Charlie Starr, the singer-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 as 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?’ She said, ‘He said to play the blues.’ And I got that because that’s where Gary came from,” Starr says, calling from Zurich, Switzerland, where Blackberry Smoke are about to perform.
Starr, however, 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 so 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 71. We asked Starr to explain Lynyrd Skynyrd’s impact, dissect Rossington’s approach to his instrument, and unravel the mysteries of the guitarist’s signature slide intro to “Free Bird.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd were omnipresent 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 those songs are like Beatles and Stones songs — they’re accessible. But they’re also more complicated than people give them credit for. They are timeless and perfect. The perfect songs.
Gary was so incredibly tasteful as a guitar player. I’m sure most guitar players who are fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd can tell the difference between the guitar players and know who is playing what. They were all so different, starting with Ed King, Allen Collins, and Rossington. Gary was the “slowhand” 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 to you also. Think about Ronnie saying, “Play it pretty 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 pretty. The song is not “Free Bird” without that part.
Listen to the solo for “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” too. It’s another verse to the song. That’s what Gary did; with his guitar, he sang another verse when it was his solo. It was so melodic 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’s playing the double-stop part. That’s another hook to the song. He may have been a little more like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards as one: He played with a slowhand soul but was very riff-oriented. His playing will always stand the test of time. All of the band’s guitarists will because they were so phenomenal, but Gary was leading the charge.