Surveying the current Southern rock landscape, you can’t blame genre pioneers Lynyrd Skynyrd for feeling increasingly alone with each passing year.
Sure, contemporaries like the Allman Brothers Band and ZZ Top are still going strong, and My Morning Jacket and Kings of Leon have opened up strains of Southern rock to a whole new set of ears, but it’s no wonder the legendary “Sweet Home Alabama” rockers dubbed their latest album Last of a Dyin’ Breed.
“Of all the Southern bands that used to be around, playing and touring, there’s not many left anymore,” founding guitarist Gary Rossington recently told Guitar World, which in 2008 named the band's “Free Bird” guitar solo the third-best in rock history. “There’s Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber on the pop scene, but there really aren’t many of us around.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd was formed in 1964 by Jacksonville school friends Rossington, fellow guitarist Allen Collins and singer Ronnie Van Zant. They skyrocketed to rock stardom on the back of classic rock staples like “Gimme Three Steps,” “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” in the early ‘70s, although their prime was cut short in 1977 when three members — Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines — died in a plane crash hours after a performance in Louisiana.
The band regrouped in 1991, following the untimely death of Collins, with Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny on lead vocals. They’ve released nine albums in this current incarnation, the latest of which is, according to Rossington, “one of the happiest and most fun” albums he’s ever recorded.
“We got together and wrote the material and worked out the parts as a band and went in there and pretty much played it live,” he said. “It’s really fun to do it that way, which is the way we used to do it in the early days... It’s still fun to just sit down as a band and play the song.”
Last of a Dyin’ Breed arrived August 21 via Roadrunner/Loud and Proud Records (Buy on iTunes). Lynyrd Skynyrd is in the middle of a U.S. tour that runs through late October and culminates in the annual Simple Man Cruise, a three-day nautical adventure that sets sail from Miami on October 27.
GUITAR WORLD: What’s your first guitar memory?
My mother said I used to stand in front of the mirror with a broom and pretend I was playing guitar like Elvis. My first memory was this guitar I got at Sears & Roebuck after I had a paper route for a while. It was an acoustic guitar that I tried to learn on.
When did you get your first electric guitar?
My first electric guitar was from Sears, too. We didn’t have much money when I was younger, so I had to collect Coke bottles and cash them in and get a paper route to afford a guitar. That guitar from Sears came with a case and an amp and everything all in one. It was really cool.
Do you remember your first “We’ve made it” moment as a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd?
There’s a lot of little points like that, but the first time we played at a church dance was big-time to us. There was a place called Good Shepherd’s in Jacksonville where all the cool teens went to dance every weekend. When we played there, we thought we’d made it. Really, it was The Coliseum in Jacksonville — once we played the 10,000-seat Coliseum, we thought we’d made it big. Then there were a few other times — the first time we went on tour with The Who after the first album. We were playing in front of big crowds for the first time, flying on planes, so that was a big deal.
What would you be doing if Lynyrd Skynyrd never took off?
I really can’t do anything but play guitar and do this. We have a joke about how this is all we know how to do. Picking strawberries or picking cotton or something — I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d probably be a mess by now or on welfare or in a home.
“Free Bird” was named the third-best guitar solo of all-time by Guitar World. If you were to write that list, what would be on top?
I love Eric Clapton and what he did with Cream; “Spoonful” and “Crossroads,” those are probably the coolest solos. Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” and “All Along the Watchtower,” those solos are just so cool. That would be a hard one to pick.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever heard a Lynyrd Skynyrd song?
It’s really weird when we’re out of the country, whether we’re in Brazil or Greece or some crazy place like France or Germany. When you hear your song on the radio or in a store and you’re in a different country, it’s really freaky and surreal. I’ve heard them everywhere, but probably the weirdest is some band copying “Sweet Home Alabama” in a club, and it sure doesn’t sound like Alabama [laughs].
You’ve said Last of a Dyin’ Breed is “one the happiest and most fun” albums you’ve ever been a part of. Why is that?
With this one, we got together and wrote the material and worked out the parts as a band and went in there and pretty much played it live, except for overdubbing the solos and some vocals. It’s really fun to do it that way, which is the way we used to do it in the early days. There also weren’t any big, bad problems that happened during this album. Times have changed so much - people record onto a track by recording the drum track and building the whole song around it, but it’s still fun to just sit down as a band and play the song.
Your previous album, 2009’s God & Guns, was much more political lyrically. Was it a conscious decision to avoid that subject this time around?
Well, a little bit. Politics are a bit up in the air in this country right now, so we didn’t want to write all of the songs about it, too, because people would get sick of hearing it. They like to hear songs to forgot about politics and the pressures of everyday problems, so we tried not to get too political.
What’s your favorite of the new songs to play on guitar?
It’s really fun to play “Mississippi Blood.” We’ve been playing “Good Teacher” live, and everybody seems to like it and sing along with it. “Last of a Dyin’ Breed,” we open up with that and everyone likes that, too. They’re all really fun to play.
Lynyrd Skynyrd still tours plenty. Do you get the same rush from playing live that you did 30 or 40 years ago?
Oh yeah, it’s really fun. The hard part is the traveling. It’s hard for anyone to travel all the time. We’re a lot older now, so it gets to you, but playing for the people is what’s great about it. You get to see all of the fans’ faces and the emotions the music causes them to feel. It’s really cool to see your music touching people. Sometimes they’ll cry during “Free Bird” or “Simple Man” and start jumping up and down during “Gimme Three Steps” and “Call Me the Breeze.” That’s always really neat.