IT’S a time of mixed feelings for the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and particularly for Gary Rossington, the sole remaining founder of the influential Southern rock group.
On one hand, the band has a new album – Last of a Dyin’ Breed, whose August debut at No 14 on the Billboard 200 was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s best showing since Street Survivors (1977) hit No 5. However, this year also marks the 35th anniversary of the airplane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines, as well as tour manager Dean Kilpatrick and the plane’s two pilots and put Lynyrd Skynyrd in dry dock for a decade, as well as the 25th anniversary of the surviving members’ decision to reunite.
The reconstituted band has released nine studio albums since then, and the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
The sadness certainly lingers.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Ronnie and the others,’’ Rossington says.
At the same time, the guitarist is thrilled that there’s still a Lynyrd Skynyrd that not only plays Free Bird (1973) and Sweet Home Alabama (1974) but also continues to add new material to its catalog.
“You know, we love doing the old songs,’’ says the 60-year-old Rossington, who cofounded Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida, naming the band after their high-school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner. “It still feels great to play the music and pay tribute to those guys who are gone now, whether they died in the crash or later on. That’s why I’m sticking around, even though this is not the original Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“But we’re creative and we’re still songwriters,’’ he continues, “so we like to write new stuff a lot. We can’t help it. I still feel young in my head. I feel like I’m in my 20s, and I love playing and being on the road and that whole thing. And when we have new music, I’m proud of it.’’ Rossington’s pride is hardly misplaced.
Coming off the Top 20 success of God & Guns (2009), Last of a Dyin’ Breed shows all the confidence and swagger of vintage Lynyrd Skynyrd, from hard-rock anthems such as the title track, Homegrown and Mississippi Blood to melodic, reflective numbers such as Ready to Fly. As far as Rossington is concerned, the album’s strong reception is a victory not only for his band but for groups in general these days.
“Bands like us are a dying breed nowadays,’’ he explains. “You see more single acts, the Lady Gagas and Katy Perrys, and more pop stuff and hip-hop. Touring bands like us and the Allman Brothers and all the other Southern bands that used to be around are not really around anymore.
“It’s just a dying breed, so it’s great to see that folks are still interested in something like a band anymore.’’ Rossington reports that, after God & Guns, Skynyrd – which since 1987 has been fronted by Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny – felt “a lot of momentum’’ going into Last of a Dyin’ Breed. The group again worked with producer Bob Marlette and wrote songs with the likes of John 5 Lowery and Marlon Young of Kid Rock’s Twisted Brown Trucker, as well as the middle Van Zant brother, Donnie, best known as the singer for .38 Special.
The new album isn’t a continuation of the previous one, though. The political tenor of Gods & Guns is replaced by more populist concerns on Last of a Dyin’ Breed.
“We just wrote songs about ourselves and things that are happening,’’ explains Rossington, whose wife, Dale Krantz- Rossington, is one of the band’s backing vocalists. “We didn’t really have politics to write about, even though this is a political year. We wanted to stay away from that, because it’s just such a big fight now between the right and the left. We don’t want to get into all that.
“We just write songs from our hearts and songs about the road, and what we’re going through or what we see people going through, that’s all.’’ Johnny Van Zant agrees.
“If it ain’t broken, don’t try to fix it,’’ the 53-year-old Van Zant says in a separate interview. “We write about things that we’ve done or things that have happened to people around us. It’s for the common people, people who have made this great country of ours, the people we see in our audience every night. That’s what the heck I say we always write about.’’ That ability to create has vindicated that 1987 decision to bring Lynyrd Skynyrd back to active duty, starting with a reunion tour.
Rossington remembers that the group didn’t want to really do it at the time, but a trial run of concerts was so well-received and so successful that the idea picked up steam.
The notion of the new Lynyrd Skynyrd becoming a recording concern, however, was put into action only after the various estates of the dead band members had signed off on it.
“They all said yeah, they thought it would be all right as long as it was good and it kept with the style and the nature of the band to never do a (bad) record or a bad something just for the money,’’ Rossington says. “We usually try to deal with dignity and class and uphold the high standards of the Skynyrd name. So that’s what we did, and are still doing, I think.
“I think, if the (deceased) guys heard some of these songs, they would give a smile and say, ‘Yeah, boys, way to go. That’s the way to do it.’’’ For his part, Van Zant recalls that stepping into his brother’s shoes onstage was one thing, but doing so on a record on Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 was another matter.
“I’ve got to be honest, I was a little freaked out,’’ he says, laughing. “Skynyrd fans are great fans if they are on your side, but, if they are not, it can be a bad scene. And for me personally, I knew that we couldn’t, and I don’t think any of us said, ‘OK, we need to write the next Sweet Home Alabama or Free Bird,’ because you just don’t do that.
Nobody has written those yet.
“We just knew that we wanted to write an album and do it and keep the family together,’’ Van Zant says. “And I think it was all part of the healing process at that time too.’’ If Rossington has his way, Lynyrd Skynyrd will keep its Free Bird flying for quite some time. The group has survived the deaths of additional band members, including guitarist Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell and bassist Leon Wilkeson.
Though he himself has had health issues that occasionally have kept him off the road, Rossington says that he’s doing good now, and he’s well aware of his importance as the last remaining tie to the original band.
“I think it’s going to have to end when I’m gone,’’ he says, “because of legalities with the other estates and stuff like that. I don’t think it could go on without me. Not that I’m that great, but me being around is kind of a condition that lets us keep it going.
‘’I never really thought about it without me,’’ Rossington says, ‘’because I’ve never been in that position.