As a founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd back in 1964 alongside Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Allen Collins and Larry Junstrom, the late Gary Rossington – who has died at the age of 71 – was partly responsible for popularising Southern rock, via the band's signature tunes Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird and a slew of classic albums.
Van Zant died in the infamous Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash in 1977 and Collins in 1990, while Burns and Junstrom departed in 2015 and 2019 respectively, leaving Rossington as Skynyrd’s last surviving original member. Towards the end, he was unable to perform full shows with the band, and sometimes sat out performances altogether.
In 2017, he told Classic Rock what he'd learned over more than 50 years in the business of rock'n'roll.
Don't judge a book by its cover
One of the most important things life has taught me is that appearances often deceive. I’ve been guilty of making quick judgements and they often turn out the opposite of what I expected.
At the end of the Sixties and into the Seventies, Skynyrd got ourselves a reputation. We had very long hair, and that was not popular, especially down south. We had to fight our way out of a lot of bars and the army bases that we played, but we really were down-home nice guys, we weren’t out to harm anyone. All we wanted was to get along with the world.
Ronnie Van Zant was not a tyrant
There’s a perception that Ronnie was a bit of a bully, but I don’t hold with that. Ronnie was this band’s leader, and he had his own way of doing that. The band was like a family, and brothers fight – especially over music. Ronnie wanted us to work hard to get the music right and, yeah, of course he was strict.
We had a place called the Hellhouse where he’d sit and watch us rehearse. He could be a hard taskmaster. People say that he ruled with an iron rod, but as teenagers we all needed that discipline and to be pushed, because he knew more than we did. Ronnie was more of a big brother than a bully.
I didn’t want Trump
I don’t really pay a lot of attention to politics because most of it turns out to be lies. Nowadays I’d describe myself as apolitical. In the past we’ve played Republican Conventions, but this time I couldn’t bring myself to want either of the choices on offer. If Trump and Hillary were the best candidates to be found in the whole of America, that doesn’t say much about our country.
Owning a firearm is ok – for the right reasons
Skynyrd has written lots of songs about guns. I believe you should be able to own a gun to protect yourself. Here in America it’s different to Europe. If you live out in the woods or on a country road, should something bad happen you’re on your own until the police arrive – if the police arrive. You must be able to respond to aggression. Of course, all of the bad stuff like kids getting killed by crazy people makes me very sad, but if someone comes into my house uninvited then I’m going to protect myself. Going hunting’s okay, too.
Organised religion is the problem
I believe in God and his son Jesus Christ, and I’ve got my own way of looking at that subject, but there’s a lot going on with religion… Ain’t that an understatement [laughs]. If everybody got a little more religious and embraced God, this world would be a better place. Here in America the trouble is we’ve let God go. He should be in the news and taught better in the schools. My mama and the Bible taught me: do unto others [as you would have them do unto you]. That’s what it should all be about.
Being called a redneck is not an insult
A lot of guys from the South are rednecks, because we continue with what we believe in – God, family, friends and doing the right thing in life. Morals are important. Rednecks are good people, they just won’t stand for a bunch of bull. Good ol’ boys, I call them.
The South is still a beautiful place
Skynyrd wrote Sweet Home Alabama [in 1974] in passionate defence of the South. I don’t always agree with the way it’s portrayed from the outside, but I’ll always defend the place and what it stands for. I don’t think anybody should have slaves, and that’s pretty much what that [the American Civil War, 1861-1865] was about. The reason the Union won and the Confederates lost was because morally they were wrong, but the South remains a proud place. When Skynyrd used the Dixie [Confederate] flag in our early years, it was to show that we were from the South. And we were proud of that. But now everything’s all gotten so politically correct.
Everything in moderation, except drugs, is OK
We don’t think anybody should take drugs or drink too heavily. Now that I’m older I can understand: they will kill you. I don’t drink at all, but I don’t mind if others do it so long as they don’t get behind the wheel. That’s the stupidest and most selfish thing.
I know from experience. I was in a couple of wrecks when I was much younger. Ronnie and Allen [Collins, guitarist] wrote That Smell [on Street Survivors] about the worst example. That wreck [which saw a loaded Rossington write off a brand new car when he slammed it into a tree] was horrible because I could have died or killed a completely innocent person.
Flying is a necessary evil
As a musician that plays all over the world I’ve had to learn to live with air travel, and I’m a little more comfortable with it than I used to be. Airports are so much busier now and everyone’s in a rush to get where they’re going. Of course I hate flying, but I’m not scared of what might happen. I figure that when it’s my time the good Lord will take me, I don’t know if it’ll be on a plane or some other way.
Skynyrd’s crash happened for a reason
A lot of people died in the crash, and of course it was a complete tragedy. One of the things the disaster made me realise is that you’ll never destroy the human spirit. After the crash we [Rossington and Allen Collins] started the Rossington Collins Band to continue playing music. Had I not done that I wouldn’t have met my wife Dale [Krantz, a backing singer with the RCB] and my kids and grandkids would not have been born.
So you’ve got to say that for all of the tragedy, it happened for a reason. Life goes on. Some very bad things have happened to me, people die… that’s just part of life. But those things are outnumbered by the good. You’ve got to push on and be positive.
Marriages in rock’n’roll can last
Can I offer some advice on staying together? Yeah: like George Harrison once said, just don’t get divorced. Separating has become too easy now. For a marriage to last you’ve got to be friends. We started out as bandmates but it only took a few months for us to fall for one another. I feel blessed that I’ve lived two lives: the family one and going out on the road with the band.
The wheel turns full circle
Dale [Rossington's wife] and I made a record together [Take It On Faith, released under the name Rossington], and it’s the first time we’ve worked together that way since the days of the Rossington Collins Band [two further albums were made as The Rossington Band in 1986 and ’88]. Fans used to ask Dale whether she’d ever do another album with her singing [lead vocals]. So we did it for them. It has a whole variety of material, from blues and gospel to rhythm and blues.
Savour every minute of your life
The plane crash and my health issues all make me realise that life is short. Every day is precious. I find it frustrating that people wander around with their faces up against their phones.
You’re going to miss us when we’re gone
Skynyrd made a record called Last Of A Dyin’ Breed , and it’s true. All those touring bands from the sixties etc are gradually going away. 2016 was a rough year. I’ve hated seeing so many of my musician friends dying. Pretty soon there won’t be anybody like Skynyrd. Keith Richards just drips coolness. How could there be another guy like him? Lennon is long gone, and when McCartney joins him what’ll happen to music?
I don't know what will happen to Skynyrd when I'm gone
Bands have started to become like brands, playing on with no original members. But Skynyrd’s different. Everyone knows we’re not the original Skynyrd, and we don’t pretend otherwise. We’re about keeping alive the music. But once I’m gone… I won’t have a say [laughs].
Until then I’ll play Free Bird till I drop
It’s a great honour. I look down at the faces in the crowd and people are crying, dancing, singing or smiling. It’s a powerful piece of music. I’m awful proud of that.