun playing with Robert Randolph, who came in carrying his pedal steel under his arm like a purse—no case or anything. And when he plugged in…man! He is so good it’s scary.”

There’s more Skynyrd on the way, too. In early April the band convened at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville to record two concerts. The first featured the songs from their debut album, 1973’s (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd), played in its entirety, and the next night they did the same for the 1974 follow-up, Second Helping. And the group is starting to write songs for what will be the 14th Lynyrd Skynyrd studio album.

But Rossington says he’s still got a special place in his heart for One More from the Road and the people who he shared the stage with during its recording on July 7, 8 and 9 in 1976, which is where our conversation begins:

One More from the Road caught Skynyrd at an instrumental peak, although the July 7 show was only Steve Gaines’ third gig with the band. What did Steve bring to Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Steve was a great player and a great songwriter, and he had a hand in writing some of our best songs for Street Survivors, like “I Know a Little,” and would have written a lot more great ones if things hadn’t worked out the way they did.

After Ed King quit the band, Allen and I played as just two guitars for about a year. But we decided we needed another guitarist so we could get back to playing those double and triple leads. We played with Leslie West in New York, and he was going to join us, but that petered out.

Then Barry Harwood, who Allen and me later started the Rossington Collins Band with, nearly joined. And then Cassie Gaines, our backing vocalist, introduced us to her brother and told us he was a great guitar player. Everybody says that, but when we met him and he sat in, he had a slide and he was playing the hell out of it! He grew up more on Motown and country, which was different than the blues we came up on. And when he played with us, it was kind of country and jazzy, and that expanded our sound.

We rehearsed for a couple of weeks and then recorded One More from the Road. He didn’t even know some of the songs, but he played his ass off. He became a real inspiration to me, Allen and Ronnie.

Steve was one of those cats who always had his guitar strapped to him. Even when he was home, he’d be walking around playing guitar. He’d answer the door with his guitar on and play while he was on the phone. If he was watching TV, he’d play during commercials. He inspired me and Allen to really get back into chompin’ down.

Talk to me about Ronnie. He had a reputation for being rough and mercurial.

Well, you have to understand that there were two versions of Ronnie. When he was a normal, down-to-Earth guy, he’d be your best friend and do anything for you. But sometimes when he drank he’d go nuts.

Mostly, though, we all got along good. He and Steve were close really fast. Steve moved from Oklahoma to a house near Ronnie’s in Florida. He and Ronnie would go to each other’s houses almost every day. They both had little kids and the kids would start playing and Ronnie and Steve would start writing songs. We all used to hang out together all the time, like a big family.

But didn’t Ronnie get in a fight with you on your first tour in Europe that was so bad you both had to go to the hospital?

That was a bummer, man. It was the first time we drank schnapps. People in the South don’t usually drink strawberry schnapps. We went to this bar in Hamburg, Germany, where they served us ice-cold schnapp—so when we drank it, it tasted like water. I don’t think he meant to do that to me, but he was drunk and out of his gourd. He cut up my hands with a broken bottle.

I was hurt, but I could still play. He felt bad about it, and the next day we were friends again. That was all that mattered. My hands hurt when I played and the band was mad at him for a while, but everybody got over it. The bottom line is, we were a band of brothers. All we lived for was playing and being out on the road. That was our dream and it came true.

You and Ronnie grew up together, and even then he had a reputation as a bully who everybody feared. How did you get past that?

Once we got to know Ronnie, he was like a father to Allen and me. My father died when I was 10 and Allen’s mother and father were divorced, so neither one of us had a man around the house. Ronnie was a couple years older and he taught us how to drive, how to fight, how to ask a girl out…

All the stuff you want to learn when you’re growing up. Ronnie and I loved to fish. We learned how to fish together and when we’d get back in town after a tour, we’d go fishing every day or every two days, and maybe even write a song. We were good friends and those were great times.

How important was the influence of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman on you and the band?

We loved Cream and Clapton’s style, and all the guitar players with the British bands—Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and also Hendrix. But mostly it was Clapton because he was so good and he played more of the kind of blues we were raised on. I grew up listening to him and hoping to be that good one day. Of course, I never made it and I never got near Hendrix, either. I don’t know if anybody will ever be as good as Hendrix again.

And Duane and Gregg were big deals to us. They inspired us before they were the Allman Brothers. We would go see all the bands they were in while we were growing up. The Allman Joys played a lot in town, at clubs and teenage dances. We’d go see them anywhere they played.

Duane and Gregg were already great, even then, and you could see Duane get better on guitar every week or two. Plus, they were older than us doing exactly what we wanted to do, and they were driving and smoking and had long hair and were out of school. They were as cool as sliced bread!

My ’59 Les Paul “Bernice” is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sitting right next to Duane’s and Clapton’s guitars. They were my two biggest idols coming up, so having my guitar right between theirs is great!

Are you still a Les Paul guy?

Yes, I’m still playing my Les Pauls and my SGs. I also got a D’Angelico EX-SS. It looks like a great big Gibson hollowbody, and it has a really big sound that’s great for slide. Most of the time I use standard tuning for slide. Early on, we didn’t have the time to change tunings onstage, plus I only had one guitar back then, so I learned to play slide in standard.

I use a Marshall and I still use a Peavey Mace in the studio. I have a signature Peavey Penta amp for myself that’s kind of like the old Peavey Mace, which they don’t make anymore. But nowadays all the good amps sound about the same. If you’ve got tube and analog gear, it’s all gonna sound warm and good.