Clay County Story Sessions: Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd: A Clay County Southern Rock Story

The story of Lynyrd Skynyrd is scrawled in Southern lore as one of the most tragic and triumphant tales of success set to an iconic, self-created rock and roll soundtrack. Close your eyes and you can probably hear Ronnie Van Zant howling “Fly High, Free Bird” before the solo hits, or maybe you can recite the notes to the iconic guitar intro in “Sweet Home, Alabama” just as well as Ed King played them. While Lynyrd Skynyrd long ago reached legendary status, their Florida roots and Clay County past play on through their music. New followers and lifelong fans alike find fascination in an unlikely origin story that still attracts tourists and tributes to this day. On the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation, step back in time and celebrate the beginning of the South’s favorite sons.

Ronnie Van Zant

The band was born on the baseball diamond in 1964, when teenagers Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, and Gary Rossington met while battling on rival teams in Jacksonville, Florida. After a quick carport jam session, the trio decided to add guitarist Allen Collins and bassist Larry Junstrom to the mix, filling out a full band and finding a home on local stages. By 1969, they settled on the name Lynyrd Skynyrd, a reference to their high school P.E. teacher who had a penchant for banning long hair on boys.

Within a year, the band had secured its signature sound, a combination of blues, rock, and country that seemed to start its own genre. Needing a place to practice and play due to Jacksonville police forbidding loud music, they then rented the famed Hell House, a whiskey-soaked creekside cabin that was the hot, humid home needed to harvest rock and roll magic. Piecing together riffs, beats, and melodies while having no AC, the boys crafted instant classics within those wooden walls. This is what it meant to have skin in the game; this is when the sweat created chemistry.

In 1973, the band released Pronounced ‘Lĕh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd, a debut album full of vocals that read like poetry for working people and guitar-driven aural vistas that soared to somewhere between boisterous bar rock and full-blown boogie. Driven by the archetypal masterpiece “Free Bird,” it sold over a million copies and put the band on the map. They took off touring across America, opening for The Who on their Quadrophenia tour and working on material that would become 1974’s Second Helping. The aforementioned album became a Southern rock staple, with “Sweet Home Alabama” cementing itself as one of the greatest music masterpieces of all time.

The following few years featured an aggressive touring schedule and relentless life on the road. Constant stress and pressure to continue a heightened level of success weighed heavily on the band, triggering several lineup changes due to differing opinions on their future direction. 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy, cut in a little over two weeks due to touring demands, emerged from this era and went gold. Gimme Back My Bullets followed in 1976, as did more shakeups that led to guitarist and backup vocalist Steve Gaines joining the group just in time for Street Survivors. It would be the last album before tragedy struck, when band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines lost their lives in a plane crash. With other band members nursing serious injuries, Lynyrd Skynyrd broke up and didn’t re-form for a decade.

The band reunited in 1987 for a tribute tour, with former guitarist Ed King returning to the lineup and little brother Johnny Van Zant manning the microphone. The tour was a tremendous triumph, leading to the band’s national resurgence and albums with new Lynyrd Skynyrd material for the first time since 1977. Lineups continued to change as the years passed, but the band kept rolling on, even being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. Now, fifty years into this journey, the band and music continues its long-lasting legacy through tours, familiar tunes, and that same old southern attitude.

A Lynyrd Skynard Itinerary

Southern rock royalty’s roots run deep in Clay County, where Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Van Zant family’s legacy still looms large. Take a few must-see steps in the band’s shoes with this thoughtful itinerary meant to bring you closer to your heroes.

Hell House

Begin a visit by paying respects to Hell House, the infernal practice space where it all began. Although the cabin burned down long ago, a fitting sendoff some might say, you can still see its original location on Peters Creek if you want to travel by boat. Make things easier for yourself and stop by the Clay County Archives, where they display a piece of the original slab foundation in Green Cove Springs. Finish off the Hell House honor with a shot of the celebrated Hell House Whiskey, a fitting drink for honoring the past.    

Brickyard Road

Ronnie Van Zant’s last residence can be found at Brickyard Road, the famed home right off College Drive in Middleburg. This house is where Ronnie lived at the time of his passing, and fans still drive through daily to pay tribute to the man. Sometimes, you can hear them blaring his brother Johnny’s 1990 single “Brickyard Road,” which was written to celebrate all of the memories made here.

Whitey’s Fish Camp

While on your Lynyrd Skynyrd pilgrimage, you are bound to work up an appetite. To stay on topic, make plans to eat at Whitey’s Fish Camp in Clay County. Long rumored to be Ronnie Van Zant’s favorite restaurant, they offer waterside seating along Swimming Pen Creek so that you can enjoy seafood and cocktails with views of peaceful waters. As a bonus, there’s plenty of Skynyrd memorabilia sprinkled throughout the restaurant so you can feel fully immersed in “Saturday Night Special” energy, no matter what day you choose to stop in.

Whitey's Fish Camp-Clay County, FL_
Whitey’s Fish Camp-Clay County, FL

Ronnie Van Zant Memorial Park  

If you need a little open air or a moment to reflect on all the Lynyrd Skynyrd sights you’ve seen, Ronnie Van Zant Memorial Park provides a perfect place to sit and think. Back in 1996, The Freebird Foundation and some close family members donated 90 acres to create the haven, which includes a fishing pond, picnic area, and numerous ball fields. Take a walk through the woods or wetlands and surround yourself in a calming stillness of the scenery.

The Pond at Ronnie Van Zant Park
The Pond at Ronnie Van Zant Park

Jacksonville Memorial Gardens Cemetery  

Once the original resting place of Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and Ronnie Van Zant, Jacksonville Memorial Gardens now serves as a memorial to the band members lost in 1977. Visit the original graves or sit on the Charlie Daniels-donated bench nearby, which is inscribed with a poem Daniels wrote for Ronnie.

See Clay County’s Music History

Check out all of the area’s rich music history, which extends far beyond those Skynyrd boys. After all, this is home to Hank Garland, Molly Hatchet, Slim Whitman, and more. Plan to find your own “Sweet Home” in Clay County, and share it with family, friends, and followers on your social channels with #myclaystory.

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