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Sunday Journal: Another free bird flies away

In a lodge of wood and stone up in the Rocky Mountains, my new wife held her bouquet of roses and asked, "Do we have to hear all Lynyrd Skynyrd songs at our wedding reception?"

"Yes," I told my beautiful, eternally devoted Linda. "We do."

We'd heard Skynyrd's keyboardist Billy Powell playing Greensleeves on a boom box in a chapel overlooking the Continental Divide as Linda walked down the aisle, past our grown daughter in the front pew. Made me wonder why so many lonely people love highway and train songs.

A wedding is a time when your life, and regrets, flash before your eyes. Better there than at a funeral, like the one in Jacksonville for Powell, 56, who died last week of an apparent heart attack. Another traveling man with a wife and kids laid to rest. If you haven't heard him play Free Bird, it's too late to get tickets. You can still hear the crowd calling for his signature song.

• • •

I wished I'd walked over and shaken his hand when I was a young reporter for the Florida Times-Union, talking with Lynyrd Skynyrd's surviving members after their tour plane crashed in a Mississippi swamp in 1977. Sycamores slicing through steel took the life of singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, who kicked everyone else's rear if they didn't rehearse right. Gone, too, were Oklahoma picker Steve Gaines and his sister, Cassie, an angel of a singer, who bled to death in Powell's arms. The crash also killed life-long friend and road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and two pilots trying to party like the rock stars they flew around to gigs. But no one else could party or play like those boys from Jacksonville's west side. From their upbringing in what they call "Shanty Town," to the tin rehearsal shack they called "Hell House" in the swamps, to arenas and stadiums all over the globe, they spent their lives on the road to Madison Square Garden — and fell just a few shows short. Out of the whole scruffy bunch vowing to make it to New York's biggest stage, Powell and founding guitarist Gary Rossington finally walked up those steps to play the Garden last May.

I really wished I'd shaken Powell's scarred hand because, despite his fame, the rotund rock star was like me and you, with the most unassuming talent. For years he was the band's roadie, toting drums and amps from rusty vans to smoky bars, hanging on every note at last call. Until one day, setting up the equipment for the Bolles School prom, he noticed an old Steinway in the corner. Asked about maybe adding a piano part to that Free Bird song the band was working on. And stunned them all with those opening notes 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 new songs, be some kind of new band. Rehearsing at the house that fate built Allen Collins for teaching air guitarists everywhere the frenetic end of Free Bird. After I left his house, Collins did too, driving too drunk and fast, like his songs, hitting a culvert 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 called "Follow That Dream" that opened on the 23rd anniversary of his death. "He wasn't home much," she said, caressing the glass covering 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, back on the ground, home with his wife and daughter, Ronnie liked to cut the grass. And sometimes he took his frustrations to a tin shed out back of his house on the St. Johns River, 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. Ronnie sent checks to all the hacked-off motel managers, and insisted they send him what he'd paid for. Looming over the shed was a Holiday Inn sign with no neon behind the cracked glass. Ronnie would smack it all again with a sledgehammer, trying to get those miles and screaming fans out of his head.

You might rightfully ask, who could understand such behavior? If you don't dip Skoal and hunt wild hogs, why mourn one more redneck gypsy who made music with Lynyrd Skynyrd?

The ironic truth is, it's the best-selling Southern band in history, known for waving that rebel flag, and paying honest-as-a-heartbreak tribute to the black man's blues, and the poor man's picking, with down-home genius no bar band can emulate — though most try. Foot-stomping, locomotive-chugging swamp sounds, played with bottle necks and wash tubs, passed from fathers to sons on porches at sunset, and TVs tuned to Hee Haw, 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 Rossington told me that day at Collins' house, bemoaning synthesized "modern music," cursing "all this new-fangled stuff" on the radio, saying, "I feel sorry for kids today.

"We had the Beatles," Rossington went on. "We had Otis Redding . . .''

• • •

So I had to ask, on a timeless wedding day, what kind of musical legacy could you leave your daughter without mournful songs about cars, highways, ships and trains? Even if that music sometimes involved bar brawls — and brought the pounding of "a thousand baseball bats," as one survivor described the sound of the sycamores hitting airplane skin, then bone.

Did Ronnie know, for a millisecond, braced between his two oldest friends, that he was going home — but not to his wife and daughter, or lawn mower or shed full of busted TVs?

Somehow, at that altar in the Rockies, my wife and daughter still smiled at me. Our preacher even forgave us for that honky-tonk piano processional, maybe seeing how steep the way up to the chapel had been.

"I just thank God you put up with my music," I told Linda, as an acoustic version of Sweet Home Alabama played. She put down her roses, took me in her arms 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 Free Bird wasn't really the song I wanted to hear.

Ran Henry is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book "Ball Coach: How Steve Spurrier Beat the Confederate Chicken Curse," and a writing professor in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program at the University of Virginia.

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Sunday Journal: Another free bird flies away 01/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:36pm]
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