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Don’t Ask Me No Questions
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington answers all before playing JH’s centennial.
Can a song be bigger than “Sweet Home Alabama?” From the opening strains of the instantly recognizable riff – it’s a simple D-C-G progression with chicken-pickin’ hammer-ons and pull-offs – to the sing-along chorus, the legendary song is the unofficial anthem of the Deep South and a must-have arrow in any cover band’s quiver.
And Gary Rossington, for one, never gets tired of playing it. The 62-year-old grandfather traded Jacksonville for Jackson Hole 32 years ago but will forever be linked to the seminal Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd as its sole surviving member and author of some of the most influential guitar licks to ever scratch their way underneath a stylus at 33 and a third revolutions per minute.
“It blows our mind every time we play and people know the songs no matter where you go,” Rossington admitted in a phone interview from the road during his band’s latest tour, which will bring them to Jackson Hole on Sunday. “I watch the faces now, of the people in the first few rows. They sing the words, they cry, they jump up and down. It’s still a thrill to be able to make people feel like that after all these years.”
Sweet Home Alabama
Jackson is now home sweet home to Rossington. He and his wife, Dale Krantz-Rossington, moved to the valley in 1982. They had never been here; not on tour, not as tourists. Not ever. Like a lot of modern-day settlers, it was snow that brought the Rossingtons here but they weren’t chasing it. They were trying to get away from it.
“We didn’t know Jackson Hole. We didn’t really know about the Tetons. We maybe heard of Yellowstone,” Rossington admitted. “I was from Florida, you know? We toured everywhere in the country but never came to Jackson. When Dale and I quit the Rossington-Collins Band, we went to Yellowstone on a trip. There was a freak snowstorm that hit so we came to Jackson. It was 1982 and it was the weekend of [Old] West Days. Well, God must have put us there because the weather stopped and we had a great weekend. It was then we fell in love with Jackson. We bought land, built a house, and had two daughters here and raised them here.”
The Rossingtons now split their time between Atlanta and Jackson. They’ve even learned to embrace the winters here.
“We just love Jackson. Who doesn’t?” Rossington said. “Once you find a place like this, it is instant love. Back in the 80s, it was less crowded. It was really beautiful. There was no McDonald’s or any other [build up] there is now. It was so gorgeous and uncrowded. It still is, but not as much. The mountains are still the same.”
Rossington’s grandkids – Morgan and Jackson – go to school in Jackson and, following in grandpa’s footsteps, play Little League baseball. Will they grow up ball players or musicians? Rossington doesn’t worry about that so much as the music they are exposed to today.
“The Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga … the popular music people are listening to now has changed so much,” Rossington said. “There are all short songs. It’s a different time and a different scene. Music has changed.”
Pop music today needs to sell sneakers and acne cream. Guitars are a forgotten instrument. A 90-second guitar solo is a relic of the free-spirited 60s and 70s. Radio stations tolerate a song clocking in at more than nine minutes like a four-year-old enjoys a Sunday sermon. Heck, “Free Bird” was a long song in its own day.
“Some of the songs of our time are very long compared to today but even ‘Free Bird,’ in the early 70s, was too long for the industry,” Rossington said. “People at the record company and people in radio said, ‘This will never get any airplay; it’s too long.’ And we wouldn’t change it. We never cut anything. They ended up playing it anyway. Classic rock stations still play it. It was a long song then and still is today. Now, today, it’s all about production. I feel sorry for the kids not having real music.”
Rossington’s grandkids recognize Skynyrd songs when they hear them on the radio. “They love to hear ‘Alabama,’” Rossington said. “They hear it and say, ‘That’s grandma and grandpa.’”
Down South Jukin’
Rossington remembers well the time he and his band mates first heard one of their songs played on the radio. It was “I Ain’t the One,” the first single off their debut album and a song co-written by Rossington and Van Zant. They were overcome with glee.
“That was an exciting time – the first time we ever heard our song on the radio,” Rossington said. “It was in the ‘70s and we were driving down the street and we heard it come on. We pulled over and just listened. We were like little kids, jumping all around.”
It was a dream come true for Rossington. But not his original dream. Rossington wanted to play baseball for the New York Yankees. He was a huge Mickey Mantle fan growing up. As he worked his way through Little League in Jacksonville, Florida, Rossington was sure a career on the diamond was in his future. Then he heard the Beatles. Game over.
“Way back when, we were just playing baseball in Little League,” Rossington said. “And after we heard the Beatles, that was it. We decided to start up a band like millions of people did.”
Rossington, and a few teenage friends including eventual Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant, formed The Noble Five. After a few iterations including The Pretty Ones and The One Percent, the name Lynyrd Skynyrd stuck. Crafted in jest for a high school gym teacher named Leonard Skinner, who badgered the musicians about their long hair, band members subbed in the “Y” vowels to avoid a lawsuit and created, unintentionally, the hardest rock band name for most people to spell correctly.
Rossington checked off “firsts” systematically. First guitar: A Sears & Roebuck acoustic he bought by collecting Coke bottles and saving change from a paper route. He later upgraded to a 1959 Gibson Les Paul he named Bernice for his mother.
First big gig: A church dance at Good Shepherd’s in Jacksonville. First time he partied like a rock star: A 1973 tour in support of “Pronounced ‘leh-’nérd ‘skin-’nérd,” when they opened for The Who and traveled by air to the shows.
Other momentous events shaped Rossington’s life, even as they took the lives of every one around him. Hopped up on pills and booze, Rossington crashed his new Ford Torino into an oak tree, delaying an upcoming tour and inspiring Van Zant to write “That Smell.” Further tragedy was right around the next bend.
On Oct. 20, 1977, a plane crash in the swamps of Mississippi took the lives of Steve Gaines, Van Zant and others. It was just days after the release of “Street Survivors,” an album poised to put the band back on top of the charts after a couple of duds. It would instead signal the end of the noble five. A day the music died.
Rossington vowed then to never resurrect Skynyrd. He battled serious drug addiction attempting to recover from injuries suffered in the crash – breaks in both arms, wrists, legs, ankles and a shattered pelvis. In 1980, he was ready to play Skynyrd songs again and formed Rossington-Collins with Skynyrd co-member Allen Collins. One thing the two agreed on: They wanted a woman to front the band.
“After the plane crash, we didn’t want to come with a male,” Rossington said. “He would always be compared to Ronnie. We decided on a female vocalist to avoid comparison.”
Rossington didn’t have to look far. Their new lead singer was singing backup with 38 Special. Van Zant’s younger brother Donnie was playing in the band and they had already opened for Skynyrd on tour in the spring of 1977.
Dale Krantz, a brash, throaty blowtorch of a singer blew the boys away on audition. Rossington affectionately called her “a wailing bitch” during a 1991 interview with Tony Beazley. They didn’t know how well a female would go over with the diehard Skynyrd Nation but if anyone could stand in Van Zant’s shadow without hogging the spotlight, it was Krantz.
Rossington got more than a new crooner. He fell in love with the Detroit diva, but it took her to propose marriage.
“She was a great singer and songwriter. We fell in love. We got married,” Rossington said.
But are the rumors true? Who asked whom?
“Yeah, she asked me. That’s how the story goes, anyway. I don’t remember to tell the truth,” Rossington admitted. “But we were seeing each other, going together and living together for a year. We were joined at the hip, so to speak.”
The couple married in Indiana, later renewing their vows in 2012 for TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress. That took place on an annual Lynyrd Skynyrd cruise.
“We redid our vows a couple years back on the ‘Simple Man’ cruise with a bunch of people witnessing. The whole boat was the audience. It was a big party,” Rossington remembered. “We were going to do it in Jackson but it was too hard to get everyone out there, and finding a place, and the weather.”
When not on tour, Rossington says he plunks a little every day to keep sharp. “I don’t play much when I’m off. Just a little bit every day, a few minutes to keep my fingers warmed up,” he said. “If you don’t, you get rusty and sloppy and don’t hit the notes quite the same. You don’t forget but you are not quite as good.”
Over the years in Jackson Hole, Rossington has dropped in at clubs around the valley and jammed with whoever was on stage.
“In the 80s, especially, I used to go to bars around town – the [Mangy] Moose, Dornan’s, Snow King – and jam with a band here and there,” Rossington said. “We played a couple of big shows at Snow King at the ice rink.”
This Sunday’s outdoor show will be a departure for the Skynyrd reunion tour. It came about from a chance meeting at One to One Wellness, where Rossington works out.
“I was in town working out with Smitty [Scott Smith] and the mayor [Mark Barron] was in there working out. I said, ‘Anything we can do for the town, we’d love to do. It’s our home,’” Rossington recalled.
The conversation turned into a stopover in Jackson to play a stripped-down show.
“It will be a little different for us,” Rossington said. “We are out on the road now with a semi-truck worth of equipment, stage and lights. But this is gonna be strange, to play on a little bitty stage. That will be cool. We wanted to do it for the town’s 100th anniversary. We are doing it for free.”
Rossington won’t be able to enjoy the homecoming for long. The band gets in after a 10-hour drive from Colorado and has to be in Texas soon after the Jackson show.
“We won’t have much time,” Rossington said. “While we’re there I will go home and look around, and say ‘hey’ to the kids, and pet the dogs. We will be back in about a week, and then be back all winter to enjoy the skiing.”
Free as a bird now
Rossington still gets a kick out of hearing old Skynyrd songs played on the radio or by cover bands in bars. And he will never get tired of playing them.
“I guess the strangest place I’ve ever heard our music played was in Russia,” Rossington said. “The Russian Symphony Orchestra plays ‘Alabama,’ singing it in Russian. It’s crazy.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd will forever be remembered for the power anthem, “Free Bird.” The song clocks in at more than 14 minutes when played live, augmented by the ferocious twin-guitar soloing that is the ballad’s signature. That six-string rampage, along with the song’s introduction into American lexicon as a random concert audience request, no matter the performer, has cemented the tune into most every Top 10 list of greatest ever.
“That song is just real special,” Rossington said. “At the time, we didn’t know it would be a hit and get the airplay it did. The solo at the end was a jam when we first wrote it, but at was all patterned out and we had been playing it for a few weeks before recording it. Of course, you hear it back and think you could have done this or that better. But the song is the song, it doesn’t matter.
It may not have been perfect, but, to this day, Rossington still plays the solo nearly note for note.
“Actually, we try to play it the same because it’s what the people want. They want to hear the song they remember from the radio,” Rossington said. “It’s stood up to time and it still goes over great every night. The older people grew up hearing these songs and they are part of their lives, the soundtrack to their lives.”
Call Me the Breeze
Rossington is still plagued with health issues. His legs still bother him. He had open-heart surgery in 2003. Last year, tour plans were put on hold when Rossington checked into St. John’s Medical Center with an abdominal infection.
Things are looking good now, though. An all-star tribute concert is slated for November 12 at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. Trace Adkins, Alabama, Gregg Allman, Charlie Daniels, Peter Frampton, John Hiatt, moe, Robert Randolph, Cheap Trick and others are scheduled to perform.
Rossington is looking forward to a homecoming, if only for a night.
“I’ve had a lot of health issues but I’m hanging in there,” Rossington said. “The great doctors in Jackson Hole take good care of me, and Smitty works me out and tries to keep me in shape while we are there. I thank God every day we are still around, and we can keep the music going and keep the dream alive.”