The Skynyrd member’s death signals the end of an era for Southern rock

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington, who died Sunday, made it big when rock ‘n’ roll was still a defining cultural force on par with today’s TikTok trends and superhero movies.

The last surviving co-founder of the iconic band was also perhaps the last pillar in a once-powerful part of American music: Southern rock. Or at least a rebellious version of him that later became loosely associated with conservative politics and didn’t shy away from some of the troubled symbols of the South.

“They’re the band that codified a lot of what we think of as Southern rock,” said Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a music critic who writes for AllMusic, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.

Lynyrd Skynyrd sang about Southern life while playing a form of muscular and gritty blues rock. The music can be raw or escalate into an extended guitar solo, as in their anthem “Free Bird”.

But the Lynyrd Skynyrd of 2023 bears little resemblance to that of nearly 50 years ago, when the original incarnation featured a group of long-haired musicians who fit into the American counterculture and were certainly not embraced by Nixon-era Republicans, Erlewine said.

The group’s use of the Confederate flag was then seen as “part of their rebellious streak,” Erlewein said. They really didn’t look at the battle flag “as rebellion or pro-slavery, but more like garden rebellion,” he said.

In recent decades, however, the group has come to represent a more specific brand of politics, especially as the distinctions between Southern rock and country have blurred and their audiences have blended.

Some of the group’s current members have been openly political. Last year, current lead singer Johnny Van Zant wrote a song with his brother Donnie — apart from the band — that praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024. Erlewine said the band’s sound — and that of Southern rock in general – eventually became “kind of like Red State, old fashioned rock.”

The original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, which released its first album in 1973, had intense musical chemistry and were tougher and tougher than other groups united under the Southern rock banner, such as The Allman Brothers Band and The Marshall Tucker Band .

They landed on three guitarists whose layers produced a thick, muscular sound that could become “a locomotive for solos,” Erlewine said.

But the label “Southern rock” was nebulous at best, said Alan Paul, a music journalist who interviewed Rossington several times for Guitar World and for his forthcoming book, “Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the 70s.”

The most accurate way to describe the genre, shaped by wide-ranging influences, “would be rock bands that sound distinctly Southern — they don’t hide anything about their Southernness,” Paul said.

The Georgia-based Allman Brothers Band hated the term, Paul said, because it was too reductive. But Lynyrd Skynyrd embraced the Southern rock label “to the point of making people uncomfortable,” Paul said.

The Florida group’s piercing “Sweet Home Alabama” was a response to Neil Young’s “Alabama” and “Southern Man,” which denounced slavery in the South. The song name-checks Young and indirectly references Alabama Governor George Wallace, a staunch segregationist who later softened his views.

The band’s original lead singer and songwriter, Ronnie Van Zant, claimed the reference did not support Wallace.

“A lot of people believed in segregation and all that. We didn’t. We put the boo, boo, boo in there, saying, ‘We don’t like Wallace,’” Rossington agreed in a documentary interview.

But Paul said he doesn’t really believe that – “I don’t think most people do.” Paul cites a memoir written by the band’s original manager, Alan Walden, who says Ronnie Van Zant was “a Wallace man through and through.”

Yet Erlewine also points out that Van Zant wrote a 1975 song, “Saturday Night Special,” that subtly questioned the use of guns.

“There was definitely a reactionary conservatism in parts of Skynyrd, but they couldn’t be seen strictly in terms of what you would consider conservative politics,” Erlewein said of their first incarnation.

A plane crash in 1977 killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, and Rossington was injured. The group reformed a decade later, with Johnny Van Zant taking over as his older brother. Rossington was among the returning members, and as the line-up continued to change, he would remain.

It’s this reconstituted version of Lynyrd Skynyrd that really seems to adopt a more conservative image, Erlewine and Paul said.

In the 1990s, the band’s audience began to overlap with that of Hank Williams Jr. and Charlie Daniels, a pioneer of southern rock whose sound became more country.

“A lot of the sounds that were progressive in the ’70s and based on rock got incorporated into country music and became the sound of country music,” Earlewine said. “Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn’t really play country music, but there’s an overlap between the audience … it all becomes kind of a certain kind of Southern music.”

He added: “Certain images, certain sounds, certain ideas were put into place. And it’s easier to keep playing that stuff because that’s where the audience is.”

The still-touring Lynyrd Skynyrd have regularly used the Confederate battle flag in their live concerts for decades. Rossington told CNN in 2012 that the group would stop using the flag because of its association with hate groups, but later retracted the comment, saying they would continue to use it, along with the Alabama state flag and the U.S. flag.

These days, musicians who might be seen as honoring the cultural and musical ideas of 1970s Southern rock — and building on them — tend to be more progressive politically, Erlewine said. These include Jason Isbell and groups like the Tedeschi Trucks Band and the Drive-By Truckers, who also sing about life in the South.

The Truckers’ 2001 album Southern Rock Opera explored misconceptions about the South, the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Wallace’s legacy, among other things.

“I was a (Skynyrd) fan in grade school when they were actually making records,” the band’s Patterson Hood told The Associated Press in 2002, saying he rediscovered a love of their music after buying a vinyl copy of the previous crash double live set “One More for the Road” years later.

“After the crash, I wasn’t interested in the other southern rock that was being made at the time,” Hood said. “A very southern rock took a starboard course after the plane crash.”

In the space of half a century, Lynyrd Skynyrd have gone from playing mainstream rock and roll to almost being a tribute band unto themselves. They were unruly longhairs who established themselves in a culture aligned with the conservative upper class. And Rossington was there for it all, with his rhythmic and crunchy guitar keeping the band rooted.

“That type of rocker is gone,” Erlewine said of the last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Paul added: “Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the biggest bands of the mid to late 70s. When rock ‘n’ roll was really at the center of the cultural conversation – in a way that maybe it hasn’t been since and it certainly isn’t now.”

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