(Headline USA) Gary Rossington is as free as a bird now.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s last surviving original member—who also helped to found the group—died Sunday at the age of 71. No cause of death was given.
“It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today,” the band wrote on Facebook.
“Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary, Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy at this difficult time.”
In recent years, the band, even without its original lineup, had been a throwback to a simpler time when America’s values were less muddled. The band continued, unapologetically, to use the Confederate flag as a symbol to tout its Southern heritage.
It also appeared at a 2022 rally stop with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, even as other country artists feared cancelation for supporting the wildly popular Republican.
One of the band’s signature songs, “Sweet Home, Alabama” includes a harsh indictment of ’60s era carpet-baggers like Canadian folk-singer Neil Young. It was a direct response to Young’s songs like “Alabama” and “Southern Man” that painted the American South as backward and cruel.
“Well I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow,” replied Lynyrd Skynyrd in its now iconic lyrics.
Rossington cheated death more than once, Rolling Stone reported. He survived a car accident in 1976 in which he drove his Ford Torino into a tree, inspiring the band’s cautionary song “That Smell.”
A year later, he emerged from the 1977 plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, with two broken arms, a broken leg, and a punctured stomach and liver.
“It was a devastating thing,” he told Rolling Stone in 2006. “You can’t just talk about it real casual and not have feelings about it.”
In later years, Rossington underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 2003, suffered a heart attack in 2015, and had numerous subsequent heart surgeries, most recently leaving Lynyrd Skynyrd in July 2021 to recover from another procedure. At recent shows, Rossington would perform portions of the concert and sometimes sat out full gigs.
Rossington was born Dec. 4, 1951, in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised by his mother after his father died. Upon meeting drummer Bob Burns and bassist Larry Junstrom, Rossington and his new friends formed a band, which they tried to juggle amid their love of baseball.
According to Rolling Stone, it was during a fateful Little League game, Ronnie Van Zant hit a line drive into the shoulder blades of opposing player Bob Burns and met his future bandmates. Rossington, Burns, Van Zant, and guitarist Allen Collins gathered that afternoon at Burns’s Jacksonville home to jam the Rolling Stone’s “Time Is on My Side.”
Adopting Lynyrd Skynyrd as the group’s name—both a reference to a similarly named sports coach at Rossington’s high school and to a character in the 1963 novelty hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”—the band released their debut album (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-’nérd) in 1973.
A collection of country-tinged blues-rock and Southern soul, the album included now-classics like “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man” and “Gimme Three Steps,” but it was the closing track, the nearly 10-minute “Free Bird,” that became the group’s calling card, due in no small part to Rossington’s evocative slide playing on his Gibson SG.
Rossington told Rolling Stone that he never considered Skynyrd to be a tragic band, despite all the band’s drama and death.
“I don’t think of it as tragedy—I think of it as life,” he said upon the group’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2006. “I think the good outweighs the bad.”
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press