Last of the Free Birds

Last of the Free Birds

Written by Tom Methans

Lynyrd Skynyrd began in 1960s Jacksonville, Florida. For those unfamiliar with Florida, Jacksonville is about 20 miles from the Georgia border, a few hours’ drive from Alabama, and a quick flight from Mississippi and Louisiana. Jacksonville is The South, and it’s where Gary Robert Rossington was born on December 4, 1951. Rossington was the last original and longest-serving member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Although he had been in poor health and decreased his live performances since suffering a heart attack in 2015, his death on March 5, 2023 closed a long and important chapter in American music history.

Rossington attended Robert E. Lee High School (now Riverside High School) with Ronnie Van Zant and original drummer Bob Burns, who is credited with naming the band Lynyrd Skynyrd after the coach of the Generals basketball team, Leonard Skinner. Coach Skinner, an enforcer of the short-hair rule, would kick long-haired boys out of school until they got haircuts. Rossington was thrown out for the last time in 10th grade and never returned. Rock and roll won over conformity. By 1970 Lynyrd Skynyrd was born, and a solid work ethic of writing, rehearsing, and performing made them a finished product for Al Kooper’s MCA Records-affiliated label, Sounds of the South. Kooper produced Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd (1973), Second Helping (1974), and Nuthin’ Fancy (1975). Tom Dowd would produce Gimme Back My Bullets (1976), and Street Survivors (1977).

The first album, namely the song “Free Bird,” set the foundation for their legendary status. This classic rock staple is undeniably one of the great American records, with relatable lyrics and the hard-driving sound of three guitar players. The “three guitar army” consisted of Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Ed King, formerly of Strawberry Alarm Clock, a psychedelic California group best known for “Incense and Peppermints” (1967). Fame grew after Al Kooper booked the band on the Who’s Quadrophenia tour. At first glance, it might seem like a mismatched pair, but according to Cameron Crowe, Townshend admitted, “They’re really quite good, aren’t they?” If you read enough Townshend interviews, you know this is high praise, and the music was fixing to get even better when Steve Gaines replaced Ed King on Street Survivors.


Gaines can be heard singing loud and clear on “Ain’t No Good Life” and co-singing with Van Zant on you “You Got That Right.” Gaines’ contributions and influence seemed to invigorate the band and add a fresh sound to the repertoire. The album also features “What’s Your Name” and “That Smell,” a tune inspired by Rossington’s car crash into an oak tree after consuming drugs and alcohol. Gaines was also featured on the live album One More From the Road, which achieved triple-platinum certification.


Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1973. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/MCA Records publicity photo/public domain.


This early version of Lynyrd Skynyrd ended not because of internal struggles, poor record sales, or substance abuse but because of a poorly-maintained airplane that went down over Mississippi on October 20, 1977. Among the six fatalities were Steve Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant. The survivors were guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, bassist Leon Wilkeson, pianist Billy Powell, and drummer Artimus Pyle – who is alive and well in South Carolina.

I discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977 at the age of 11. Before moving to the suburbs from the outskirts of Spanish Harlem in New York City, I was steeped in the sound of disco and funk, blaring from boom boxes playing the O’Jays, Ohio Players, and Commodores interrupted only by salsa rhythms from passing cars. My new suburban school had none of this music. We moved just 40 minutes north of the Empire State Building, and there was a large contingent of kids who dressed in nothing but denim, boots, and T-shirts emblazoned with band logos by 38 Special, The Marshall Tucker Band, Molly Hatchet, the Charlie Daniels Band, and Black Oak Arkansas, but Skynyrd still ruled. Surprisingly, the rich kids on the other side of town loved Skynyrd just as much. One of my friends played One More From the Road unceasingly in her room in a 15-room mansion. Rest assured, this girl knew nothing about swamps, poverty, or the plight of the working man, but the beauty of Skynyrd was their authenticity, connection to country and blues, and a sense of Americana. I credit her for my lifelong appreciation of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Southern rock.


After 1980, I rarely thought about Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Rossington Collins Band, or when the remainder of Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited for a 1987 tribute tour with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother on vocals. The band underwent a lineup change in 1997, and one-time member Rickey Medlocke returned as a guitarist. Medlocke started as a second drummer with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1971 and 1972 before joining Blackfoot, He can be heard on Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album (1978).

The band has never stopped working, and they should be in the same league as mainstream long-haulers The Allman Brothers Band and ZZ Top. But there’s an elephant in the room: the Confederate flag, a symbol they have clung to and displayed nearly the entirety of their career.

As a traveler to the South in the 1970s, the Confederate flag was ubiquitous and unquestioned. Many people never gave it a second thought until we realized and acknowledged what the flag symbolized to so many others. According to the 2018 documentary, If I Leave Here Tomorrow, the band offers various explanations for using the rebel flag, one being that MCA Records imposed the flag as a gimmick, and it differentiated them from other American bands touring abroad. Whatever the reason, Gary Rossington claimed he didn’t share the values of the hatemongers who hijacked the flag, and I tend to believe him. As a mere gimmick and stage prop in the 1970s, the flag served them well. However, I also believe that post-1987-Lynyrd Skynyrd relied on it to coalesce a fanbase that had dwindled in a changing music scene of heavy metal, rap, alternative, and grunge.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s record titles The Last Rebel (1993), Endangered Species (1994), and the greatest hits Southern Knights (1996) might be dog whistles to varying degrees, but 2009’s God & Guns is sheer pandering. Even with its WWE wrestling tie-in, the album made barely a blip in sales. “This Ain’t My America” bemoaned high gas prices, smoking bans, and a loss of respect for Uncle Sam, and school prayer. The title track, “God & Guns” is a predictable and stereotypical portrayal of rural folk. Were it not for the selective amnesia of his boozing, drugging, dressing-room wrecking bandmate, I wonder how Rossington reconciled those lyrics with Ronnie Van Zant’s on the anti-gun “Saturday Night Special.” As I listened to the album, I was impressed by the musicianship, even if I wasn’t the target audience.

Lynyrd Skynyrd tried retiring the Confederate flag in 2012, but within a few weeks they reversed position. They cited States’ rights and tradition, but the more likely reason could be explained by a Houston Chronicle headline, “Fans’ Outrage Prompts Lynyrd Skynyrd to Keep Confederate Flag.” Nevertheless, the band seemed to double-down as they attended political events and adorned the stage with flags, eagles, whiskey barrels, and walk-ons by guys in Uncle Sam costumes, which reduced a once monumental band to parody. That said, Lynyrd Skynyrd seems to have stopped displaying the flag over the last few years and have erased it from their merch.

How do we reconcile the present day with the attitudes and beliefs some of us once held? I’ve lived through the burning of disco records in the 1970s and the steamrolling of albums deemed satanic during the 1980s. There are many bands I no longer support out of good conscience, but I would never deny someone else’s right to listen to them. It is important to remember that artists and fans are ever-evolving and should be extended the same opportunity to change and grow as we allow ourselves.

In the meantime, I treasure my copy of Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd. It’s not the first pressing but a numbered Mobile Fidelity Original Master Recording that is out of print. I wanted the best version of that landmark album with all my beloved songs and that simple cover photo of a raw Southern hippie band. My favorite is the slow-dance tune “Tuesday’s Gone,” then “Simple Man” with Rossington on lead guitar, followed by the first half of “Free Bird,” during which Gary Rossington plays slide guitar with the sticky sweetness of a roadside pecan log and the attack of white lightning pouring through his fingers onto the strings of his trademark Gibson guitars.


Rossington was laid to rest in a family plot back in Jacksonville in the same cemetery as his band brothers Ronnie Van Zant (1948 – 1977), Allen Collins (1952 – 1990), Leon Wilkeson (1952 – 2001), and Billy Powell (1952 – 2009). Coach Leonard Skinner (1933 – 2010) is there too. In his later years, Skinner was happy to be associated with his namesake and probably didn’t mind their long hair.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jon Callas.

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