The Secret to Gary Rossington’s Resilience
Gary Rossington died with his guitar strap on — metaphorically, at least.
And he wouldn't have had it any other way.
By all rights, the last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who died Sunday at the age of 71 — a little more than four months before the band was due to start its Sharp Dressed Simple Man Tour with ZZ Top on July 21 — should have been enjoying his golden years in quiet and away from the Free Bird he helped build, fishing and spending time with his grandchildren. Rossington began having heart problems in the mid-2010s, and his ailments would occasionally result in the cancellation or postponement of concerts. Despite that, however, he never thought of unplugging and stepping away, even if, like Foreigner's Mick Jones, he gradually became a guest star in the band he co-founded nearly 60 years ago in Jacksonville, Fla.
"I just take every day on faith," Rossington told this writer back when he and his wife, Skynyrd backup singer Dale Krantz-Rossington, released the album Take It on Faith in 2016. "I guess when it's my time, I'm ready. I'd rather be playing and living life up than ... like Neil Young said, it's better to burn out than to fade away. I'd rather just burn out in the next 10 years than sit in a rocking chair and look at the trees blowing in the wind.
"It's just in my blood, you know? I'm just an old guitar player, and we've spent our whole lives and the 10,000 hours of working to understand how to play and do it. So I think once you've got something going for yourself, you should keep it up and keep your craft going. When you retire, what's next? I like to fish, but how much of that can you do, right? So I want to keep doing what I do now and go wherever it takes me."
Rossington did consider retirement at one point, but Krantz-Rossington said it was a passing thought. "He's got several stents in his heart now," she said. "And after this last stent, we really had a serious talk about just letting it go for now and being happy to be alive. But after a few days, he was just miserable, and he said to me, 'I would much rather go out kickin' it than sitting here in my chair,' and that was the last time we talked about it. After that, we just decided to hit the road and ask for God's mercy and do it 'til we drop. It's just the way you do it when you've lived it your whole life. Every musician of age will tell [you] that, I think."
Watch Gary Rossington Perform 'Simple Man' With Lynyrd Skynyrd in 2015
Rossington maintained that he was also driven to continue out of "responsibility" to the music and the fans, and to the many bandmates he lost along the way. That included the 1977 plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his older sister Cassie Gaines, another Skynyrd backup singer, which put the band on hiatus for a decade. There were others along the way: guitarist Allen Collins, with whom he formed the Rossington Collins Band from 1979-82, original bassist Larry Junstrom, early guitarist Ed King, longtime pianist Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell and later guitarist Hughie Thomasson, among them.
"I think we're blessed to be able to play and share our music and our band and the stories of Skynyrd and talk about Ronnie, Allen and Steve and all the guys — Billy and Leon now, too, all the guys that have left us," Rossington explained. "We talk about them and we play, and it's just a great thing to do. Since the plane crash, I'm just thankful to still be here and try to make my way through this life."
Rossington was the only Skynyrd member to appear on all of the band's albums, most recently Last of a Dyin' Breed in 2012. The band did set off on The Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour in 2018, but it was open-ended and morphed into the Big Wheels Keep on Turning Tour last year, and the band had the new ZZ Top tour ahead. "We're getting old here," Rossington said in a later interview. "Touring's gotten to be harder, but we still love it. It's just a gas to play to people and see their expression and their feelings. It's just a dream come true, and that's not something you let go of easily."
What Skynyrd does now remains to be seen. A few years ago, Johnny Van Zant, who took over frontman duties for his older brother in 1987, noted that "Gary's the Guy. He's the link to the past, and he's what gives us our authenticity and credibility. I don't think you can have Lynyrd Skynyrd without Gary Rossington."
What was clear for the guitarist, however, was that you couldn't have Gary Rossington without Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he left on his terms, still playing those famous guitar licks he was part of creating.