When three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd came to the CMT offices recently to tape an episode of Top 20 Countdown, they saw something that stopped them in their tracks: A black-and-white photograph capturing an unguarded moment between Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
"We had to stop and look at it for five minutes," says Gary Rossington, who played in various bands with Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant as a teenager in Jacksonville, Fla., prior to the band's formal transformation (with several additional members) into Lynyrd Skynyrd in the early 1970s.
"Ronnie's favorite guy was Merle Haggard, and he just listened to that every day. I loved it. Billy [Powell, the founding keyboardist] used to fight with him. He liked Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer -- and keyboard stuff. But we listened to the good old stuff. We still do, you know. I love Merle."
Despite his reputation as a Southern guitar god, Rossington is not bothered that distinctive guitar playing doesn't have as pivotal a role in country music as it used to.
"Like they say, it's all good," he says. "But I like the old Roy Nichols and Merle Haggard stuff and all the old great guitar solos and Roy Clark and just all the great pickers that are around. There are hundreds -- well, thousands -- of them here in Nashville. And that's what we grew up hearing and listening to: steel guitars and banjo when banjo was cool. It still is to us."
Guitarist Rickey Medlocke, a longtime friend who joined the band permanently in 1996, says, "The funny thing about it is, country and blues were hammered into us. My dad was a musician, played on the road and played all of his life. And I grew up in a musical family. I heard it all. I mean, I got accustomed to listening to Roy Acuff and all the old guys. It was really cool for me growing up in a family like that."
Medlocke lists Cash, George Jones and Waylon Jennings as the original musical rebels while citing Vince Gill and Marty Stuart as two of his favorite modern country guitarists. Meanwhile, lead singer Johnny Van Zant praises Brad Paisley and Keith Urban as superior instrumentalists, but he also has a soft spot for David Allan Coe.
"David Allan Coe actually went to jail one time," Van Zant says. "Some fan cursed Lynyrd Skynyrd, and David Allan Coe kicked his teeth in. He ran and kicked a guy's teeth in for saying something about Lynyrd Skynyrd. He actually pulled me on his bus one night to tell me this. And I go, 'Thanks, man!' Believe me, he'd do it again, I'm sure!"
Lynyrd Skynyrd's rowdy musical perspective is obvious in current country artists like Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson, as well as the band's summer tour partner, Kid Rock. "We're friends with them," Rossington says. "They heard us coming up, too. I mean, you have to if you're around a little while."
Lynyrd Skynyrd's catalog is familiar to anyone who's ever listened to a classic rock radio station -- "Sweet Home Alabama," "Free Bird," "Gimme Three Steps" and many others. However, the band is equally well known for the tragic plane crash on Oct. 20, 1977 -- just three days after their Street Survivor album was released -- that claimed the lives of members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines. The band unraveled shortly thereafter and the hiatus lasted a decade.
Today, Lynyrd Skynyrd hopes to reach country fans with the title track of a new album, Simple Man, and have been collaborating with top Nashville songwriters -- for example, "Unwrite That Song" with Jeffrey Steele. In the album's liner notes, the band also bids farewell to Powell and bassist Ean Evans, who both died this year. The inscription suggests that their spirit will remain, especially when the lights go down.
"That's the way we feel," Rossington says. "When we go onstage, we feel Ronnie and Allen and Steve and Leon [Wilkeson] and Billy and Ean and all of them that aren't with us. You feel their spirit, and we talk about them in interviews like this every day. We still live with them. They're in our hearts and souls. ... It's all one big family. Them and us."
"We'll never forget them," Johnny Van Zant says. "I mean, if you get too big of a head to forget who started this band along with Gary, and the meaning of Lynyrd Skynyrd, then you've lost what we're all about. "
"That's what we're doing it for, is to tell the story and share the music and just keep the dream going," Rossington agrees.
"One day, this music is going to outlive all of us," Van Zant says. "One day, we're all going to be gone. This music will keep. There will be a kid someday going, 'I wanna hear that song.'"
Asked if he had advice for teenagers trying to get into the music business, Rossington says, "Well, keep picking and keep playing. I got a T-shirt at home that Les Paul, God bless him, signed that says, 'Gary, keep on picking.' It's so simple, but it's great because that's what he thought to say to me. I'd just say, keep on picking and get somebody to watch your business because other people will do it for you. That's about it, man. I think people who really want to do something do it. No matter what. And they won't quit until they do it. So just don't be discouraged."
And for those families who have teenagers with an eye on performing?
"Help them a little bit," Rossington says. "Our parents helped us, or we wouldn't be here. Lacy Van Zant and my mother used to sign for amps or loan us money to get to the gig or take us in their car. It's just like little sports guys -- Little League and football players -- whose parents help them. That's why they get good. So just support them and be on their side."