On the wings of the epic showstopper “Free Bird” alone, Jacksonville’s Lynyrd Skynyrd is overdue for its induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Jokingly named after an adversarial gym teacher named Leonard Skinner, the band, along with the Allman Brothers, built an entire wing of rock & roll known as Southern rock. Before a 1977 plane crash took the lives of singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines, the group authored a string of enduring guitar anthems including “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps” and “What’s Your Name.” Guitarist Allen Collins died in 1990 of complications from a car crash that left him paralyzed. We spoke with founding member Gary Rossington, who continues to anchor the revived version of Skynyrd still on the road today.
What the hell took so long?
Actually, it’s a dream come true. Ronnie, Allen and I always had this dream, to make it big in a band and go all the way, so I guess this does it. I think everything comes in its time, and this was just the time for it.
Was it frustrating that it did take so many years?
I was disappointed for Ronnie and Allen, Leon [Wilkeson] and Steve, the ones who aren’t with us anymore. I think they should’ve been inducted right off the bat, but that’s just my sentimental feelings.
Do you think Southern rock might be underappreciated in the rock & roll canon?
I don’t really think that way. We just went out there in T-shirts and blue jeans and played. In the rest of the country at that time, the early Seventies, it was Alice Cooper, David Bowie – the snake-around-your-neck, wild-outfit look. We were kind of hicky. Our gimmick was our music.
What was it like growing up in Jacksonville? How did you and Ronnie and Allen first meet?
We played Little League baseball together. When we got together [as a band], the scene in Jacksonville was pretty bad. Nobody liked us because we liked the British thing — the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones. They were into dancing in high school — “Knock on Wood” and “Soul Man” and all that, which are great songs, but we just wanted to rock & roll. Some places we’d get into fights — they didn’t like us ’cause our hair was long. We went to Atlanta to make it out of the clubs there, because there was really only one club in Jacksonville at the time.
Did you fall easily into certain roles? Was one of you the cop who kept everyone rehearsing, or the wayward one with crazy ideas?
Being at that age, you just are who you are. There’s no acting. We were so young, only fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old. Ronnie was always the leader. He had a badass reputation for fighting. Allen was crazy, a wild, crazy one. I was kind of subdued. But us together, it was like the Three Musketeers. We went through a lot of different bass players and drummers, but we always kept our sound.
Tell me about Hell House.
Oh, man. We were rehearsing all around Jacksonville, and the cops kept coming. So we finally found this place way out in the woods, this cabin with a tin roof. We didn’t have the money to buy an air conditioner, so it was hot. We’d sweat and sweat, and when it rained it was double bad, the humidity. It was just this old abandoned cabin. One night we got ripped off — somebody came in and stole some amps and stuff. So then we had to take turns staying out there overnight with a gun to protect the place. There were farm animals and snakes and alligators, out in the Everglades on a little creek. The owner was a real swamp boy. He’d go around and hit big rattlesnakes on the head, so we had a bunch of snakes in barrels. It was just a mess, but we got a lot of writing done there. We wrote most of the first album there, and the second one too.
By the time you got to Muscle Shoals to record your first demos, you were extremely well rehearsed, weren’t you?
Right. It was like training camp, almost. Practice, practice, practice. We worked out every note. Ronnie would really drive us. He kind of put me and Allen against each other, and we’d battle for the lead.
Other than the Allmans, was there a particular model for that? You talked about some of the British bands.
Actually, Buffalo Springfield, we were big fans of them. Ed King, who had been in the Strawberry Alarm Clock, he was on tour with them for a little while. So he’d seen the three-guitar thing. Ed was playing bass, and then Leon came back and we didn’t want to fire Ed, so we just said, “Play guitar.”
The story often gets told that when you went on tour with the Who, you basically upstaged them. Did the same thing happen when you opened for the Stones a few years later?
I wouldn’t say we upstaged them. It’s just that we made our mark. During most opening acts with big groups like that, everybody runs off and gets a beer. We came out blazing, just kickin’ butt, so to speak, and we made people take notice. I always wanted to thank Pete Townshend and the Who. We were playing little clubs until that tour.
You were out on the road constantly, and you got big pretty fast. Were your personal relationships strained at all?
I would say here and there, yeah. We were traveling every day, doing what we called the torture tours. They were months at a time, and then the only time off was to write and rehearse and record. I think the booze and drugs got in the way a little bit. But right before the plane crash, we were kind of settling down a little. We were trying to cool it — we knew we couldn’t go out drunk and play good . . . We were still kids. I was twenty-six at the time of the plane crash.
How well did you get to know Steve Gaines in the short time he was in the band?
He was just a great, great guy. Real easy to get to know, and a tremendous musician. All of a sudden there was a new guy, some new songs, a new attitude. He kind of woke us up. He’d just had a little kid — he was a great father. It’s a shame, what happened.
Do people often ask you point blank about the plane crash?
Some do. I’ve talked about it here and there, but I don’t like to. It was a devastating thing. You can’t just talk about it real casual and not have feelings about it.
A lot of Ronnie’s songs were socially oriented. How aware of politics were you guys?
We just listened to the news. We were dropouts. We didn’t know much about politics. Ronnie just wrote true stories. He had an eye for life. He grew up on blues music and Merle Haggard and all the Grand Ole Opry people who reached down deep into their hearts to tell you a story about themselves.
Is it oversimplifying to say that if you wave the Confederate flag, you’ve become conservative?
You know, we don’t do that anymore. We have our own flag. It’s half American flag and it has some bars and stripes on it that resemble a little of the old Dixie flag. One time we had a bunch of skinheads out there saluting us, acting like it was cool, and we didn’t like that at all. So we don’t use the [Confederate] flag anymore — we have more respect for the way it might feel to some people. Now, Johnny [current singer, Van Zant] sometimes puts a little Dixie flag around his mike stand for “Sweet Home Alabama,” but the people love that, ’cause it’s about Alabama. It’s not about race or politics.
You guys are often labeled as a tragic band — not just because of the plane crash, but the arrests and the accidents. Do you think of the band in terms of tragedy?
I don’t think of it as tragedy – I think of it as life. Now, long ago I didn’t think that way, but I’m at the age where life happens, and it happens to everyone in their own way. I think the good outweighs the bad. Almost thirty years later, we’re still playing and spreading the word. The audience lets us know every night.