Why Lynyrd Skynyrd Is Carrying on After Gary Rossington’s Death
Guitarist Gary Rossington's death on March 5 means Lynyrd Skynyrd's final founding member is gone. A little more than a week later, they were back on stage, but it remained unclear what their long-term plans were.
The collective silence was finally broken in early April. A band statement announced Lynyrd Skynyrd would continue, following discussions with the family of the group's departed bandmates: "[They] feel that continuing to perform live and keeping the music alive, is in the best interest of the fans and everyone involved." Rossington's widow Dale added that "Gary was always the first to say how 'Skynyrd's music is bigger than me or any one person.'"
Vocalist Johnny Van Zant described Rossington as "not only my brother, bandmate and friend. I think he loved me as much as I loved him. We would do anything for each other. We laughed, we fell, we cried and made up, and shared the stage for the last 36 years. Gary, along with my brother Ronnie [Van Zant] and Allen [Collins], started this band and left us all a legacy of music that has stood the test of time, and crossed three generations of fans."
Remaining guitarist Rickey Medlocke has roots with Lynyrd Skynyrd that go back to the early '70s. In an exclusive new interview, he describes the wide range of emotions the band has been dealing with since Rossington's death while detailing the path which led to their original decision to announce a farewell tour in 2018. He also talks about how Lynyrd Skynyrd decided to carry on with this summer's Sharp Dressed Simple Man tour with ZZ Top.
First of all, we offer our condolences regarding Gary's passing.
Well, as you know [he was] one of the three founding members of the band. [It was] Ronnie [Van Zant], and Gary and Allen [Collins]. In the last several years, he had [been dealing with] a lot of physical problems. Man, we watched him try his best to hang in there, travel with us and all of that kind of stuff. It just finally got the best of him.
Going back and rewinding, you know when people announce farewell tours, it’s kind of like, “Yeah, right. Farewell for what? 10 years or whatever?” But what we had done, and we had stated this – Gary had gotten to the point that he just didn’t want to do the 80 to 100 shows a year. During the summers, he was always gone. From the spring through the summer to the fall. He had a short time at home to rest up and do whatever, but then all of the sudden, we were right back on the road again. He wanted that to end; we understood it. You know, [for] Johnny [Van Zant], it’s the same thing – because both guys have got large families and wanted to spend more time with [them] and stuff like that.
The one mitigating factor in this whole thing was the fact that [Rossington] had developed a very bad heart problem. He underwent quintuple bypass surgery [in 2003]. Over time, you know, his heart just got weaker and weaker. We decided to do the farewell tour and 2020 was going to be the last year of what we considered the heavy touring. That’s what we wanted to pull back on. We’d made the decision that we were going to keep recording and that we would probably do residencies and specialty gigs here and there. But the days of the real heavy, on-the-road-all-of-the-time [touring], that would be done.
Unfortunately, along comes COVID and that shut us down. Well, it shut everybody down. We had [about] 65 shows to do that year and we actually ended up doing the first two and then the country gets shut down. We were off for 15 months and that was very hard. The band, the crew and everybody was really, you know, going through it. When 2021 came around, stuff started opening up. We took on gigs as the summer was coming in. With [Rossington's] blessing, we [realized] it was time to get someone to cover for him – you know, because we had obligations.
We always felt like the one big obligation was to the fans that we’re about four generations into now. Gary came up with the idea for the band to go back out and call it the Big Wheels Keep on Turnin’ tour. That’s where we came up with that. It was with his blessing – and, understand, Johnny and I were always talking to him. We would call him about the set list. We wanted to make sure that, just like as if he was there, he was good with it. We called him about everything. In fact, we would even call him after the shows sometimes. It probably didn’t go over well with him after he was already in bed and asleep. [Laughs.] But that’s brothers being brothers, you know? Unfortunately, everything was kind of irreparable. March 5th, that was it. He left this world.
You've had Damon Johnson [of Thin Lizzy and Alice Cooper] playing guitar while Gary was unable to come out on the road. I spoke with Damon last year and I know that he got to share some moments with Gary that was extremely meaningful to him.
Several months ago, we recorded at the Ryman in Nashville for a live video, which would be Gary’s final performance with us. He insisted that Damon stay out onstage when he came out to play with us. He insisted. Damon, that made his year, you know? If I said to you, “Oh, it’s been a piece of cake,” it hasn’t. This has been probably the most difficult thing to get through. Speaking just for me personally, when you have known somebody and been with somebody for that long, it’s just not one of those things that you wake up one day and you’re over with it or feel better about it. It’s still a raw nerve in my heart.
Now, from this point, going forward, it’s going to be interesting. We’re [carrying on] with the blessings of everybody, Dale [Rossington] and the estates – all of the people that are involved. They want to see the music continue. The music has been so iconic. Gary passed on March 5th. His services were the following week and we had a gig booked that he was going to come out to. There was no ducking out of it. It was very tough for Johnny and I and the rest of the band. Lo and behold, as it would happen, we received an award backstage that Spotify had sent us, thinking that Gary was going to be there. It was a big plaque with a huge platinum disc in the middle of it that had Spotify’s logo in the platinum disc.
When I looked at it, I couldn’t hardly believe it. It had on there, “certified one billion streams of ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’” One billion. I just looked at that and I was really taken aback. I was very proud of that and very happy, but what a heavy mountain to be standing on. It’s [a huge] accomplishment and as it happens, [we got that news] right before we were saying goodbye to Gary. It was really an interesting deal. But here we are, man. You and I are sitting here talking today. The band’s getting ready to start doing gigs. We’re going into production rehearsals. We’ve got this new tour. It’s the 50th anniversary since the Pronounced 'Leh-'nerd 'Skin-'nerd record was released – which really slaps me upside the head. [Laughs.]
I was with the original band. I consider and a lot of other people consider that I’m one of the original early members of the band, because when I got with the band, it was the formidable years of Ronnie, Gary, Allen, Larry Junstrom – who went on to play with 38 Special – and myself. When I think about that now, it’s just mind-blowing to me, because it seems like yesterday. [Now] we’re getting ready to go out on this Sharp Dressed Simple Man tour with ZZ Top. They say the ticket sales are looking good and the people are crying out for the music. My phone just blew up, with people begging, “Please don’t let this be the end.” I mean, you’re going to have some people who are going to say, “Why don’t you guys hang it up? Hang up your boots and walk on down the road.” But when you’ve been a part of music like that and you’ve been a player all of your life – which I have been, [it’s what we know and are used to].
I’ve been a real player all of my life. The history of myself and my granddaddy, I was three years old when I started. I’ve got pictures of myself on television as a three-year-old with a banjo, playing next to my grandfather. I just celebrated my birthday in February. I’m 73 years old and I’ve been in music 70 years. You know what? I’m like a 17-year-old when you put a guitar in my hand. I’m ready to go.
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