ESSAY- Musical legacy: Lynyrd Skynyrd blessed my marriage
In a lodge of wood and stone up in the Rocky Mountains, my new wife held her bouquet of roses with both hands and asked, "Do we have to hear only Lynyrd Skynyrd songs at our wedding reception?"
"Yes," I told my beautiful, long-suffering Linda, "we do."
As Linda took her walk down the aisle at last, we'd listened to Skynyrd's pianist, Billy Powell, playing "Greensleeves" on a boom box in the chapel overlooking the Continental Divide, and I wondered why so many lonely people love highway and train songs. I wondered if real music lovers seek out loneliness– better to hear the music uninterrupted. A wedding is a time when your life, and regrets, flash before your eyes.
I wished I'd walked over and shaken Billy Powell's hand when I was a young reporter for the Florida Times-Union, talking with the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd after their tour plane crashed in a Mississippi swamp. Saturday, October 20, is the 30th anniversary of that crash.
It took the life of singer-songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, who kicked everyone else's ass if they didn't rehearse right. Gone too was extraordinary Oklahoma picker Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie, an angel of a singer– not to mention the band's beloved road manager and a couple of pilots trying to party like the rock stars they flew around.
But no other band could ever party or play like that bunch of boys from the West side of Jacksonville– what they called "Shantytown." All their life they'd been on the road to Madison Square Garden, but they fell just a few shows short.
I wished I'd shaken Powell's scarred hand, because that rotund piano player reminded me a little of myself. For years he'd been the band's roadie, toting drums and amps from rusty vans to smoky bars, hanging on every note his heroes played at last call. Until one day he asked about maybe adding a piano part to that new song they were working on. The band was stunned when, from an old Steinway, he coaxed the immortal opening notes of that song about leaving here tomorrow.
The day I visited the crash survivors, he stayed behind his white baby grand, looking on with redneck virtuosity while some of his bandmates hobbled over to talk. The others kept the distance they needed to work up some new songs, rehearsing at the house fate built Allen Collins for teaching air guitarists everywhere the end of "Freebird." After I left, Collins did, too, driving too drunk and fast, just like in his songs, hitting a ditch that took away his woman, his legs, and then his life.
Years later, I stood beside Ronnie's widow, Judy, at a Tallahassee museum exhibit about her husband that opened on the 23rd anniversary of his death. "He wasn't home much," she said, caressing the glass over the display of Ronnie's stage clothes and snakeskin hat, holding his grandbaby. "He wasn't home much," she said again, to herself.
When he did manage to get out of the spotlight, safely on the ground, home with his wife and daughter, Ronnie liked to cut his grass. And sometimes he took his pent-up frustrations to a big metal shed behind his house on the banks of the St. Johns River, as wide and choppy as the sea. The shed held the TVs, toilets, and motel furniture he'd busted up, after another show in another town's arena with what looked like the same airport van waiting out back. He insisted that all the hacked-off motel managers send him what he paid for.
Looming over the shed was a Holiday Inn sign, all the neon escaped from the cracked glass. Ronnie enjoyed smacking it all to hell again with a sledge hammer, trying to somehow get those countless miles and screaming fans out of his head.
If you're still moved by the music of a man like that, 30 years after he and his band plummeted into the October twilight, you might be a redneck, too. Maybe your trailer park emptied out, as Skynyrd's critics sneer, when the band of survivors came to the Pavilion last October, with Johnny Van Zant singing his big brother's songs. That rebel flag they wave (after first saluting the USA's red, white and blue) is undeniably a star-crossed emblem from redneck hell.
If you don't dip Skoal and hunt wild hogs, why commemorate the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd?
The ironic truth is, the band pays honest-as-a-heartbreak tribute to the black man's blues, and the dirt-poor white man's picking, with down-home genius no bar band can ever emulate, though most of 'em try.
Skynyrd rightfully waves the part of that damn rebel flag that flies over pure American music, southern grown: foot-stomping, dobro-heavy swamp sounds, highway tunes, train songs, and 12-bar blues, played on bottle-neck guitar and honky-tonk piano, powered by drums flailing like fists. Music passed from fathers to sons on sunset-red front porches, sounds that some neighborhood boys fell in love with when they were knee high to a Nehi.
"I think I'll be an old redneck father, going, 'Turn that damn stuff down,'" guitarist Gary Rossington told me that day at Collins' house, bemoaning the artifice of "modern music," cursing "all this newfangled stuff" and saying he "feels sorry for kids today."
So I had to ask, on a timeless wedding day– what kind of musical legacy could you leave your daughter without playing songs about cars, highways, bar fights, and trains? Even if that music turned into the squeal of sycamore trees slicing into airplane skin, then human bone.
Ronnie Van Zant was strapped in between his boyhood guitar buddies, who were destined to live and travel more miles. Did Ronnie know, for a millisecond, that he was coming home– but not to his wife and daughter and lawnmower and shed full of mementoes? Did he dream up a song about that, better than all the others, and wish someone could hear it?
Somehow, at that altar in the Rockies, my daughter and wife still smiled at me, with eternal thanks that some roads go on. And our preacher forgave the honky-tonk piano processional, seeming to understand how steep the way up to the chapel had been.
"I just thank God you put up with my music," I told Linda, as a rare acoustic version of "Sweet Home Alabama" played. She put down her roses and said, "I guess you can listen to any old hillbilly music you want on our wedding day."
I looked at our daughter in her pale peach dress, always my little girl, and told her she could start cutting that cake if we took too long.
Maybe "Freebird" wasn't really the song I wanted to hear.
Ran Henry is author of the forthcoming non-fiction book, Keeping Score: How Steve Spurrier Beats Almost Everyone at Everything. He's a writing teacher in the BIS Program at UVA.