Damon Johnson Talks Gary Rossington’s Return to Lynyrd Skynyrd

After nearly a year, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington is tentatively set to return to action at the band’s concert in Fort Campbell, Ky., on May 21.

Rossington, the last remaining founding member of the legendary group, exited the road in July 2021 after having emergency heart surgery. He previously battled heart-related issues in 2015 and 2019.

The remaining members tapped guitarist Damon Johnson, known for his work with Thin Lizzy and Alice Cooper in addition to his own group, the recently reactivated ’90s rockers Brother Cane, to fill in.

As Johnson tells UCR, he’ll continue to play with the group in the interim and will share the stage with Rossington, a personal request from the guitar legend.

During a conversation last week, Johnson detailed his experiences with Lynyrd Skynyrd while sharing some information on how they plan to move forward with Rossington and this year’s scheduled tour dates.

For people that don’t know, how did you get the call to fill in for Gary Rossington?
I have a 30-year relationship with [Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist] Rickey Medlocke. We have been great friends ever since Brother Cane opened for Blackfoot in Texas in 1993. I think “Got No Shame” had been at radio for maybe six weeks. We were just starting to get some action. You know, we were playing any and everywhere that we could.

Two random shows in San Antonio and Houston, we opened for Blackfoot. You know, I was a fan. I grew up on those records. I had seen Blackfoot three times in my youth. It was a big day to get to the gig and introduce myself to Rickey. I don’t know, man, he just took a shine to me. We exchanged numbers. Whenever he came to Birmingham, he’d call me. And as you know, he later joined Skynyrd. It was 1996 when he got on board with them on guitar, and that was a big event for him. It was really exciting for all of us that are fans of Rickey and Skynyrd.

That’s a long answer, but Rickey called and said, “We’re in a pickle. Gary has had another heart issue.” They had already rescheduled dates from 2020 that had gotten canceled. As you and I were discussing [before the interview], this goes back to the crew and employees and people working and trying to get back to work. So that’s how it happened.

It’s the same right now as it was then. We all hope Gary can come to as many shows as possible, certainly as many as he wants to. He wants to come back. You know, he’d love to be tip-top shape, come back and just resume his position full-time. But his health just isn’t to a place yet for him to count on that and, you know, for the band to be able to count on that.

I understand that.
Yeah, so I don’t think he’s coming to California. That’s a couple of lengthy plane flights, and that’s a lot of travel. But he is going to be with us. We’ve got a show literally about an hour north of Nashville. He lives in Atlanta, so things like that are a lot more practical. I’m just basically here to fill in. You know, last year was so good for my profile, which I’m very grateful for. Especially because Skynyrd and their management, they had my band support and open on almost a dozen shows.

That’s so great.
I did four or five on acoustic by myself and then I did half a dozen with the trio, which was just a blast. I didn’t see any of this coming. Certainly, the last time you and I spoke, none of this was in the cards. It certainly wasn’t being discussed in my phone calls with my manager or anything like that. [Laughs] It’s been incredible, and it’s such a thrill for me as a guitar player, and it’s just an honor. You know, Skynyrd is legendary. Their fans have been so kind and appreciative. Because, look, they want to hear those songs themselves and they want to see the band. They want Gary back more than anybody. But they can tell, man, that the music is special to me. You know, it’s a great feeling to get their endorsement. Because I’ve talked to some of them directly and they’re just like, “Man, you’re doing a great job. Thanks for helping out, this is cool.”

Have you had a chance to play with Gary at all, even in a rehearsal context?
Yeah, man. Honestly, it just happened last week. We had three days of rehearsal. Basically what we’ve planned is, on the shows that he comes to and wants to play, I’ll do the first half of the set. Then, he’s going to come out halfway through. There’s a little segment where we’re going to play acoustic. We’re going to do a couple of blues songs off the first record. So he’s going to play his electric and the rest of us are on an acoustic guitar. Then, when the band transitions to full electric, he asked me if I would stay up there. He wants me to be on stage with him and everybody. So again, man, what an honor to be asked to do that. I said, “Listen, man, whatever you want, the answer is yes.” I’ll probably just play acoustic and be there to have that extra energy on stage. But, you know, he was in great spirits. Honestly, he looked and sounded healthier than he has. He played his ass off [and] just sounded fantastic.

What are some of the interesting nuances about the songs that you have found as you’ve played them?
Great question. And there are many. [For] any guitar player making his way around the neck, the thing that’s kind of like a treasure hunt is trying to determine where on the neck he might be playing a certain solo to give it a specific feel. That’s a bit technical. Folks who aren’t guitar players probably can’t really understand that. But, you know, I watched him play “Simple Man” and I watched him play “Call Me The Breeze,” which are two of my favorite songs to play. It made me kind of proud. “Okay, I’m playing that right and that right.”

But then in “Simple Man,” he went to a place in the rhythm part and I was like, “Oh! He plays it there!” And it’s way easier to play it there, why didn’t I think of that? [Laughs] I was making it a little tougher than it should be. And it just sounds more authentic when you play it in the right position on the neck. But you’ll get a kick out of this: We ran the last half of the set first and let him get his reps and get comfortable. Then, he went and sat out in a chair right by the soundboard. We had to play the first half of the set, and I’m playing through his rig, the speakers are aimed right at his head so he could hear every note I’m playing.

Thankfully, I’m pretty comfortable in any situation, musically. But I’m not going to kid you, it crossed my mind, like, “Holy shit, man!” That’s got to be weird for him, because it’s weird for me. You know, here’s someone else playing your parts through your gear with your band. [Laughs] But he was amazing. He was just a sweetheart, giving me hugs and high fives. He’s appreciative. You know, he told me, “Thank you for filling in for me. I know it means a lot to the guys and to the band and to the fans.” It’s just been a big love fest. There’s been nothing negative about this whatsoever. I’m still thanking Medlocke pretty much every time I see him for calling me.

Listen to ‘Simple Man’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd

When you first got the call and started rehearsing, did you tap into any lifelines for information on how to play certain things?
Absolutely. Look, some of those parts are challenging. Rickey and Sparky [Skynyrd guitarist Mark Matejka] right from the beginning said, “Man, don’t hesitate to call or ask any questions.” I certainly took them both up on that. Sparky in particular was very helpful. Because we only had one and a half rehearsals before I did that first show. So I had to learn a lot really fast. Of course, I was familiar with every song, but it’s just different when you have to focus in on a particular part. I think the lead stuff actually came to me a little easier than even some of the rhythm parts as far as which part is what. Because as you know, there’s three guitar parts on all of those songs. So it wasn’t always easy for me to pick out which one was Gary. Sparky was really helpful. He told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Damon, Gary’s feel is so unique, you’ve almost got to play it like you’re a little stoned. He plays on the back of the beat, sort of how Aretha Franklin sings.”

When he put it in that context, I immediately recognized the value of that and was just grateful to him for putting it in that kind of frame. It helped me tremendously. You know, certainly, I was excited. So I’m kind of playing ahead on everything, just because I’m going, “Holy shit.” I’m playing all of Gary’s parts on “Gimme Three Steps.” Man, I won the talent show in 11th grade in high school playing that song, you know? I mean, it’s nuts. That helped me a lot. There’s some really cool unison solos that Gary and Medlocke play together. So Rickey and I sat one on one, not just at rehearsal, but even in the dressing room before the show, and we would run through parts. He would come straight to me and go, “Hey buddy, anything you want to go over, let’s do it.” I’m like, “Great, grab a guitar. I’ve got questions.” [Laughs]

“Workin’ for MCA,” there’s a lot of killer parts. I wanted to get those bends. I wanted to mirror exactly what Gary played, because he’s in unison with Rickey. That’s the opening song and it’s been their opening song for decades. It’s just so powerful, and the guitar part is insanely badass. “Simple Man,” as I mentioned earlier, that classic solo right in the middle of that song is just fiery. Gary and Allen Collins played that together on the record. It’s a big thrill for me to stand in the middle of the stage, shoulder to shoulder with Rickey Medlocke and play that timeless classic. It’s one of the all-time great songs ever. It was very special for me to get to do that.

What’s the song that you thought was going to be the easiest that was the hardest one?
I don’t know that I thought any of them were going to be easy. I will tell you this, my knees were shaking that first show when I had to play that slide guitar on “Free Bird.” I mean, that’s just biblical. That’s like “Amazing Grace” or “The Star Spangled Banner.” You know, even in rehearsals, I remember thinking, “Wow, I’ve got to be on my toes with this.” I had gone over it at home. And again, I’ve known it my whole life. But when you’re playing it with the band, it’s got to be right. It has to be correct. Of course, you’re on a slide guitar, it’s kind of easy sometimes to land on the wrong fret and all of the sudden, it sounds bad. [Laughs]

You can’t land on the wrong fret on that song.
No! You cannot fuck up “Free Bird.” Ever! So you know, I’ve always loved performing and wearing my cool clothes and looking as good as I can and performing and all of that stuff. But all of that’s out the window on a big song like “Free Bird.” You’ve got to deliver that musically. Once I got a little more comfortable playing it, then it was easier for me to walk towards the front of the stage. Those first couple of shows, man, I was hovering right by my amp, eyes on Michael Cartellone on the drums, just making sure [I was doing it right]. It was like, “Man, this is intense!”

Watch Lynyrd Skynyrd Perform ‘Free Bird’

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