Blackberry Smoke singer-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 were walking down the aisle to renew their wedding vows on the cruise ship? “I said, ‘What does he want me to play? She said, “He said to play the blues.” And I got that because that’s where Gary is from,” says Starr, calling from Zurich, Switzerland, where Blackberry Smoke is set to perform.
Starr, however, made a spontaneous decision and chose “Amazing Grace” as the accompaniment. “After I walked down the aisle, Gary yelled at me, ‘OK, play the blues now!’ and I did. He came over and gave me a big kiss on the face,” Starr says. “I’ll carry that with me forever.”
Rossington, the last original member of Skynyrd, died Sunday at age 71. We asked Starr to explain the impact of Lynyrd Skynyrd, dissect Rossington’s approach to his instrument, and unravel the mysteries of the guitarist’s signature intro for “Free Bird.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd was all over the radio when we were kids. And then when you get an electric guitar and you’re from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, that’s what you want to play. And these songs are like the songs of the Beatles and the Stones – they are accessible. But they are also more complicated than people think. They are timeless and perfect. The perfect songs.
Gary had so much taste as a guitarist. I’m sure most guitarists who are Lynyrd Skynyrd fans can tell the difference between guitarists and who is playing what. They were all so different, starting with Ed King, Allen Collins and Rossington. Gary was the “slow” guy in the group. He didn’t play flashy solos.
When you listen to “Free Bird”, his playing sounds like birdsong to you. Gary figured it was the job: Here’s that song, and Ronnie Van Zant has these amazing lyrics, and it’s my guitar’s job to sing you too. Think of Ronnie saying, “Play it pretty for Atlanta” (during “Free Bird” at the Fox Theater in 1976). How perfect is it? Because he knew Gary was about to play it really pretty. The song is not “Free Bird” without this part.
Also listen to the solo of “Don’t Ask Me No Questions”. This is another verse from the song. That’s what Gary did; with his guitar, he sang another verse while it was his solo. It was so melodic you could sing it. He wasn’t there to show you how many notes he could play. Even in “Gimme Three Steps”, when he walks in, he double-stops. This is another hook to the song. He was maybe a little more like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards: he played with a slow soul but was very riff-oriented. His game will always stand the test of time. All the guitarists in the band will do it because they were so phenomenal, but Gary was leading the charge.