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Charlie Starr, the singer and guitarist for Blackberry Smoke, was sailing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man Cruise in 2012 when the daughter of Gary Rossington approached him with a personal request from the guitarist: Would Starr play guitar when Rossington and his wife Dale went 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 he was going to play the blues.’ And I got that because that’s where Gary was from,” says Starr, calling from Zurich, Switzerland, where Blackberry Smoke will be performing.
However, Starr made a spontaneous decision and chose “Amazing Grace” as the accompaniment. “After they walked down the aisle, Gary yelled over to me, ‘OK, play the blues now!’ and I did. He came over and gave me a big kiss on the face,” says Starr. “I’ll carry that with me forever.”
Rossington, the last original member of Skynyrd, died Sunday at age 71. We asked Starr to explain Lynyrd Skynyrd’s impact, dissect Rossington’s approach to his instrument and unravel the mysteries behind the guitarist’s signature slide intro to “Free Bird.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd was ubiquitous on 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 Beatles and Stones songs – they’re accessible. But they are also more complicated than people give them credit for. They are timeless and perfect. The perfect songs.
Gary was so incredibly tasteful as a guitarist. I’m sure most guitar players who are fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd can tell the difference between the guitar players and know who plays what. They were all so different, starting with Ed King, Allen Collins and Rossington. Gary was the “slow hand” guy of the bunch. He didn’t play flashy solos.
When you listen to “Free Bird”, his playing sounds like a bird singing to you. Gary understood that was the job: Here’s this song, and Ronnie Van Zant has these incredible lyrics, and it’s my guitar’s job to sing for you, too. Consider Ronnie saying, “Play it beautiful for Atlanta” (during “Free Bird” at the Fox Theater in 1976). How perfect is that? Because he knew Gary was about to play it really beautifully. The song isn’t “Free Bird” without that part.
Also listen to the solo for “Don’t Ask Me Any Questions”. That’s another verse to the song. That’s what Gary did; with his guitar he sang another verse as it was his solo. It was so melodious that you could sing it. He wasn’t there to show you how many notes he could play. Even in “Gimme Three Steps”, when he comes in, he plays the double-stop part. It’s another hook for the song. He was perhaps a bit more like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards as one: He played with a slow-hand soul, but was very riff-oriented. His game will always stand the test of time. All the guitarists in the band will because they were so phenomenal, but Gary led the way.