Widow of Ronnie Van Zant, Family Remembers Classic Band, Song


ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida. – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic Sweet Home Alabama has become a southern anthem. It reached number eight on the music charts when it was first released in 1974.

Earlier this month, fans at a stand-up concert at the St. Augustine Amphitheater were rocked by the song, which never fails to stir fans of this band that has gone from local roots to Lee High School. 51 years ago to international fame.

The gig, like so many before it, once seemed impossible because Skynyrd’s plane crashed in the Mississippi woods 40 years ago last week en route from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge. to give 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 co-pilot, who investigators say did not realize the plane was short fuel until it’s too late.

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

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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 spoke about her late husband.

“He liked to get off the road just so he could relax a bit. He liked to fish,” she said. “He liked to go out. You know, I cooked. We just lived in Doctor’s Inlet, so he went fishing with Gary a lot, and he was a different person at home than on the road.”

She doesn’t like to think about the accident that marked her life and killed some of their friends.

“In my opinion, 40 years old is no different than 30 years old, 10 years old, five years old, 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 for her grandkids.

“Aria, she’s 17. This is Kodim, and he’s 11. They’re Melody’s kids, and then I have another granddaughter who lives in New Orleans. She’s 4,” said Van Zant.

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For the eldest granddaughter, it was the first time she had seen Skynyrd perform live.

“I actually just watched (the) Freebird movie for the first time this week to get a feel for it,” Aria said. “It’s 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 didn’t know when we spoke was that her uncle, Johnny Van Zant – the band’s lead singer since reuniting in the late 1980s – had a big surprise for her when the band played her classic song: Aria joined singers 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 unless I talk about it or unless they know who my mom is,” Aria said.

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

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After a good 90 minutes of music, the show ended with the most enjoyable song of all.

“Every night we play Freebird, people give you such energy. People come and say, ‘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 what keeps me going. The reason I’m here is the music. It never died, you know.”

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