Scott Dodelson/Getty Images; Jeff Han / Getty Images
Blackberry Smoke singer and guitarist Charlie Starr was sailing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man Cruise in 2012 when Gary Rossington’s daughter approached him with a personal request from the guitarist: would Starr play guitar while Rossington and his wife Dale walked down the aisle to renew their wedding vows On the cruise ship? “I said, ‘What does he want me to play?'” “He said to play the blues,” she said. And I got that because that’s where my neighbor came from,” Starr says, calling from Zurich, Switzerland, where Blackberry Smoke is about to perform.
However, Starr made a spontaneous decision and chose “Amazing Grace” as the accompaniment. After they walked down the aisle, Gary yelled at me, “Okay, I’m playing the blues now!” And so I did. He came over and gave me a big kiss on the face,” Starr says. “I will carry this with me forever.”
Rossington, Skynyrd’s last original member, passed away on Sunday at the age of 71. We asked Starr to explain Lynyrd Skynyrd’s influence, dissect Rossington’s approach to his instrument, and unravel the mysteries of the guitarist’s signature slide introduction to “Free Bird.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd was omnipresent on the radio when we were kids. And then when you get an electric guitar and you’re from Alabama and Georgia and Florida, that’s what you want to play. And these songs, like the songs of the Beatles and Stones – are accessible. But it’s also more complex than people give it credit for. They are timeless and perfect. The perfect songs.
Gary was very tasty as a guitarist. I’m sure most guitar players who are fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd can tell the difference between two guitar players and know who plays what. They were all very different, starting with Ed King, Allen Collins and Rossington. Gary was the “slow” guy on the set. He did not play flashy solos.
When you listen to “Free Bird,” its playing sounds like a bird is singing to you. Gary understood that’s the job: Here’s this song, Ronnie Van Zant has these great lyrics, and my guitar’s job is to sing to you, too. Think of Rooney saying, ‘Play nicely for Atlanta’ [during “Free Bird” at the Fox Theatre in 1976]. How perfect is that? Because he knew Gary was about to play it really nice. The song isn’t “Free Bird” without this part.
Listen to the single “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” as well. It is another verse of the song. That’s what Gary did. With his guitar, he sang another verse when he was solo. It was so melodic that you could sing it. He wasn’t around to show you how many notes he could play. Even in “Gimme Three Steps,” when he comes up, he plays a double stop. Here’s another hook for the song. Perhaps he was a little more like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards as one: he played with a slow spirit but was very oriented. His game will always stand the test of time. All the guitarists in the band would because they were so great, but Gary led the charge.
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