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Last Of A Dyin' Breed: A Conversation With Lynyrd Skynyrd's Gary Rossington

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A Conversation With Gary Rossington

Mike Ragogna: Gary, how are you?

Gary Rossington: Hey man, how are you today?

MR: I'm doing pretty well, thanks. You have a new album, Last Of A Dyin' Breed, and it sounds like you guys had more fun than ever on this one. Is that too big of a claim?

GR: No, it was a lot of fun, man. We had a good time doing it. We love playing all the old original songs and that sort of thing, but we love to do this stuff, too. We're songwriters, so we like to get them out to the people. It was so much fun...we just went in there, sat down and played them all together and had a good time doing it, and there wasn't any tragedies happening. It was a real fun time.

MR: Last Of A Dyin' Breed, as a concept, is making a statement, so let's get into the story of that. This album comes off as somewhat autobiographical.

GR: Yeah, a little bit. We write about us, and we write about what's going on around us.

MR: I love the lines in the title track on how your brother gave you hell but you were brought up well. And as a band, you guys are like brothers. You've been together making music for so long, especially you and Johnny. So what is it like when you get together these days to create music?

GR: Well, that song, now that you mention it, we did write it about us, or kind of about Johnny. Ronnie never wore shoes, so the "barefoot brother" thing and the "hand-me-down bike"...he always got Ronnie and Donnie's bicycles and clothes, so all that's true. We're a band on the run and a dying breed; we feel like old bikers and touring bands of the seventies and sixties and eighties. That's kind of a dying breed of bands. You don't see them around as much. It's more of single acts and dancing and hip-hop. Mostly just pop music. So the dying breed of a band is what the title's from.

MR: Okay, this is going to sound ridiculous, but after all these years, to many, Lynyrd Skynyrd might be considered The Beatles of southern rock...or maybe the Elvis of southern rock. I mean, who else comes close?

GR: Oh man, thank you. That's too big of a compliment, but we love it. We love to play, and I just love to still tell the story of the old band and our music and our dream. Me and Ronnie and Allen had this dream of making it big in a band, and we did it and it got taken away so abruptly. I don't know, nowadays it's good to keep playing. People seem to enjoy it, they sing along, and there are a lot of emotions for "Free Bird" and "Simple Man" and "Tuesday's Gone." I see people crying and smiling and singing along. Their emotions are really on their sleeves those nights. It's great. It's really good to see.

MR: By the way, what guitar are you playing these days?

GR: I'm still on my Les Paul. It's a reissue of my '59 Les Paul I have, Bernice, and it's been the guitar I've always played, and I love it. It's my sound and my little baby, and I love that. I just love Les Paul guitars, they're my thing.

MR: Let's go into a couple more songs. In "One Day At A Time," you say you have to take one day at a time, smell the roses, taste the wine; but in the end, also like you say, no one survives. Ain't no use in crying about that.

GR: Yeah, we're all dying, one day at a time. It's how you spend this time. Now that I'm older, I think it's really important to try to be happy in this life. Don't sweat the small stuff. Live that one day to its fullest, because there might not be one tomorrow. I've seen that happen with a lot of people, a lot of things, and you think that you're going to live forever sometimes. You have these feelings of planning late and way long into the future, but it's best to live one day at a time.

MR: In "Ready To Fly," you talk about meeting family and friends, how they're out there waiting in the afterlife. Because of the kind of challenges and events that you've had with the band, is that what's motivating a song like that?

GR: Oh yeah, that and talking about everybody that's gone before us. It's really about when your mother dies and the ideas that someone's mother caused when they were sick and they might not make it long. But we interpreted all the other stuff that's happened to us and we hope all our friends and family are waiting up in the sky for us. We hope we get with them all when it's time to go. You get really old and you're not really healthy and stuff. This is for really older people, though, our parents. It affects everyone.

MR: What do you think when you look back at your career? I'm imagining you feel like you've been blessed, but what other kinds of thoughts do you have?

GR: Oh, I'm so blessed. In the Rossington Collins Band, I met my wife, Dale, and we're still happily married thirty years later, and that's pretty odd. Just everything that's happened...all the time I got to play in Skynyrd, the original band, was just so magically fun and exciting. That was our whole life and dream, and then it ended, but then it started back after a few years and did the whole Rossington Collins Band and a few other things. It's just been a great, great career. We love playing with the people now and just sharing our story and music. So God bless them all for still coming. We love them.

MR: I love the fact that I asked a question about you and you brought your fans in. I admire you for that very much.

GR: Oh, well that's what it's all about; the fans and the people. Without them, we wouldn't be here. It's all about the music. Music makes the world go round, and we're just out here trying to help it spin a little bit.

MR: Another track on the record is "Life's Twisted." Man, ain't it.

GR: Yeah. Oh boy, the lyrics just say it all. What you don't expect happens, and everything's great and then boom, something crazy happens. Even like a flat tire on a Friday night ruins your whole night. It's crazy. Life's twisted like that, man, and it happens over and over and over. But that's the great message. Life is twisted, but hang on because things are going to come back around. You think you've got everything made, and then boom, something happens. Not every time, but life's twisted like that.

MR: Yeah, and I also love the line, "Life's gonna kick your ass."

GR: It will.

MR: And let's not forget how "Nothing Comes Easy."

GR: Yeah, that's true. You've got to work for everything nowadays, and always. It doesn't come easy, but the things that do come easy, you don't enjoy as much. Nothing's easy. You've got to work for it in our eyes, and the working man's eyes. The littlest things don't come easy, you know?

MR: That's been my opinion, too. I've always admired people who work their butts off in order to get what they need. But I'm afraid we're in a period where there are a lot of people walking around feeling entitled.

GR: Yeah, I guess. It's kind of weird, isn't it? I think you've got to work for what you get, and I don't think that anyone's entitled to anything until you work for it. We were all brought up on the poor side of town, and had to work for everything from schoolwork to making a living and getting out of the bad parts of places. It's just work, work, work, so I can't understand the entitlement people. I just don't understand that way of thinking. To me, it's just that the working man gets what he wants and supports his family. That's how you get it. You're not entitled to anything in my eyes.

MR: Let's get to the song "Good Teacher." So when you guys are writing songs like that, are you like fifteen again?

GR: Oh yeah. That one was just about teachers, your schoolteacher, or the first girl you were with who kind of taught you a few things. The part about "half devil, half preacher," that was the fathers and the big brothers and the people who taught us in the early days of our lives who were wicked good people, but they were crazy. Both kinds of people, you know? Everybody had a good teacher, whether it was in school, or an uncle, a father, a mother, a big brother; somebody taught them stuff. That's what it's about.

MR: What about "Homegrown"?

GR: That's a good little fun tune.

MR: She's twisted. I like her.

GR: Yeah, and also, it's about, I hate to say it, it's about the evil weed; everybody has a little homegrown sometimes. But it's really about a crazy girl.

MR: In "Something To Live For," you're asking for that as well as something to believe in. What was behind this song?

GR: It was about the country and the way it was going. It's an election year, but it's kind of all up in the air, and what people are talking about is the direction of the country. We were just hoping that God would give something to live for to the people of America again. If you can find a woman or a family and you love them, you live for them, but you hope that the country could go back the way it used to be--to get it together and try harder as Americans. But we're no politicians or preachers; we're just trying to say how we feel.

MR: In that same vein, we have another song that kind of wraps up the project on a positive note, which is "Start Living Again."

GR: That one's just all so simply said, if you're drinking or doing drugs or pills, especially pills. Nowadays, it seems like all the kids are into these prescription pills that'll kill you just like anything else, or take your life away, so to speak. We've been through that in our early days, and we did all the bad things--the drinking, the drugs, the crazy living, and it's crazy. It'll kill you, and it'll ruin your life, and the best thing to do is just stop all that and live for simple things.

MR: Which brings us to what advice might you have for new artists?

GR: You know what, it's such a different climate and atmosphere coming up. It's totally different with the internet and YouTube and American Idol and all kinds of things. Just work hard, and make sure you get somebody in the business who knows how to take care of your business, because it's all business now. The fun and the sport of it, and the groovy times and having a part, are over. It's more serious music and serious attitudes. You can go onstage and leave that behind and just play for the people and have fun, but the business is serious, so watch your back.

MR: Speaking of getting out there and having a good time, you mentioned this earlier, how you're still playing the Skynyrd classics like "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama." What does it feel like playing those songs these days?

GR: Oh, it's great. You know what? It's really a challenge to try to play them right and play them perfect every night. I didn't realize that it's hard to play a song for years and years and years and make it have the energy and positive feeling, and feel fresh. It's hard to do that, but we try every night. We just love the people and the attitudes and seeing people doing "Free Bird," "Tuesday's Gone," "Simple Man," certain songs like that, singing along. Certain people are crying because they're remembering certain events in their lives that song was playing in. I've seen a lot of people write letters and say stuff about how we touched their lives in certain ways with these songs. I think the best thing in life you can do is touch somebody's feelings. If you can make them cry or make them happy or sing a song for a while and get their mind off the blues and the world's troubles, I think it's a good thing.

MR: With those amazing hits, you're touching so many people's lives. I mean, come on, "Free Bird"? That song and that phrase must be referenced a million times a day all over the world, right?

GR: It's a great honor to be a part of that, and to be a part of all these songs that lasted so long and touched people. It's just amazing...I don't know what to say. It's crazy. I think it's all just the music, God, and the magic of life; it just keeps going. I'm so glad people like this music and that we can still play it for them.

MR: Yeah, but do you see why I said earlier, tongue-in-cheek, that you were The Beatles of southern rock because you're iconic in that genre.

GR: Well, thank you man, it's really a great thing for you to say, and I appreciate it. Like I said, we just had a big dream of making it big and sharing our music--me and Ronnie and Allen, and that's what we were doing, and that's what I'm still doing for them. I'm sure if one of them was still here and this was happening, they'd still be playing with me. We kind of try to take care of everybody in the situation. The people around us, and the people who aren't here anymore, everybody's in it together.

MR: Gary, how does it feel all these years later? You've got to still miss the guys.

GR: Oh yeah, man. Every day.

MR: In a way, doesn't it also seem like you're carrying the torch for them?

GR: Oh yeah. That's what it does feel like, and that's what it is. Like I said, if it was them, they'd do it for me. Like I also said, we had a dream to make a band and play our music and write music and make it big. The Beatles were our inspiration--all the British things, and we wanted to do it. When it happened, it just blew our minds. I still want to share with everybody and tell everybody, for Ronnie and Allen, and everybody who's been with us.

MR: And you will continue to be brothers through the years.

GR: Yeah, playing music, and you know, on this new album, we feel the spirit from the guys in the studio. When we're writing tunes, sometimes, we don't know what to say or feel or think, but it comes through. So I think they're still with us in spirit, helping us, or we wouldn't be doing this. There'd be some kind of thing that would be holding us back. But their spirit is with us, and I think it's a good thing.

MR: So I have to pose the question: Are you the last of a dying breed? And how can this be a dying breed when the music is still strong and vibrant?

GR: Well, you know, it's not just me. It's about bands like us, and the old bikers. I live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and there are wolves out there, and they're always having articles about how they're a dying breed. And Native Americans are a dying breed. I see that with all of the old touring bands, and southern bands are kind of a dying breed. You don't see them anymore coming up. It's not just personally me.

MR: Yeah, I know, but I was also kind of referring to your legacy. Gary, do you know how many kids are out there learning your licks and passing that knowledge on to maybe their kids, et cetera?

GR: Yeah, I hope that is happening. That would be great. And then if somebody could come along and write a new song about it, "The Living Breed" or something, that would be great. (laughs) I hope that's happening. I'm sure it is. We get a lot of little notes from guitar players that say we inspired them a little bit. They were learning how to play our songs, and that's great to see every day.

MR: Gary, I really appreciate the time, I wish you tons of luck. I would be surprised if this record doesn't chart in the Top Ten. It's Skynyrd--how can you be denied?

GR: Thank you man, that's a great compliment. I hope it does, and I hope to see you on this tour. We'll play a few songs for you.

MR: (laughs) You've got it. I wish all the best to you and the guys. Skynyrd Rules.

GR: Thank you man. Thank all you people, and God bless you.

Tracks:
1. Last Of A Dyin' Breed
2. One Day At A Time
3. Homegrown
4. Ready To Fly
5. Mississippi Blood
6. Good Teacher
7. Something To Live For
8. Life's Twisted
9. Nothing Comes Easy
10. Honey Hole
11. Start Livin' Life Again

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne