As the last remaining original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gary Rossington knows about teetering on the brink of extinction.
That the iconic Southern rock band named its most recent album – its 13th studio release – “Last of a Dyin’ Breed” also speaks to the mortality of rock ‘n’ roll as a certain generation knows it.
“With the Internet, it’s mostly pop stars out there like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry and hip-hop and rap. The old blues bands and touring bands from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, we ARE a dying breed. We’re not alone,” Rossington said last week, checking in before the band’s album-signing appearance at the FYE record store in Lawrenceville.
The title track of Skynyrd’s new album, though, is actually about bikers, which the band sees plenty of when touring.
The “Skynyrd Nation,” as Rossington calls them, stretches three generations now, with multiple age ranges hoisting lighters to “Free Bird” and shouting the choruses of classic rock staples “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Gimme Three Steps.”
Those loyalists will likely be on hand Saturday when Lynyrd Skynyrd plays a free show at Turner Field after the 4 p.m. Braves game.
Rossington said no matter how many thousands of times he’s played the memorable slide guitar run in “Free Bird,” it always feels like, as Foreigner might say, the first time.
“People love to hear the old songs. They get all emotional for ‘Free Bird’ and ‘Tuesday’s Gone.’ Sometimes you see people crying,” he said. “The music is always for the people. We’ll do a couple of new songs as a little change up for us and the crowd, but we love the older stuff, too. We want to keep the name alive and talk about our brothers who aren’t with us anymore.”
Skynyrd famously lost three of its members in a 1977 plane crash, including singer Ronnie Van Zant. Since 1987, Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, has carried lead vocal duties.
Lynyrd Skynyrd has survived other challenges as well, such as the 2009 deaths of longtime keyboardist Billy Powell and then-bassist Ean Evans. Peter Keys replaced Powell and this year, after the departure of bassist Robert Kearns, former Black Crowes/Train bassist Johnny Colt has taken over on the four-string.
Rossington is convinced that there was a little spiritual help in the arrival of the band’s recent new members.
“Peter, God bless him, he plays everything like Billy did. And Johnny says he grew up listening to Skynyrd and plays a lot like Ean. They were kinda sent to us, I think. I feel the [deceased band members] a lot on stage and recording. I think they helped us find these guys,” Rossington said.
Though he’s a Jacksonville native, Rossington, 60, has lived in Atlanta for about 15 years, having moved here from Jackson Hole, Wyo.
His allegiance to Georgia – “Most Southern bands would say they’re from Atlanta because we all spent so much time here,” he said – will be rewarded in October when Rossington is inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and receive a songwriter award.
“I was almost in shock that they would ask me,” Rossington said about his reaction to the news. “I just thank who I’m writing with now, Johnny and [longtime guitarist] Rickey [Medlocke]. In the beginning, I always wrote with Ronnie. I had a lot of great partners. I’ll take the award, but I have to share it with all of them.”
After bringing those well-worn songs to fans in the U.S. through October, Lynyrd Skynyrd will head to Europe.
This week, the band is scheduled to play the Republican National Convention, a gig that Rossington said wasn’t politically motivated, but a charity benefit for the Wounded Warrior Project to show their support for the troops.
“We’re not really big Republicans or Democrats. We’ve got both in the band. We have a lot of opinions, but basically we say, if you like the way the country is now, vote that way. If you want change, vote the other way. If the Democratic convention would have asked us to play, we would have done that, too. We’re Americans, first and foremost,” he said.
As for Saturday’s post-baseball game concert, Rossington is ready to root for the home team.
“I can’t wait –we’re going to watch the game before the show. I’m a big Braves fan,” he said. “I love the Yankees, too. As a little boy, I played Little League and idolized Mickey Mantle, but the Braves are my number one team. I’m gonna wear my Chipper Jones jersey.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd performs Saturday after the Braves game (which begins at 4 p.m.) at Turner field. Concert is free (general admission seating) with game ticket. Separate passes for field access are $25. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com, www.braves.com.