When We Heard That the Free Bird Had Fell to the Ground – Soapbox, Jr.
*NOTE* I apologize for the lack of soapboxes lately, but podcasting has been keeping me busy. I’m hoping to get back on track from here on out. I recorded part of this for the latest podcast episode, “When Grits Attack,” available wherever you get your podcasts, or at www.charliedaniels.com/podcast, but I wanted to expand on it for this anniversary of the Skynyrd crash. – CD, Jr.
“It was October in St. Louis town
When we heard that the Free Bird had fell to the ground
We all said a prayer before we went down to play.” – Charlie Daniels 1979
Those words are from the CDB song, Reflections, and speak about the tragic Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash.
Dad was very close with Skynyrd front man Ronnie Van Zant. In the early years, the CDB opened for Skynyrd on many occasions. Dad and Ronnie got to know each other well, and on the final date of what was informally dubbed “The Torture Tour,” the Sunshine Jam in Jacksonville Florida at the old Gator Bowl on July 10, 1976, which was supposed to be a fundraiser for then Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter’s presidential run. Ronnie got a bad case of the dry heaves and wasn’t able to perform, the crowd was restless, but so dad stepped up and jammed a couple of songs with Skynyrd boys before Ronnie joined them on stage for, “Free Bird.” A near riot broke out, but Ronnie apologized to the crowd. I guess the “Torture Tour” nickname was highly appropriate.
Ronnie gave dad a National Steel dobro that night which is still in our possession.
On October 20, 1977 the CDB was kicking off the first night of a new tour and getting ready to take the stage at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis, MO. While the band was warming up in the dressing room, someone came back and told everyone that there was a rumor going around that a plane carrying the Skynyrd band and crew had crashed and that there were no survivors.
Dad was not happy about getting that news before going on stage, but he gathered the band for a prayer before they took the stage, and that night they dedicated their set to the Lynyrd Skynyrd band.
Although they found out there were survivors, the following day, the news became official, both pilots, roadie Dean Kilpatrick, Guitar player Steve Gaines, and his sister, Cassie, who was one of the Honkettes backup singers were all deceased, along with dad’s dear friend, Ronnie Van Zant.
Multiple requests for statements from dad came, but the only statement issued was a poem that dad wrote after he learned of Ronnie’s death, which also became the dedication for the “Million Mile Reflections” album, and is carved on a granite bench near Ronnie’s grave:
“A brief candle, both ends burning
An endless mile, a bus wheel turning
A friend to share a lonesome time
A handshake and a sip of wine
Say it loud and let it ring
That we're all part of everything
The future, present and the past
Fly on, proud bird, you’re free at last”
In January of 1979, the band reunited and fused with the CDB to perform two songs at Volunteer Jam V, "Call Me the Breeze" and a haunting instrumental of "Free Bird." Later that year, the song Reflections was released which paid tribute to three singers who all died before their time, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and Ronnie Van Zant.
Dad also performed that song live for the first time at Volunteer Jam V, and had a tough time making it through the lyrics about his friend, Ronnie.
For dad’s 80th birthday, I really wanted to find a photo of dad and Ronnie together. I had been looking for one for probably at least five years to no avail.
I spoke to Ronnie’s brother, Donnie, I spoke to people in their organization. I put the word out on Skynyrd’s social media hoping that someone somewhere had a photo. I knew something had to exist, but I figured it was either buried in a shoebox, a photo album or on a film negative sitting in an envelope somewhere. Dad’s 80th came and went, and I wasn’t able to make that happen.
Then two years later in 2018, dad sent me screenshots of two pictures that someone sent him. An MCA Records promotion man from back in the 70s posted them and they ended up on a Facebook Skynyrd fan page, and someone sent them to dad. The pictures were from that show I mentioned above, “The Torture Tour” Sunshine Jam show, Ronnie is wearing a T-shirt that says “Who the F*** Are The Rolling Stones?” Those pictures were blown up and framed and one was given to him as his 82nd birthday present and the other one for Christmas.
We’ve been clearing out some items from Twin Pines Studio which I have mixed feelings about as best, and curiously those two pictures - which I wanted for my house - have turned up missing. I’m hoping they’re just tucked away somewhere, but nothing has turned up, so far, so I’m less that confident they will.
One last thought about Ronnie. Sometime in the mid-80s, a music critic named Dave Marsh released “The Book of Rock Lists,” and either dad bought a copy or someone gave it to him, I don’t recall. And CDB might have been mentioned in there, but I doubt it was a positive listing. But there were two lists which stood out, and one of them was particularly troubling.
The lists were Rock and Roll Heaven and Rock and Roll Hell. From what I can remember, the Heaven list had names like Buddy Holly who died in a plane crash, and some who died from excesses. Shockingly, Marsh had Ronnie in his Rock and Roll Hell list along with the likes of AC/DC’s Bon Scott.
Ronnie had his demons, like many rock stars do, but It was disturbing to see Ronnie, condemned to hell by Dave Marsh. I know it didn’t set well with dad either.
But here’s the thing, NO ONE on earth’s opinion affects where Ronnie or any of us is spending eternity. Ronnie was no saint, but very few of us are, I know he was raised in a Christian environment and I hope he was right with the Lord when that plane went down.
A day of judgment is coming for all of us, and thankfully Dave Marsh is not the One who makes that call.
RIP Ronnie, Steve, Cassie, Dean, Leon, Billy, Bob, Ed, and Allen.
Long live, the Lynyrd Skynyrd band!
Let’s all make the day count!
What do you think?
Pray for our troops, our police, the Peace of Jerusalem and our nation.
God Bless America!
— Charlie Daniels, Jr.
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