You understand Gary Rossington's mixed feelings these days.
This year represents a couple of significant but disparate anniversaries for the sole surviving founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Thirty-five years ago the group came to a halt after a horrific plane crash that killed three of its members, including frontman Ronnie Van Zant. But 10 years later, and 25 years ago, Rossington and others decided to re-launch the band and have continued ever since, with nine more studio albums -- including the new "Last of a Dyin' Breed" -- and a 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
But while the sadness over the crash lingers -- "Not a day goes by that I don't think of Ronnie and the others," Rossington acknowledges -- the guitarist is thrilled there's still a Lynyrd Skynyrd that not only plays "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama" but also continues to add new material to its catalog.
"Y'know, we love doing the old songs," says Rossington, 60, whose wife, Dale Krantz-Rossington, is one of Skynyrd's backing vocalists. "It still feels great to play the music and pay tribute to those guys who are gone now, whether they died in the crash or later on. That's why I'm sticking around, even though this is not the original Lynyrd Skynyrd.
"But we're creative and we're still songwriters, so we like to write new stuff a lot. We can't help it. I still feel young in my head. I feel like I'm in my twenties and I love playing and being on the road and that whole thing. And when we have new music, I'm proud of it."
Rossington's pride is hardly misplaced. Coming off the Top 20 success of 2009's "God & Guns," "Last of a Dyin' Breed" debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 in August, the Southern rockers' best showing since "Street Survivors" hit No. 5 after the crash in 1977. And as far as Rossington is concerned, that's not only a victory for his band but for groups in general these days.
"Bands like us are a dying breed nowadays," he explains. "You see more single acts, the Lady Gagas and Katy Perrys, and more pop stuff and hip-hop. Touring bands like us and the Allman Brothers and all the other Southern bands that used to be around are not really around anymore. It's just a dying breed, so it's great to see folks are still interested in something like a band anymore."
Rossington says that after "God & Guns," Skynyrd -- which has been fronted by Van Zant's younger brother Johnny since 1987 -- felt "a lot of momentum" going into "Last of a Dyin' Breed." The group worked again with producer Bob Marlette and wrote songs with the likes of Detroiters John "5" Lowery and Marlon Young of Kid Rock's Twisted Brown Trucker, as well as the youngest Van Zant, .38 Special's Donnie.
But while there was a political tenor to "Gods & Guns," it's replaced by more populist concerns on "Last of a Dyin' Breed."
"We just wrote songs about ourselves and things that are happening," Rossington explains. "We didn't really have politics to write about even though this is a political year. We wanted to stay way from that because it's just such a big fight now between the right and the left. We don't want to get into all that.
"We just write songs from our hearts and songs about the road and what we're going through or what we see people going through, that's all."
That ability to create, however, more than justifies that decision a quarter century ago to bring Skynyrd back to active duty. Rossington remembers that the group "didn't want to really do it" at the time, but a trial run of concerts was so well-received and so successful that "it really worked and took off again." The idea of the new edition of Skynyrd becoming a recording concern, however, was broached only after the various estates of the dead band members checked off on the idea.
"They all said yeah, they thought it would be alright as long as it was good and it kept with the style and the nature of the band to never do a (bad) record or a bad something just for the money," Rossington says. "We usually try to deal with dignity and class and uphold the high standards of the Skynyrd name.
"So that's what we did -- and are still doing, I think. I think if the (deceased) guys heard some of these songs they would give a smile and say, 'Yeah boys, way to go. That's the way to do it.' "
If Rossington has his way Skynyrd will continue doing that for quite some time. Though he's had some health concerns that have occasionally kept him off the road, the guitarist says he's "doing good" now, and he knows that, as the tie to the band's past, Skynyrd's future relies on him.
"I think it's going to have to end when I'm gone because of legalities with the other estates and stuff like that," Rossington says. "I don't think it could go on without me -- not that I'm that great, but me being around is kind of a condition that lets us keep it going.
"I never really thought about it without me because I've never been in that position. I'm just going to keep playing as long as I can play."
Lynyrd Skynyrd and Los Lonely Boys perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $29.50-$75 pavilion, $10 lawn. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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