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Ronnie Van Zant's widow, family remember classic band, song

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Lynyrd Skynyrd's classic Sweet Home Alabama become a southern anthem. It reached No. 8 on the music charts when it first came out back in 1974.

Earlier this month, fans at a standing-room only concert at the St. Augustine Amphitheater rocked to the song, which never fails to stir fans of this band that grew from local roots at Lee High School  51 years ago to international fame.

The concert, like so many others before it, once seemed an impossibility because of the crash of Skynyrd's plane in the Mississippi woods 40 years ago last week en route from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge to play a concert at LSU.

Six people died. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, singer Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the pilot and copilot, who investigators said failed to realize the plane was out of fuel until it was too late.

Twenty others were badly injured, including the band's other two founding members, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington. Drummer Artemis Pyle suffered cracked ribs but still managed to walk out of the woods and get help.

Ronnie Van Zant's widow, Judy Van Zant Jenness, attended the St. Augustine concert with her daughter, Melody, and two grandchildren. Before the show, she talked about her late husband.

"He liked to come off the road just so that he could chill out a bit. He liked to fish," she said. "He liked to hang out. You know, I would cook. We lived right on Doctor's Inlet, so he would go fishing a lot with Gary, and he was a different person at home than on the road."

She doesn't like to think about the crash that look his life and killed some of their friends.

"In my opinion, 40 years is no different than 30 years, 10 years, five years, whatever. Every day for that matter," she said.  "But I try not to think about it. It’s probably one of the worst days of my life."

Like all grandparents, Judy Van Zant is happiest when I changed the subject to her grandchildren.

"Aria, she’s 17. This is Kodim, and he is 11. These are Melody’s kids, and then I have another granddaughter who lives in New Orleans. She’s 4 years old," Van Zant said.

For the the oldest grandchild, it was her first time seeing Skynyrd perform live.

"I actually just watched (the) Freebird movie for the first time this week to kind of get a feel of it," Aria said. "This is really an important night for me."

The concert was also a first for Kodim.   

"I’m just really excited for it and just want to see how good it is," he said.

What Aria did not know when we talked is that her uncle, Johnny Van Zant -- the band's lead singer since it reformed in the late 1980s -- had a big surprise for her when the band played its classic song:  Aria joined vocalists Dale Kranz Rossington and Carol Chase during Sweet Home Alabama.

Could she have some Van Zant talent in her blood?

"People don’t really know about it unless I bring it up or unless they know who my mom is," Aria said.

Uncle Johnny also had a surprise for Kodim. Together they carried the flag for all the crowd to see.

After 90 solid minutes of music, the show closed with the most crowd-pleasing song of them all.

"Every night we play Freebird, the people give you such energy. People come up and said, 'We played that at my brother's funeral,' or 'Freebird was at my wedding,'" Gary Rossington said. "The music is what keeps it going, and keeps me going. The reason I’m here is the music. That never died, you know."

About the Author:

Tom Wills joined Channel 4 in 1975 and has co-anchored Jacksonville's highest-rated evening newscasts for more than 40 years.