On October 19, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inarguably the greatest rock band touring the USA and played what was their final concert in Greenville, South Carolina. While enroute to Baton Rouge on October 20th, their plane crashed in the remote woodlands of southwest Mississippi, killing 6 passengers to include frontman Ronny Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines. Forty-three years later, their classic southern rock ballads are remembered worldwide – everyone has a favorite Skynyrd song! The episode begins with Lee Kjos describing why Skynyrd remains his all-time favorite band. We then visit personally with Ronnie Van Zant’s childhood friend and bodyguard, Gene Odom, and several Amite County, Mississippi locals who first responded to the crash. What was growing up in Jacksonville like for Ronnie Van Zant? How’d they develop their band name, what events inspired their lyrics, and what was it like touring with them? What kind of guy was Ronnie Van Zant and how would he likely have wanted to be remembered? What do first responders most remember about that day? What compelled them to privately fund and to recently construct a beautiful Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument nearby? Having met these guests and heard their stories, what’s Ramsey’s final take on it? All of these questions and more, to include some incredible never-before-told anecdotes, in today’s very special episode of Duck Season Somewhere.
The Life and Legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Am I the only one that when I’m cruising through the radio and I hear Skynyrd, I just turn it up? I turn it up full blast to this day.”
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Thank y’all for joining me on a very special episode of Duck Season Somewhere. I’ve been working on this a little bit. Guys, I have never fallen down a rabbit hole about a subject matter not duck hunting related in my entire life. But I now have and to kick this episode off, I’ve got my buddy Lee Kjos on the other line. How are you, Lee?
Lee Kjos: I’m good, man. How are you?
Ramsey Russell: I’m doing good, Lee. I’m glad to have you on the phone. Because you know, of course we’ve said in other podcasts before we connected pretty strongly over duck hunting but also our love of rock and roll and music and things of that nature. If I asked you who your favorite band in the world was, who is it going to be?
Lee Kjos: Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Ramsey Russell: Lynyrd Skynyrd. Absolutely. Which is the subject of today’s podcast.
Lee Kjos: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Growing up, I was a young man when the band ended, and I’m talking about the real band, not this other band. I’m talking about the band Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977. Today, as everybody’s listening, is October 19. And on October 19th, 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd exited the stage in Greenville, South Carolina, having played what would end up being their final concert. At the time, they were the absolute pinnacle of rock and roll concert success. They were the top, they were the best. All these years later, 44 years later, man, who doesn’t walk, what duck hunter, what man, doesn’t walk just a little bit tolerant as crocs when he hears a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Am I the only one that when I’m cruising through the radio and I hear Skynyrd, I just turn it up? I turn it up full blast to this day.
Lee Kjos: Man. Mm-hmm.
Music in the 70s
“You and I’ve talked about this all the time: the 70s were so different. I bet for most people that grew up in it, music was a major part of life.”
Ramsey Russell: What was it about Skynyrd that made them your favorite band Lee?
Lee Kjos: Oh boy, you know the word influencer runs rampant on social media platforms and stuff now but when you look at real influence-I mean, obviously, I’m a photographer, and an art guy my whole life, and you would think photography, other photographers is what influenced me. Well, that’s not quite true. What influences me is original works of art. In your formative years, like in your early teens, your bodies are everything to you back then. You’re starting to get into girls and your group of kids is your whole life at that time. I mean, ducks, they’ve always been right there with me, right? But I had time for this. Well, in those years back then, Lynyrd Skynyrd, like when that when that album Pronounced came out, and those grungy looking rock stars were-you remember the album, they’re on that sidewalk and this is back when Bernz was the drummer, it wasn’t Artemis Pyle yet, but still, it’s that Skynyrd, right? And then you think about those four songs that came off of that one album, “Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” and then “Freebird” to end it, right?
Ramsey Russell: Yep.
Lee Kjos: I’m going to talk about that, because this is how big they were when I was a kid. When you’re in high school, or junior high, or whatever, and you’d have a pep fest? It was in that gymnasium, right? The whole school would come on its homecoming and somebody would be speaking, the principal or something like that, and so-can we swear here? On this? Can we swear?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah go ahead. By all means.
What Made Lynyrd Skynyrd So Good?
“You know, as Southern born and raised in state of Mississippi, I always took a sense of ownership in Lynyrd Skynyrd, their music spoke to me, it gave me a sense of southern pride, it was kick-butt rock and back in the day, when it meant a whole different thing, they had that rebel flag back there and it just spoke to me as a southerner.”
Lee Kjos: So you’re sitting there, right? And some dude would yell, “Fucking Skynyrd!” Like they would yell this stuff during the principal talk and my point is, I highly doubt anybody screaming Taylor Swift at a pep fest. You know what I mean? You and I’ve talked about this all the time: the 70s were so different. I bet for most people that grew up in it, music was a major part of life. Now, we didn’t buy a tune here or there on iTunes. We followed the band. You attached yourself to a band. You travel, you do anything to get to go see the band. If you saw it on a magazine, you’d buy the article. You devour the albums. I remember when One More From the Road came out, the live album was a double album, just devouring that. The jacket, the album cover, right? That’s what made Skynyrd so good. They were organic. Even though [you could say] well, it’s southern rock, and the first southern rock band that really defined that genre probably would be the Allman Brothers. Sure, they had an influence. But, dude, Skynyrd took that Southern fried rock shit to a new level. In fact, the dude that influenced Van Zant, more than any of them, was Paul Rogers of the group Free, and that’s a British band. But what I’m saying is they were so original and organic. and when you saw them live, oh my God, dude, it was like they were on fire.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s because they were authentic. That’s what I was getting at. What strikes me about the conversation is I’ve got some buddies down on McComb that had a guest speaker, Mr. Gene Odom, and I listened to it. But here’s the deal. You know, as Southern born and raised in state of Mississippi, I always took a sense of ownership in Lynyrd Skynyrd, their music spoke to me, it gave me a sense of southern pride, it was kick-butt rock and back in the day, when it meant a whole different thing, they had that rebel flag back there and it just spoke to me as a southerner. And I knew that back in 1977, there’d been a plane wreck in the state of Mississippi, that Ronnie and several others passed, and the band that it was known died, in 1977, it died. And I’ve never driven past the McComb, Mississippi, exit that I didn’t think about that. Well, it didn’t happen there, it happened about 30 miles away in the middle of nowhere woods even for the state of Mississippi. As I started tracking down this story, I just became overwhelmingly enamored with the story. I mean, you’re talking about authenticity, I don’t know how you become a rock star, but I can tell you for the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, it wasn’t overnight, they went off to a remote cabin, a little red house, out in sticks on a bayou and they call it the hell house because there was no air conditioning, and they showed up at eight in the morning, and they left at eight or nine or midnight that night. They practiced and they tuned and they played all day, every day, all day, every day, practice, practice, practice, practice for 10 years. For 10 years. They dedicated themselves to this art and to that sound, and finally, somebody took a chance on them and recorded an album, Pronounced, and in a very brief amount of time, they blew up. Mitchell Jain was telling me last week that the Rolling Stones sold out five consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden, which is a record only because Lynyrd Skynyrd did not live to fulfill their seven sold out nights. They were constantly touring and recording and practicing and touring and recording. They never really got to come home and sink their teeth into success. They were the absolute, if you think back to the 70s bands, the absolute drug, sex, and rock and roll, throwing TVs out the window, partying hard, rocking, and just kicking people’s ass out there, 90,000 people. Boom! Rocking them. That was them. That was the band.
Lee Kjos: Oh, man. Okay, so you bring up the Stones and you think about Keith Richards and you see him now and he’s in a Louis Vuitton spot and stuff like that. He is a rock star, right? But you’ve had decades with Keith Richards and Kick-Man Mick, right? You have to think about when Pronounced came out, that was 1973. Freebird went down in ‘77. That’s short, man. That’s short. I’m 60, so I think I remember it, but it’s like so young that I’m not sure, but it was when JFK was assassinated, and I’m not sure because what would that have been three, four years old, you know, “I mean, you really remember that?” But for sure, like you remember when you heard about 9/11, right? Oh, I can tell you where I was when I saw it on the TV that Freebird went down. I was in a hunting and fishing fuselage up in BigFork, Minnesota shooting pool at night and that thing came across the ticker, man, and I couldn’t believe it. It was shocking to the kids, my group. We were talking about this with another rocker the other day. We used to show up at parties with albums. Imagine that? Like, you had your —
Ramsey Russell: I do remember those days.
Lee Kjos: “Joseph’s here dude, he’s got Skynyrd!” It was way different but it was absolutely the best. And seeing them live, oh, man, dude!
Ramsey Russell: What I learned about Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’ve listened to their music forever. That double album, Live, has been in my “playlist”, it had been in cassette form or CD form and now it’s in my phone form, since I was in ninth grade. My whole life it’s been my number one favorite album. I love that live music. I love the energy of that music. But what I learned about these guys is they weren’t rock stars in a conventional sense. They were just guys, they were just barefoot country boys and they liked to play music.
What Was It Like To See Lynyrd Skynyrd In Concert?
“The lights would come on and it was like your hair was on fire for the next three hours.”
Lee Kjos: Don’t you think that’s because it wasn’t contrived?
Ramsey Russell: No, it was who they were.
Lee Kjos: It’s organic.
Ramsey Russell: It was just purely organic. You know, Lee, you and I talked about John Prine a lot, who to me was a folk musician and he drew such profound observations from his life experiences. He was able to put them into a song form that means something to people that listen to that music, and Lynyrd Skynyrd was absolutely no different.. I heard the story and it’ll be told later in his podcast about how Lynyrd Skynyrd came to be and how that smell came to be and how Curtis Lowe-you know, I learned different little parts of their lives growing up in Jacksonville, Florida that became real music. But they never lost their sense of, at least Ronnie Van Zant didn’t, of themselves. Back before, they didn’t have big, elaborate studios full of costumes that they wore on stage. Ronnie just went to his closet and snapped a pair of blue jeans on and whatever T-shirt that struck him.
Lee Kjos: Put on his Neil Young T-shirt.
Ramsey Russell: Put on his T-shirt and when he played he very likely was bass fishing in it just the week before.
Lee Kjos: Mm-hmm.
Ramsey Russell: You know, he drove a Jeep. Lee, tell us about what it was like – I never saw them in concert. What was it like to see Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert?
Lee Kjos: Well, when I think back, I’d have been 13 when that first tour came out, back then, like you and I talked about, there are no more bands today, the bands are done. Back then, there were two places that would have concerts in the Twin City area. It would be the Met Center in Bloomington, and the St. Paul Civic Center. If I can remember right, every two weeks, every month, some major band was there. So when Skynyrd – when tickets came on sale, we’d take our coins, we’d get on the bus, and we’d go to a record shop. The tickets would be on sale there or think maybe like Dayton’s or something like that, there’d be tickets there for sale, and I want to say they were like $ 5, $ 6, $ 7, $ 8 a ticket, and you’d buy it of course months in advance and you waited, like opening day of duck hunting season. Skynyrd will be here. Then you’d get there. It would be dark and everybody would have their lighters, not iPhones lit up, we had lighters back then. The place would literally be lit from Bic lighters. Of course, you could smell weed, we called it pot back then. You could smell that and people were usually passing a flask around and passing weed around and then they would hit that first note. The lights would come on and it was like your hair was on fire for the next three hours. They played their own music, they covered some other stuff, but of course, Ronnie would always say, you know, “What song is that you want to hear?” Well, you know what would happen then, that’s like any politician playing to his base. We had all screamed “Freebird” and they’d play those first couple licks, man, and it gave me goosebumps.
Ramsey Russell: It gives me goosebumps here as you say it.
Lee Kjos: It gave me goosebumps man. It was really cool. My favorite live story, and I don’t have to do it now, we can do it later in the podcast because it’s a critical time. You remember when Ed King died? It wasn’t that long ago Ed King died, right? What was it, just a few months back?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Lee Kjos: Okay. He’s the guy that did the lick in —
Ramsey Russell: “Sweet Home Alabama”
Lee Kjos: In “Sweet Home Alabama,” that broke into that little riff in the beginning.It’s just iconic. Well, if they recorded that first album at Muscle Shoals, and Ed King loved the sound and everything about Muscle Shoals. Well, Ronnie wanted to do Second Helping somewhere else, Ed didn’t like that. This is from me reading, if I got to do what you did with who you were with, these are the questions that I would have asked, is this what really happened? Anyway, they went for a long time and Ed King really didn’t like the music because he thought it was off brand from Pronounced. When they went to the Oakland Coliseum, outdoors in front of screaming people, and it’s when Ronnie introduced Steve Gaines, and Gaines played the slide, and if you remember the beginning, for those people that are listening to this, you’ve got to check this out. Because this is like the happiest you’ll ever see Ronnie Van Zant in his life, and it was [when they were] up there and they’re playing and blah, blah, blah and Ronnie introduces Steve Gaines and Old Oaky, he does that bit, and they start to the beginning of “T for Texas.” And Gaines bust into this outrageous slide riff right out of Duane Allman stuff and Ronnie just sits back and looks at him and just busts out laughing like, “We’re back dude, like, we’re back and it really was a big moment and even for fans when you heard that and that live album. Man, that one is fantastic. Yeah.
What Is Your Favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd Song?
“I guarantee everybody listening had a favorite song or a favorite half dozen songs.”
Ramsey Russell: Lynyrd Skynyrd. You know Lee, I went to Jacksonville. Here’s what listeners can expect for the remaining of this episode: I went to Jacksonville and I met with Mr. Gene Odom, who was a lifelong friend, since childhood, of Ronnie Van Zant, and when they hit the big time he was brought on by Ronnie Van Zant to be his personal bodyguard, help clean the band up, help get them ready. I’m sorry, they were heading down that path and we talked a lot about growing up in that neighborhood, some stories never before, heard stories of who those band members were, especially Ronnie Van Zant, what he was like, how he grew up, and we talked about being on stage, we talked about being on tour, talked about some really cool stuff that, to me, speaks about who he was as a person, as a real person, as the authentic rockstar. Then I found my way down to Amite County, Mississippi. I got to meet people from the local community down there that have since built a magnificent monument. I was told and have no reason to doubt that it is about the third or fourth largest granite monument in the state of Mississippi. It’s located about a quarter mile from the actual crash site, and I got to meet landowners and volunteer firemen and people within a community that were there when the plane went down and they tell their story. They talk about how it affected them. They talked about why, four decades later, they put hands in her own pocket and wanted to have this monument to this band. One of the most interesting things I did is I jumped in a Jeep and we drove across a pasture and we walked up into the woods. There’s this large beech tree that for decades, since the day after the crash, people have been finding and carving initials and leaving mementos. It’s just scarred over carvings on top of scarred over carvings of people that felt compelled to connect to the band. Then we walked across the creek and just kind of stood on site to where exactly that plane was laying in. It was odd, it was humbling, but to hear these stories, really, I think everybody’s really going to enjoy this podcast. I really do. Lee, I got to ask you before we part, what is your favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song?
Lee Kjos: Oh, boy. “Tuesday’s Gone.”
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I heard that. I love that song myself. I really catch me on a mood. It may be “Simple Man.” I think I’d have to stick with “Simple Man” or it might be Freebird, one or the other. I learned last week that “Freebird” and “Stairway to Heaven” for the last 40 odd years have vied for the number one most requested whatever you want to call it song. They vacillate between first place, those two songs.
Lee Kjos: For sure. I loved when Second Helping came out. “Curtis Loew,” dude, there’s so many, right? But I just think “Tuesday’s Gone” is iconic, even more so than Freebird, I know that sounds like blasphemy but —
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s why I ask. Because everybody’s got a favorite song. I guarantee everybody listening had a favorite song or a favorite half dozen songs.
What Was the Flag Really About?
Lee Kjos: How about the difference in sound between the garage band sound of Pronounced in 73 and then when they did Street Survivors in the studio right before the crash. Listen to how clean the sound was in Street Survivors but still it’s fantastic – I mean, it’s fantastic. It’s Alan and Gary and Steve and guitars and Billy Paul, he had his deal going always, he was always cool on the keyboards, and Artemis Pyle was super cool after Burns didn’t want to do it anymore because I think Ronnie just burned him over big time. Then Artemis Pyle took over and then like you were talking about the outdoor concert look when you see him and they’d have that confederate flag back to him and he always wore cut offs a pair of tennis shoes and high tubes and no shirt on and red bandana was just blowing his air and oh my God.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, we talked a little bit about that flag.
Lee Kjos: I was going to ask you about that. Did you guys broach that subject?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, oh, absolutely. We talked about it because you know, Lee, let’s face it man, the time has passed on that flag. It’s a whole different political climate and everything else than it was back then. I grew up under the shadow of that flag. Never in a million years did it cross my mind anything in the last five or ten years about that flag. Not one time.
Lee Kjos: Of course not.
Ramsey Russell: Let me tell you what the flag was to me and we said this in the podcast and I’ll let y’all listen to hear what Ronnie Van Zant’s words were but to me that flag was a big fat middle finger to anybody that judged me by my accent, my bare feet, my heart, my fishing, my ways in Mississippi. That’s all that flag ever meant to me.
Lee Kjos: If we could keep that narrative, we could keep the flag alive. I’m not here to start a fight.
Ramsey Russell: No, no, no.
Lee Kjos: I’m just saying to us that is not what that thing represents.
Ramsey Russell: That is not what it represents.
Lee Kjos: It doesn’t have anything to do-I mean, look, wasn’t it on General Lee in the Dukes of Hazzard?
Ramsey Russell: Sure.
Lee Kjos: It’s not what that was about. That’s not the way we viewed it. I’m sorry, like you say we grow up and we learn things and we change but —
Ramsey Russell: Well, it was hijacked and people changed the narrative about it.
Lee Kjos: Correct.
Ramsey Russell: It lies in its past. We do talk about that subject because when I think of Lynyrd Skynyrd, I think abou a raw 1970s band and their only stage set prop was a great big confederate flag.
Lee Kjos: Yep. All I can remember is Artemus with that giant fan blowing, his long wavy hair just blowing, and him beating the skins with that flag in the background and that was Skynyrd. Later on they’d come out and they’d do “Working for the MCA.” You know what I’m talking about? That riff in the beginning. The house would just freak out, come apart. Like Trump did the other night, come apart, his hair would light on fire.
Gene Odom: Longtime Friend & Protector of Van Zant
The Beginnings of Musical Mastery
“Ronnie saw Mick Jagger on that stage dancing and Ronnie saw the action that Mick Jagger got. When he came back, he said, “I want to be a singer. I want to dance on stage.”
Ramsey Russell: I’m in Jacksonville, Florida and today’s special guest is Mr. Gene Odom. Gene, could you introduce yourself?
Gene Odom: Yep. My name is Gene Odom, Jacksonville, Florida. I’m a Southern cracker. I work with the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. I did security for Ronnie, and bodyguard work, and here we are.
Ramsey Russell: How did you know Ronnie? How did you know Ronnie to end up working for their security detail?
Gene Odom: We lived in the same neighborhood.
Ramsey Russell: You grew up together?
Gene Odom: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Well, how long has it been? Since y’all were children?
Gene Odom: Little kids. As long as I can remember. We’d have a walk, probably 200 yards difference in our houses.
Ramsey Russell: You’ve played baseball together and go hunting and fishing and all that kind of stuff kids do, right? And go to the racetrack?
Gene Odom: Yeah, Speedway Park, right there. I’m in a house where the great LeeRoy Yarbrough came from. We used to ride in the car with him.
Ramsey Russell: When y’all were every little boys did it cross your mind that Ronnie Van Zant would be the front man for the world famous band Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Gene Odom: Not my mind. I’m an old hangin’ lefty kind of guy. Let me tell you how he started that. First off as a real young [kid], Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay, Ronnie loved him, so Ronnie wanted to be a boxer. He said, “I’m gonna be a boxer!” and they got boxing gloves. And a boy around the corner named Estes Godwin, short, stocky, several years older than us, Ronnie put the gloves on and Estes just beat the tar out of him. That ended his boxing career then. That was the end of his boxing.
Ramsey Russell: It isn’t fun when you’re getting punched.
Gene Odom: Oh my God, no. Of course he was young and he was only a teenager.
Ramsey Russell: What was it like growing up in Jacksonville back in those days? That would have been back in the early 60s, probably. What was it like growing up? y’all grew up hunting and fishing I know from hearing you in another podcast and talking and he was a big fisherman, y’all did a lot of bass fishing down here.
Gene Odom: A lot of bass fishing. As young boys we used to drag that aluminum boat up and down to banks on that bridge over Timber Quanah and when we first got to drive, before that it was bicycles, we rode bicycles to fish down Cedar Creek and out there on Timber Quanah. He loved it. He loved to bass fish.
Ramsey Russell: That’s good, and there’s even a story that he eventually caught his fish of a lifetime.
Gene Odom: Yes, he did, and I was with him. He always wanted a trophy bass. I had several of them and he wanted a trophy bass and he always wanted an old pickup truck. He got both of them right before he died and I was with him when he put that 12 pound eight ounces-11 pounds 8 ounces – 12 pound 8 ounces. Anyway, it was 12 pounds, a big bass, and I got it and flipped it in the boat for him and it was the best day of his life, he was jumping around and hugging me saying “this is it” in the john boat, and I said “hey quit you’re going to sink the boat and I can’t swim. You’re going to sink the boat, man.” First thing he said after he calmed down was “Let’s go weigh it, let’s go weigh it. Let’s go to the guy that had the little fish camp on Lake Delancey. We could weigh it. He had a fish tank we could put it in and keep it alive. Till we got the fish.”
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. That’s awesome. When did he decide, “I want to be a rockstar.” How did that come about?
Gene Odom: Well, after Estes punched him out at Lee High School, I think it was Jim Brown, running back, Ronnie Van says, “I’m going to be a football star.” In early high school he went out for the team and he made the team and the very first practice game, scrimmage, he got tackled and broke his ankle and had to put pins in his ankle. That made him 4 F so he couldn’t be drafted. So there when his football career, and I didn’t go with him, but the first time the Rolling Stones came to Jacksonville, his good buddies Bill Fers and Jim Daniel went with him to see the Rolling Stones. Ronnie saw Mick Jagger on that stage dancing and Ronnie saw the action that Mick Jagger got. When he came back, he said, “I want to be a singer. I want to dance on stage.” Of course, he couldn’t dance. But watching Mick Jagger sing and that was it. He went from what he wanted to what he got.
How Did Van Zant Put a Band Together?
“We got you, come on, you come on and be in my band.”
Ramsey Russell: We drove around some of the old neighborhoods yesterday and they all lived about a mile apart. Most of them went to the same high school. How did he end up putting that band together? Did he know these boys, grew up with him, hunting, fishing, or what?
Gene Odom: Well, he had went to another band earlier and just went into their rehearsal. I can’t remember the name “of them. I know a couple of the guys and said, “I’m your new singer.” Ronnie was mean anyway, and tough. “You’re looking for a singer, I’m your man.” He didn’t like that style of what they were doing and so he decided he wanted to put his band together. Kim and Gary were the first two and then Larry Johnstrom, who became 38 Special’s bass player. Ronnie got Larry Johnstrom. Ronnie, Geary and Larry Johnstrom, and then playing ball, Ronnie hit a ball, and Bob Burns, Ronnie didn’t know Bob but I knew Bob from elementary school, me and Bob grew up together also. So Ronnie hit Bob with the baseball behind the back of the head on the shoulder and Ronnie ran out there to check on Bob and then he said, “We know you, Bob Burns. You play drums?” “Yeah.” “So okay, so come on, we want you to be in our band.” So it’s Ronnie, Gary, Larry Johnstrom, Bob Burns. They’d heard about Alan Collins, heard he was a guitar picker, and he was playing in a little band called the Mods. And Ronnie ran into him one day and told Alan he wanted to play now riding his bicycle. He’s talking about teenagers and Alan was scared of Ronnie, and he threw his bike down and ran and Ronnie couldn’t get him. The next day, I happened to go by where they were playing ball and Alan was pitching and I ran to Ronnie, and I said, “Hey, Alan Collin’s is pitching at JR’s house, on a mound.” We get the mustang, we took off around here and just ran up on the mound and kidnapped him, just because nobody would mess with me and Ronnie, and he said “We got you, come on, you come on and be in my band.” And it was really relieving when he said, “We’ll be back in a little while to get his guitar and amplifier.” So we kidnapped him and Alan became a part of the band and their first notes rehearsing was in Bob Burns’s garage, as a band I think they were called F in My Backyard. They had My Backyard, Conquer the Worm. Another one, the Pretty Ones, the Noble Five, then One Percent, then Lynyrd Skynyrd was their name.
The Origin of Lynyrd Skynyrd
“But how did it come to be that they named their band after this notorious coach?”
Ramsey Russell: Lynyrd Skynyrd. I heard that that band was a spin-off named after a coach in their high school system, Coach Lynyrd Skynyrd. And you knew him, y’all were friends here for a long time. But how did it come to be that they named their band after this notorious coach?
Gene Odom: Well, they were at that time, they were trying to come up with a new name. They were the One Percent. They were tossing around names, but by the time they got to the name, they were smoked up and drunk from marijuana and Budweiser. That’s what they would get back then. Bob Burns is always a jokester, funny, and when the phone would ring at the hell house, Bob would say “It’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, he’s after you, Gary!” or something like that and freak them out. They were all smoked up around there and half-drunk from what I heard. A song came on the radio called “Camp Grenada.” “Hello Muddah, hello Faddah, Here I am at Camp Grenada.” In that song is a lyric, “Lynyrd Skynyrd got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.” They heard that and they went “Wow, that’s Lynyrd Skynyrd! That’s Lynyrd Skynyrd!” So they put the name together, used his name and changed the spelling to aggravate him and changed the name from the One Percent to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Ramsey Russell: What I kind of gathered is Coach Skynyrd, was probably a gym shorts wearing, whistle blowing, crew cut, kind of Boy Scout coach, and these boys were the long haired free thinking musicians of the 60s that he wanted to get to conform and so there was a little bit of issue between them, that’s about it. Did you make them run extra laps to give him a hard time or?
Gene Odom: Well, by the time he got there within a few days or a week, Ronnie had got his girlfriend pregnant he had to leave school and go to work. That’s about the same time Coach got there. So Ronnie and coach Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t really butt heads. It was Gary Rossington, Larry Johnstrom was there, but it was Gary with the long hair. Coach was by the book kind of guy and he made him conform to the school rules, you know, two inches above the collar, shirttails had to be tucked in, you had to wear socks, you know, back then there were those rules, they don’t have these rules nowadays. We need those kinds of rules. But Coach was by the book kind of guy. He made Gary get his hair trimmed, or wear a hair net. Gary’s dad, I think, died in Korea. Ronnie was more of the father figure to Gary than anybody else. Lacey went down there one day to represent Gary to say “Hey, you need to slack up on this guy,” but Lynyrd was a redneck, and he was an alumni from FSU. He hated the Gators. He was barred from Gainesville. He could watch the Gators play in Tallahassee, but he couldn’t go to the stadium in Gainesville cause he’d get into a fight with those Gators. Oh yeah. Lynyrd Skynyrd was a redneck fighter.
Ramsey Russell: A lot of people don’t consider Florida, the South. But it is. It’s just the further north you go in Florida, the deeper into the South you become, and SEC football is religion in the Deep South.
Gene Odom: Oh, man. I’m telling you. It’s different now. Because all the snowbirds and Yankees coming down here, but I mean, the South ain’t the South anymore, but like you said, the farther North you go into Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, those are the other states you find in the South.
Ramsey Russell: That’s exactly right. It sounds like Ronnie Van Zant was kind of a tough guy, man. He grew up in a tough neighborhood. A lot of times things were settled with his fist down the street back in those good old days.
Gene Odom: Yeah. He was a scrapper, no doubt about it, but a lot of his scrapping was a result of hops and barley.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, hops and barley. Yeah.
Gene Odom: When they rehearsed, they rehearsed hard, many, many, many hours every day. When you get there, you’re sober. Then they get the booze and the marijuana and all the other stuff, and by 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 hours they’re not playing right and Ronnie would actually get in fights. He knocked a couple of their teeth out. There’s a time to play and there’s a time to play, don’t mix them up.
The Good Old Days with Van Zant
“I heard somewhere that he never wrote down the lyrics. Once they were in his head, he said, “I don’t have to write it down if it’s worth remembering.”
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. Yeah, well, speaking of them practicing a lot, that that was one thing, they did practice a lot. I mean, they practically went eight 8 – 12 – 15 hour stretches in their little red hell house which was just a little wooden, non-plumbed, non-air conditioned, not nothing, just house out in the country right here.
Gene Odom: It was like a little, what you would call, efficiency. The bedroom and the kitchen and the dining room were all the same thing. The living room area was their practice location, with a little, small bathroom. It was probably 20 – 21 – 22 feet wide, maybe 30 feet long. It was like a smaller-than-normal one car garage. It was so hot in there, and that was why they called it the hell house. A few times I went by there it was too hot for me to go in.
Ramsey Russell: I heard that. We went out there yesterday, and of course the house has burned down, there’s a big subdivision going in now. But there’s still that little bayou back there in the backyard and you were showing us how you’re saying that they got so hot practicing they’d come out here with a cold beer and jump in [the water] just to cool off.
Gene Odom: Yeah, I’m sure Greg Reed has got some footage of them jumping off the dock. He’s got a lot of footage that people don’t know about, but I’m sure he has.
Ramsey Russell: I was surprised to learn, because he was actually a tough guy, football, boxing, scrapping,[that] Ronnie Van Zant must also have been a poet of sorts, because he wrote a lot of those words. He did not play musical instruments, but he gave life to that music with his words. I heard somewhere that he never wrote down the lyrics. Once they were in his head, he said, “I don’t have to write it down if it’s worth remembering.”
Gene Odom: He didn’t write anything down. He went for some copywriting or something like that but he didn’t write anything down. He had a memory that was unbelievable. Even when we sold parts out of his brother-in-law’s auto parts store, Ronnie wouldn’t look-it wasn’t Windows computers back then, it was just big, thick books. You would go through these parts books and you’d find the part that you needed. They’d just call and say to go get the parts, and I’d go look it up with that. [Ronnie would say] “just go get the parts, Gene.” He had a photographic memory. I don’t know what you would call it. I can’t imagine that he could recall, although I can’t do it today, I can write it down and can’t remember what I wrote, but he could recall words that he had put together for that song. If he did want to change one he could just automatically change it in his head, unbelievable. He had a photographic memory, I guess.
The Inspiration Behind the Songs
“Do you know where some of the details for some of the songs that we know came from?”
Ramsey Russell: Yep. Something I saw in one of the documentaries: It’s not like they just formed a band, went out to the hell house for a few weeks to practice, and became rock stars. This was a decade of real dedication and practice they put into it. There was somebody from New York that met them in Atlanta, who liked their music, and they could not get a record deal. He said, “I’m going to record you,” and they went to a studio, he started a record label and recorded Pronounced and then they started blowing up. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s like a decade of them committing themselves to being musicians.
Gene Odom: Yeah, that was Sounds of the South Records.
Ramsey Russell: Sounds of the South Records, right.
Gene Odom: Al Cooper. Then they turned it into a subsidiary of MCA, and then MCA bought them out early on.
Ramsey Russell: Hmm. Getting back to the songs, the songs are so relatable. The music of Lynyrd Skynyrd is so relatable to people where I grew up in the South, but it’s also relatable to a lot of people around the country and around the world. It’s just regular folk, regular country folks, just simple people and Ronnie Van Zant was able to articulate detail from his life narrative just from growing up in the neighborhood, from people he knew, from things he saw, and he was able to put it into words that became famous songs. But what are some of the inspirations for some of the songs he wrote? Do you know where some of the details for some of the songs that we know came from?
Gene Odom: Yeah, The Ballad of Curtis Loew, the lyric says, “Used to wake up in the morning before the rooster crowed, searching for soda bottles to get myself some dough.” He told me, “I wrote that lyric about you, because he was in these ditches, picking the cokes up, picking up coke bottles and stuff up. That’s about you.” Then the other [character] in that song, Curtis Loew, the black blues player, dobot player, was Claude, who ran the store was a white bald headed guy that played the guitar for us.
Ramsey Russell: What was the proper name of that Curtis Loew store?
Gene Odom: Back then it was called Claude’s Midway Meats. Back in the 50s and early 60s an aid club moved it up to Plymouth Street and Lakeshore Boulevard in the early 60s. They changed it later on and called it Hollywood Fresh Grocery but it was Claude’s Midway Meats.
Ramsey Russell: And that was where y’all used to hang out a lot?
Gene Odom: Oh, yeah, we’d go down and buy Cokes or moon pies and stuff. When I was taking Coke bottles in there, I used to sweep the floor and rack the bottles. Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi, Coca-Cola. So you put them in the cartons so the coke man didn’t have to sort the bottles. I would sort and rack up bottles to make a little juking money. His writing, and I’d have to get in his mind, which you can’t do that, his writing was his life. Things that went on around him, around us, like the Curtis Loew store, you know, and I can’t say for every song he ever wrote.
Ramsey Russell: Some of the songs you know. We looked at a big live oak tree yesterday that one of the band members had wrecked into and that became a song.
Gene Odom: Yeah, and I tell people that was one of the oak trees Gary hit. When he hit the oak tree that Ronnie sat right down and they wrote the song, a hurricane blew those trees away years and years back and he was writing it coming from the place you would call the Sugar Bowl. Him and Joe Crimm. People don’t know that Joe Crimm was riding with him when he hit that tree and he was traveling pretty good when he hit that and tore the front of his car up. But this particular one is when he ran into that [one,] he didn’t know he had hit it. He had passed out at the wheel and had hit that one. Out where he lived he had hit several.Nut when that happened, Ronnie just got an inspiration to write ”That Smell.” “Oh that smell, the smell of death around you.” Because Ronnie realized that wrecking the car wasn’t so bad right then but it could have been a lot worse and he’s really putting the words together.
Ramsey Russell: One of the coolest stories you told us yesterday was about the origin of “Freebird.” You knew a little bit about how that song came into being because that is probably among their top songs.
Gene Odom: It’s one of the top songs ever written. It and “Stairway to Heaven” rotate from the number one or two most requested songs of all time.
Ramsey Russell: I believe that.
Gene Odom: Yeah. Rock and Roll.
Ramsey Russell: What were the origins of that?
Gene Odom: Alan had the music, except he didn’t have the fiery stuff on the end. But he had music, they didn’t have any words. At that time, they couldn’t come up with the inspiration for words and just hadn’t put the words to it.I came home and Alan was home and Cathey, his wife, which was his childhood sweetheart, was fixing supper, dinner, whatever you want to call it. Alan’s at the back of the couch which would face the kitchen. He would be sitting away watching TV or whatever and she was in the kitchen, cooking or doing something. She wrote on a napkin, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” She leaned over the couch and handed it to Alan across his shoulder. Alan looked at it and read it. He picks the phone up and calls Ronnie, “Get over here, right now quick,” and Ronnie thought something’s up. Ronnie runs over to his house, they also look at this. And when Ronnie looked at it, he sat down on the couch beside Alan and they wrote the lyrics to “Freebird.”
Ramsey Russell: All it took was that one sentence.
Gene Odom: That one sentence that Cathey came up with because they were childhood sweethearts, you know. She wrote that lyric and Alan and Ronnie sat down and wrote the words to “Freebird.”
The Sound and the Music of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Ramsey Russell: You were telling us out there at the cemetery how Alan Collins was the inspiration for the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was the music, Ronnie was the words.
Gene Odom: Alan Collins was the sound. He was, I don’t know, I’m not going to call it the rhythm, but the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd music. Without Alan Collins you can never ever achieve that and they’ve never achieved it since he got paralyzed and passed away.
Ramsey Russell: And his wife Cathey ended up pre-deceased from him over some health issues, is that right?
Gene Odom: Yeah. She was four months pregnant. She started spotting and the doctor told her just lay flat on her back for a week. Stay in the bed, don’t you get up and she did. She called the Doctor back on a Friday and said, “I’ve stopped spotting. Can I take my daughters to the movie?” The doctor says, “Sure. But you be in here Monday morning, I want to check you out.” So she went to the movie, and I guess she felt something happened inside and she went to the bathroom with her daughter, Allison. The week that she laid flat on her back, the fetus inside of her died and turned into gangrene. When she realized something was going on, she went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet. The main artery from her heart toward her stomach just exploded and busted and she just fell over on the floor dead. That was the end of him there. And after that he had no –
Ramsey Russell: Love of his life.
Gene Odom: Yeah, that was the end of him.
Ramsey Russell: That gives those words meaning, doesn’t it?
Gene Odom: It does. It really does. That wasn’t just his wife. I mean, she handled everything, the kids and the house. She was his life, and the two girls.
Ramsey Russell: You told me a pretty funny story yesterday. Ronnie was a thinker, a problem solver. A lot of stuff was disappearing from his front yard. People were walking by stealing stuff. Both of your yards, the whole neighborhood. I grew up in a similar neighborhood. If it wasn’t nailed down or locked up it walked off. How did Ronnie fix that problem? How did y’all fix that problem, I should say?
Gene Odom: It was down off of Ellis and Park Street. Some of those woods are still there. They built a church there and there people would dump trash and stuff. We were down there target practicing one time and heard his racket, and it was about where there were some barbed wire fences and we went over and this bobcat had gotten into the corner of that fence. There was other barbed wire tangled up there and a bobcat had gotten tangled in that barbed wire and couldn’t get out. What are we going to do? We’re going to measure a bobcat, you know, don’t want to shoot him, you know, we don’t want to shoot the wild animal. We were talking and [Ronnie] said, “We need to get him Gene,” and there were all kinds of clothes and people dumped stuff in suitcases, there’s all kinds of stuff there, and there was a suitcase. He said, “We need to stop these thieves and this is the way to do it. Let’s find a way to get him.” There was some carpet and some other stuff there so we got that carpet out and we forced him into the corner of that barbed wire to ensure he couldn’t get out. He couldn’t because he was tangled all up, forced him down, we got him out and rolled him into that suitcase and closed the lid down on the suitcase. We had a bobcat in a suitcase. So I said, “I’ll tell you what, let’s lay it by the road, and them thieves will come get it later on.” We got there and we set it right beside the road. We were hiding in the bushes. It wasn’t long at all and here comes a 49 Chevrolet or an old Chevrolet stick shift, and they didn’t have a driver license. They went by it first and then they backed up and I don’t know which one was that jumped out and grabbed the suitcase and there was one or two guys in the backseat. They popped that suitcase open and “Meow!”
Ramsey Russell: How far from the house were they when they opened up that suitcase?
Gene Odom: We were right in the neighborhood. I mean there were houses all around us, their houses and stuff too, you know. It was just about dark. Just about thieving time, I call it. They were screaming and that bobcat was tearing their ass up and they rolled in a ditch and the car tipped on the side a little bit and one of the back windows or whatever was down and then that bobcat came out of there. They were screaming “Mama, Mama, Mama!” Mama can’t help ya! Leon Wilkerson loved that story. No matter where we would be at, if he came in he’d say “Gene, tell us the Bobcat story.” And I’d have to tell that story.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a good story. It just kind of shows who they were growing up, doesn’t it? Payback. Lynyrd Skynyrd started touring and they represent what I look back now as the absolute, stereotypical, ultra-successful rock band of that era. They were the hottest tour in the world.
Gene Odom: Back then.
What Was It Like Touring With Lynyrd Skynyrd?
“Don’t interfere with Gene Odom’s job. He’s taking care of us.”
Ramsey Russell: Back then they were the hottest tour in the world. They were the hottest act, had great music, they were all over the radio, tons of fans. Everybody loved them and then we all imagine rockstars with girls and sex and parties, crazy. What was it like touring with Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Gene Odom: You just said it. Now I didn’t do none of that crazy stuff. I’ve never smoked or drank or done all that crazy stuff and when we first started out, I was married, and we got divorced in the first part of 77′, but I had a job to do and watch over them and what normal people wouldn’t have a job like that. And most of them wouldn’t care about having to watch over them because they’re rock stars, they got plenty of money and they got plenty of lawyers and stuff like that, but sometimes you’re just too dumb to realize that they’re liable.
Ramsey Russell: But it’s why you were brought on as a bodyguard, Lynyrd Skynyrd, because once they hit the road and watched that success started to blow up and once those 24/7 parties began, they realized that wouldn’t sustain itself, so Ronnie reached out to you for help.
Gene Odom: He wanted to straighten up and they were bad on the booze and bad on the drugs. I know how bad on all the drugs they were because I wasn’t [any] part of it. I know how they were at the hell house and stuff like that and rumors, when he asked me, he said, “I want you to come clean this up, get us off all this stuff. And you’re the only person in the world that can do it, nobody else can do it.” And I said, “Well, it had to be done my way.” And he said, “It will be. I’ll tell the band members and they’ve got to follow your orders.” And I started weaning them off the booze, and he even told me, “You’re doing a good job. The drugs will be a little bit harder to do. But you know what you’re doing, so let’s get it done. It’ll be tougher,” and he’s talking for himself also. And so they didn’t tear up the hotels. They didn’t tear anything up. They didn’t fight, none of that stuff because I wouldn’t put up with it.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Gene Odom: If they came at me, they were in trouble. One day Billy Powell started to hit me, drew back, cocked, ready to punch. I sent him flying backwards and that changed his attitude real quick. I told Ronnie, ”It’s going to be done my way. I’ll do it.” He said, “Alright, you’re the man, let’s do it.”
Ramsey Russell: I saw a picture of you backstage back in those days wearing a T-shirt that said, “God forgives, I don’t.”
Gene Odom: That’s exactly right.
Ramsey Russell: You were the law back there to keep them cleaned up, that was your job. What was it like? I mean, you had to be a tough guy, I’m sure, to keep folks off stage and protect the band. How crazy was that?
Gene Odom: You know, spur of the moment, somebody would jump on stage, whatever. If Ronnie had seen something happening, he would point, and I’d know and then I’d look and see what was going on, keep an eye on it, one moved up to the crowd came up to the front of stage and got ready to try to get on stage and when he came up, I was already behind him. I had him and he had a buck knife. He came at me with that buck knife and tried to stab me. I blocked it with my arm and he hit me in the elbow with it. I’d elbowed him and pumped him off the stage and he went backwards flying off stage. Billy Powell in the dressing room said, “Man, you were too rough on that guy.” Ronnie said, “Wait, is your arm bleeding?” I said, “Yeah, he had a knife he stabbed me with” and Billy Powell said, “He was way too over” and Ronnie told Billy to sit down. “Don’t interfere with Gene Odom’s job. He’s taking care of us.” But it was hectic, but most people abide by the rules, you get the people that’s drugged out or whatever, other girls that want to get up there and meet Lynyrd. I get them out of harm’s way. Lynyrd’s in Jacksonville. But it was fun, but I had a job to do.
Ramsey Russell: Sure. What was it like? Gosh, I can’t imagine what it was like being housemom to a staff of 15 or 20 full on partiers. I mean, how did you keep up with everybody?
Gene Odom: Well, you can’t. I had to get seven or eight hours of sleep at night. And Ronnie’s said, “When Gene Odom goes to bed, y’all don’t mess with him. And if he tells you to say straight, don’t be going over messing up because you got to deal with Gene.” They knew the rules, but you can’t watch six guys going in six directions. There’s no way. Ronnie knew that. He said, “Leon’s going to go,” “No problem.” You know, he’d get the phone, “Hey, Gene come down to the bar and straighten this mess out down the bar,” and I’d go down there with a level head and take care of the problem. For instance, I forget where it was at, but Jojo and Alan were in the bar and Alan had his big hat with big big feathers on it and Jojo has his hat, and they were at the table, and this old redneck with coveralls wanted his table and they’re done. And they said, “hey, we’re rockstars,” and he said “Y’all don’t mess with me,” whatever. Alan or Jojo would flick the feather around. I got a phone call, and Ronnie’s up in his room. Our room, we were rooming together at the time, and said, “Alan’s in trouble in the bar.” I ran down there, Ronnie behind me. And I said, “What’s going on?” and this big old redneck guy says, “They want my table, I ain’t giving my table and I’ll whip all of you,” he said, “I’ll whip every one of you,” I said, “No you won’t. It ain’t going to come to that. Alan you and Jojo, don’t be messing with this guy, leave this guy alone,” whatever. And then, because I knew if I turn my back, Alan’s going to start some trouble, I said, “Let’s go. All y’all get out of the bar. Let’s just go.” And so Ronnie had got in there and I said, “Don’t worry about it, everything’s under control, we’re going back to the rooms. Everybody’s leaving.” I told the bartender, “We’re getting out here.” He said, “We’re going to call the cops.” They’d already call the cops. I said, “We’re going, everything’s fine.” And so we had an old saying that was, “I’ll cut you man, I’ll cut you,” jokingly, you know, “Mess around me and I’ll cut you.” So as Ronnie walks by the bar, the Bartender said to Ronnie “I’ll cut you” and put his hand on his pocket. We went to the room. We had just got there, here come the cops, and the girl went “There he is, that’s the guy right there that said he’s going to cut me.” And I went, “Hey, look here, I’m security, if you would just stop and back up against the wall, I’ll take care of this.” She said, “He’s the one who said he’s going to cut me.” He said, “Put your hands against the wall, does he got a knife?” And I said, “I’m security, all he has is his driver’s license.” The cop went, “We’ll handle this.” I said, “I’m their security. He don’t carry a knife, we made a joke. We have an old joke, I’ll cut you, it’s just a saying” and the cop went, “Well, that’s kind of a weird saying,” but I said, “It’s a West Side thing.” And so Ronnie, you know, he didn’t get out a lot or nothing, he knew that he’d let me handle everything. But Alan Collins says, to the cops, “Oh, you’re coming into my room here and have a drink.” And it’s too late for me to stop him. He invited the cops into his room. And so they go in and the first thing the cop sees is a bottle of pills. And the cop picked it up and said, “Man, this looks like a Christmas tree. Are all these legal?” Alan Collins says, “Eh, probably not.” And the cop went, “Get up and put your hands behind your back, son.” Alan said, “Gene!” I said, “You invited him into the room. Go on down there, we’ll get you.”
Ramsey Russell: Oh, did you get stressed out doing all that? That would have just stressed me out.
Gene Odom: It would stress me out now, but not then, because I knew them. I knew what to expect and that we had a folder of all the lawyers in every town that we needed to call to take care of the problem and anytime you got that big cash money, something like that is nothing.
Ramsey Russell: But it wasn’t every night after a party, was it? I mean the energy and what it might have taken to get up and play a big music set in front of all the people night after night after night. I mean, surely they didn’t go out and party every single night?
Gene Odom: Well, you only have certain band members that go out there and party every night and party, party, party. Some of them don’t, some of them just go to bed and watch television. Some of them come back and they’ve got wives. They go to get something to eat, you get exhausted after a certain period of time. But you have certain members of the band that just want a party all the time, party party party party, they’d pay for it.
Ramsey Russell: You said Ronnie Van Zant sometimes would just come back and turn on a movie channel.
Gene Odom: Turn on TV. He loved to go to New York because they had movies till dawn. Played all old movies and he’d sit down at bed and just watch old movies. He’d go out to eat sometimes if he had business or whatever, but when it was Ronnie van Zant time, most of his time was sitting in that bed watching television.
Ramsey Russell: Because the cycle was they toured and they practiced and they recorded and they toured and they practiced and they recorded and it just really wasn’t much of a whole lot of life once they hit it big was it?
Gene Odom: No, and then like I said, you have certain band crew members that like to hang around the band because “I’m with the band” and some band members that aren’t frontmen, that aren’t the superstar, they got to go out, “Hey, look at me I’m with the band,” you know, “I’m a rockstar,” that kind of attitude.
Ramsey Russell: Just an interesting question, because these are good ol’ boys from Jacksonville, Florida. What did they eat? I mean, did they go to five star restaurants in New York City?
Gene Odom: No, they went to fancy restaurants if they had MCA or record label people with them. They’re not going to take you to McDonald’s if they don’t talk business, you’d go to these fancy restaurants. and I remember the famous ones in San Francisco back then, Goldman’s, I don’t know if it’s still there now, and Alioto’s were at the Fisherman’s Wharf, fanciest restaurants in the world. We’d go there and when you got that kind of money in and you got that kind of aura you want to be seen with some of them, you want to be, “I’m with the band,” you know, Ronnie in blue jeans and a flannel shirt like this going into a fancy restaurant, he didn’t care about being with the band, the other people, the front man is the band, and some band members have trouble realizing that they’re not the front man, so they want to “look at me, I’m with the band,” you know.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve heard of those kinds of issues, but when I look back at pictures of the band in front of the hell house or on the album covers or on stage, they didn’t have big-day in and day out, some of the footage I’ve seen, they didn’t have great big ensembles of clothes. It looks to me like Ronnie Van Zant was wearing bell bottoms and a T-shirt that he just pulled out of his [closet], he just went to the closet like I would grab a T-shirt and jeans.
Gene Odom: Ronnie was buried in a flannel shirt just like this with his favorite fishing pole. He wasn’t flashy, and Gary would wear a coat jacket sometimes, Alan Collins would put on some fancy white clothes or something but those guys weren’t like your normal band that wanted to be rock stars and where all these goofy clothes, no. You can look at any picture of them and you’ll see him wearing no goofy clothes. They might be having a jacket on, right? Might be wearing a Japanese thing you know something that the time that Dean would throw him to put on, but no, just regular old country boys.
Ramsey Russell: But they were a huge band, they were opening for some of the top shows on tour, but they were a top show, too. I heard a story one time about them. Opening for somebody out, I think, in California and man, when the band ended and “Freebird” was played and curtain went down, so to speak, everybody just got up and left, they didn’t care about who else was there.
Gene Odom: They didn’t open for bands, with Peter Frampton, it was a co-head of two shows. But when Skynyrd played and opened up for the second show, Peter Frampton was headliner. When Skynyrd played, 50,000 people all walked out of the Coliseum before Peter Frampton came on. Peter Frampton started crying, “What’s going on, come back, I’m Peter Frampton, I’m the headliner.”
Ramsey Russell: Everybody said, “Nah, we done seen Lynyrd Skynyrd, we’re going home.”
Hitting Fame Running
“They got the record, they started touring. They blew up. They absolutely blew up.”
Gene Odom: They’d done seen it, and Skynyrd kicked everybody’s butts. No big bands that were bigger than them would play with them. The Rolling Stones held the record at Madison Square Garden, five consecutive nights the Stones sold out Madison Square Garden. The Fall tour that we were on, the Lynyrd Skynyrd band had sold out Madison Square Garden for seven consecutive nights. They would have broken that record.
Ramsey Russell: Broke that record. That’s just how big they were.
Gene Odom: At that time. They would have been bigger. The next year, when the album had kicked butt, they would’ve been bigger.
Ramsey Russell: It happened so quick. They practice for a better part of a decade. They got the record, they started touring. They blew up. They absolutely blew up. They stayed on the road. What were some of the sizes of their audiences? They played in front of audiences that were 90,000 to 100,000 people at times.
Gene Odom: Yeah. And when it’s played with the Stones over there in Europe before our tour started, on that tour with the Stones, there were a quarter million people, Skynyrd kicked their butt, and Peter Frampton. They had these big tongues on the stage and they told Skynyrd, “that’s for Mick Jagger to walk out on, don’t you guys walk out there.” Skynyrd went out there and ran out there on that tongue, kicking their butt. Nobody else would’ve done that. A rebel. Ronnie Van Zant said, “Mick Jagger don’t want me to walk out of this tongue?” Skynyrd kicked their butt.
Ramsey Russell: Out like a bear didn’t it?
Gene Odom: Yes sir. And I’ll tell you a little secret. The Peter Frampton show, it was actually it was co headlining, it was two shows. Anaheim and Oakland, in between was the Willie Nelson picnic in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Almost 100,000 people, 97,000 or 98,000 people.They didn’t want Skynyrd to do no encore, it was “Sweet Home Alabama,” then boom, they’re off the states and limousines ready, I had them, they were gone, and within 30 seconds there was no reminisce of Lynyrd Skynyrd band on that property. And people started stomping screaming “Freebird Freebird Freebird Freebird.” The band didn’t come out, the band was gone. And this 100,000 people went crazy. They ran the security off, I’m talking about ran the security off, pulled the barricades down, pulled the monitors offstage was destroying everything. People were freaking out, and I’m waiting on a limousine to come by and get me. I walked out there on stage in front of 100,000 people and I took the microphone. I said “Listen, my name is Gene Odom. I’m Ronnie Van Zant’s bodyguard and security for the band. The band has gone, they weren’t contracted to play an encore. They’re at the hotel. y’all need to stop this. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings are coming out here. That’s the show. Y’all need to give them some respect and stop this and let them come out and y’all enjoy the rest of the show because the band’s not here.” That whole crowd backed up. They let the security come back, put the monitors and everything back up. When Willie Nelson walked down that stage, he went, “Who in the hell was that, that’s a hell of a band to have to follow.” The crowd went crazy.
Rockstar, Legend, and Regular Guy
“But he was as country as you can be and be a rockstar on top of it. Barefoot rockstar.”
Ramsey Russell: The thing about Lynyrd Skynyrd, it happened so quick. Basically after 10 years, after just really laying into it, they blew up, they were big, they were that. But they never really got to come home and sink their teeth into being rockstars. They were rockstars on the road but they never really got to taste true, let it sink in, did they? I mean it kind of ended before they realized they could build big houses and buy big cars and live like rockstars. They were just on the road and then it ended.
Gene Odom: It ended right before they got that opportunity, yeah, it ended that quick. But they came home – they wouldn’t – a couple of them played the rockstar syndrome, go out and party party party. But no, most of them, they had a family, and Ronnie, he’d come home, go fishing, and call me up. “Hey, man, let’s go, come on.” Your normal, what you would call, “rockstars?” they weren’t like that.
Ramsey Russell: They weren’t like that They were just like me and you. You showed his restaurant last night that was his favorite place to eat here in Jacksonville. Fried fish.
Gene Odom: Fried fish. He loved fried catfish, baked potatoes. He was a steak and potato man. He didn’t eat no greens, he called greens rabbit food. He didn’t eat no rabbit food. But he was as country as you can be and be a rockstar on top of it. Barefoot rockstar.
Ramsey Russell: Gene, do you have a favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song?
Gene Odom: The Ballad of Curtis Loew.
Ramsey Russell: Gene, whose idea was it to put the Confederate flag behind the stage? Was that the music industry, because they were a Southern rock band or was it the band members’ idea to use the Confederate flag back in those days?
Gene Odom: That was Ronnie Van Zant, he got that flag and hung it up. He loved the South and at that time the South was different, politics were a whole lot different back then than it is now, the Democrat Party was different than it is now.
Ramsey Russell: Well it was a different time and growing up in the 70s myself, the flag didn’t mean to me then what it’s become to me now. It hadn’t been radicalized, it hadn’t been politicized, it was just a beautiful flag, you know, that we saw a lot down here in but you know growing up to me, it didn’t represent a political statement, it didn’t represent black and white, it didn’t represent none of that. What it meant to me was, it was almost like a middle finger to folks around the country that judged me or people like me, for my accent, for bare feet, for hunting, for fishing, for my way of life in the deep south. It was just like it was, “Hey, screw you. I’m proud of my heritage and my culture.”
Gene Odom: That’s exactly what he felt. That’s exactly how he felt about that flag. Same way. Heritage in the South.
Ramsey Russell: It was heritage. It was pure d, “I am who I am.”
Gene Odom: Yeah, no doubt about that.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of guy was Ronnie Van Zant?
Gene Odom: He was special. I got a story for you. It may have been 76 or 77. But in Mobile, Alabama, I’ll never forget. There’s a downtown park, we’re walking across that park, Ronnie and Gary and me, going to get something to eat. As we walked across that park, there was a bench there and a couple of homeless guys were sitting on that bench, as we were walking up toward them, one of them came up to us and asked, “Do you have a quarter that me and my buddy there can get some coffee with?” And so we just got a perdiems, which was been about $120 each, and whatever money we had in our pockets, Ronnie turned to us and said, “Give me your money, give me all your money” and I said, “Why?” He said, “Give me all your money.” And Gary and Alan, so that would have been $500 per diem. So whatever money we had, I would bet you to say there’s probably easy $1,000 there. So Ronnie took that money, and started to hand it to that guy and he pulled it back and he’s pointed over was a restaurant, and there was a clothing store side by side in that mall and Ronnie says, “You see that store? You’re going to take this money over there and you go buy you some clothes. But first, you’re going to go over there to that restaurant and you can sit down and have something good to eat. And I’m going to stand here and watch you go in there.” “No, we we’ll do what you want.” They went into the restaurant, Ronnie says, “Come on, let’s go and get something to eat” and he says, “We ain’t got no money.” “No worries, we got a credit card. We’re good. And they said I’ll give you money back. But I’ll get money from the road manager. I’ll give you money back. It won’t come out of your pocket.” He said, “I’ll take care of this.”
The Tragedy That Changed It All
Ramsey Russell: On October 19th, 1977 they played what turned out to be their final concert in Greenville, South Carolina. Was there anything to stand out? Or anything un normal? Anything different about that concert at all?
Gene Odom: No, not to me. It was a full house, sold out. They just came in there and kicked their butt. And we got into limousines and went to the hotel, I would say normal, you know.
Ramsey Russell: And they were off that night. They had October 20 off and decided, “Hey, we’re going to have a night off. We’d rather be in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. First night off.” Is that right?
Gene Odom: That’s partially right. What has happened is that when we had that engine malfunction, we came into Greenville, South Carolina leaving ]Lakeland, the girls and a couple other ones didn’t want to fly on the plane. They were scared and they were telling Ronnie that they didn’t want to fly and they wanted to fly commercial. And so Ronnie had fired Jojo. And so she was gone but she knew all the alias names. Everybody had an alias name. She knew the aliases and so she was calling the rooms trying to get Ronnie on the phone, trying to get her job back. And Ronnie was mad and aggravated that she was calling rooms. And he was aggravated that people don’t want to fly on the plane and then they were drinking and doing other stuff. I was asleep. Ronnie then told them don’t wake Gene Odom up. They were having a band meeting. And the girls and two of them said “We don’t want to fly. We’re scared of that plane.” Our road manager was actually keeping them on that plane. They were calling and that morning I had went out to the airport to talk with the pilots to see what was going on and they were working on the plane and I told him I said “Fix it here we got a day off.” And they said, “No, we will fly to Baton Rouge.” And so the Baton Rouge scenario is that some of the people didn’t want to fly and the management wanted to go to Baton Rouge because the bottom line is do you want to party in Hicksville, South Carolina or do you want to party on a day off in Baton Rouge. “Oh yeah, we want to go to Baton Rouge,” and that pumped them up, so at the last minute when the fire broke, Ronnie just said, “Listen, get on the plane. If you ain’t on the plane, you’re fired. Because if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go,” and he had other people putting that in his ear about wanting to party in Baton Rouge and “You don’t worry about Gene Odom, he don’t know nothing about that plane. He don’t know about nothing. Don’t worry about Gene Odom, we’re going to Baton Rouge.” And the last thing the pilots heard was, “Don’t you wish we was on the tarmac like I asked you to do.”
Ramsey Russell: Let’s talk about that. On the flight, y’all flew together, y’all had an active card game, what was it like on a tour plane? What was going on the flight, a lot of times, just regular days? Just card games, drinking, smoking, partying, sleeping?
Gene Odom: Well, there would be some beer and Coca-Cola and stuff on the plane. And people would smoke sometimes and drink and most of them would just try to relax, sit there with I think a boombox is backed in the complete whatever and there wasn’t no TVs on a plane or video games, none of that stuff was on there back then. And we would play poker, some of us, you know, and every now and then a different one would come and sit on the table. Mostly it was me and Greg Reed, Ronnie would come in when we played sometimes, and Ronnie would play every now and then. He just, you know, and when you’re fine, you don’t have all that time unless you’re going from New York to LA, a four hour flight, usually an hour flight, two hour flight, hour and a half, whatever the minute flights on like that and you don’t have a whole lot of time on the plane when you jump over city to city though, and it’s just do what you do. Sit back and relax. And Ronnie had taken two sleeping pills because he’d been up all night and so he says, “I need to get some sleep.” This is when we got up in the plane, and he said “I got to get a couple hours sleep. I was up all night,” and I said, ” Yeah, I heard.” And there was a couch. Kevin Nelson, Allen, and Gary were sitting on the couch. Four people could sit there. And there was a little two by six table in front that you could set your drink on or your cup or your Coca-Cola or you could lay back and prop your feet on the table. So I told them to move their feet and I laid Ronnie down there and under their feet, so he could lay there and people could walk by and go to the galley. And he went to sleep on the floor right there under their feet.
Ramsey Russell: Yep. There were motor issues. Y’all were going to Baton Rouge. One of the motors went out, one of the motors quit, is that right?
Gene Odom: It didn’t quit. It ran out of gas.
Ramsey Russell: Ran out of gas.
Gene Odom: So it didn’t quit, both of them didn’t. What happened was they had a problem with the engine that they didn’t know what it was. They thought it was a magnetum, that’s what they say. And so they were mixing the fuel mixture too rich or which is called auto rich. You can make the engine perform more richer by adding more fuel to it. Yeah, it’s called auto rich. And I found out over the years that by running that engine in auto rich position, it burns 29 gallons an hour extra fuel in auto rich position. And normally the engine burns 89 gallons per hour. And so we don’t know, nobody alive knows, how long they kept burning that plane in auto-rich position, burning that extra 29 gallons per hour. Over all the years of my investigation and checking with everybody is that the auto rich mechanism on that right engine maybe both engines were burning extra fuel. More than 29 gallons, maybe 5 – 6 – 8 gallons an hour more. By doing that, we found out that the right fuel gauge didn’t work. So they estimated and the way they would fuel the plane up is they knew how many gallons the engines should burn from point A to point B even with that engine in auto rich position. So they would put fuel on the plane at every location, thinking they had X amount of gallons on the plane when they added fuel. i.e, they added 400 gallons in Greenville, South Carolina, thinking they had approximately 170 gallons of fuel on the plane, meaning they would have 570 gallons to go to Baton Rouge. What I found out and to my investigation is that the FAA even thought they should have had 170 gallons when they added the 400 gallons. The 400 gallons should have flown that plane from Greenville to Baton Rouge. So we ran out 10 minutes short. So what that tells me is that when we landed the plane from Lakeland to Greenville, South Carolina, the plane was out of gas when we tax it up to the area. The engines, they didn’t know if the engines were still running. But that plane was out of gas and they didn’t know it. So they added 400 gallons thinking they had 570 gallons. And so they ran out and that’s why they were so shocked. Billy Powell said when he saw them dumping the fuel, “That’s what Buddy Meyers will do to you.” They were trying to figure out why were out of fuel. And so the engines started sputtering. And then when one engine would suck up some fuel, it would actually spin the plane sideways. And that’s up there, 12,000 – 10,000 feet that’s a horror story. And then finally the engines ran out of fuel, but they had hydraulic power and flap control because the little John engine in the back was an eight horsepower engine and they had it running and in their situation. And they’re on the phone talking to Houston and they’d already turned one time. Houston tells them we have a few problems and then the engines would pick up some fuel and they said, “We’re not out of fuel, but we need to get back to the nearest airport.”
Ramsey Russell: From going to Baton Rouge they had turned over Avett County heading over toward McComb airport, is that what you are talking about, they turned?
Gene Odom: They turned coming down. They turned some because they were trying to find an area to do a belly landing and so they had turned at that point. So when Houston told them to turn around and go to McComb, they couldn’t turn around at that point because a little john engine had run out of fuel. So we had no flap control, no electrical power. You couldn’t turn. At that time with no flap control, if that plane would have tilted to turn left or turn right, it would have hit the nose right into the ground. They had to stay on a flat plane with no flap control. They couldn’t manipulate those flaps at any time with that going on because the plane would just nose dive to the ground. There was a glider and they saw this field at a distance that they wanted to try to make.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all were coasting. Both motors out of gas, y’all are coasting. This plane will coast pretty a good way, but not forever, without power. What was the demeanor of everybody at this point when it’s quiet and y’all are now coasting. Was it a pandemonium or was it silent? Everybody was getting their mind wrapped around that.
Gene Odom: I’m running back towards the cockpit and I see that we lose our airspeed. The stall speed of that plane was 55 to 65 miles an hour. If you could maintain 55 or 65 miles an hour, you can fly. That plane weighed 30,000 pounds, without any kind of propulsion it was going to lose its airspeed. And that’s why we come in at 52 degree angle, because it didn’t run out of airspeed, it was a it was a brock, it was a ball of metal coming out of the sky and without propulsion, as soon as it loses its airspeed or what do you call it, it’s coming down like a baseball. You can throw a baseball real fast from here to that truck. But if you throw it up over that truck, it’s going to find the point where it loses its steam and that’s what would happen because when it lost his airspeed, we started just coming in at a nosedive, actually, and we started hitting the trees.
Ramsey Russell: Do you remember the sound of the leaves and the limbs hitting the belly of the plane?
Gene Odom: No, I can’t. I know they said trees, because they were thinking we were going to a belly landing. And they said trees and then we started hitting the trees and then I tried to get Ronnie to stay in a seat. And I’m sure he unsnapped his seat belt. If he hadn’t unsnapped the seat belt, he’d probably still be alive. He was trying to get up to fight because he thought I was messing with him. He was so groggy from sleeping pills. He knew he was trying to get up the fight. “I’m going to teach you to wake me up” and he died not knowing the plane was going to crash. He didn’t know we had run out of gas, he died not knowing anything about that.
Ramsey Russell: What’s the last thing you remember? The last cognitive thought you had? You had told me you were running back to your seat. You were running uphill because this thing is coming in.
Gene Odom: Last thing I remember was turning away from him to try to run up to my seat. That’s the last thing I remember.
Ramsey Russell: It’s already pitched at an angle coming in so you’re running uphill in the cab.
Gene Odom: It hit the ground at a 52 degree angle.
Ramsey Russell: And then you don’t remember being thrown out of the plane?
Gene Odom: No, I don’t remember going through the fuselage. But see, the reference to the airspeed of the plane to stall speed: if we’d have been higher up when the stall speed disappeared, we would have come nose diving straight down because that thing weighed 15 tons. 30,000 pounds. We came at an angle because when we started coming down, that plane’s coming down, there’s no force behind it to push it. We’re coming down and while they were having the little john engine running, they were having the flap control, but once that little john engine ran out of fuel, there was no flap control, and you can’t turn the plane, you are on a dead run to whatever you’re going to hit. And I don’t know how many or how far away we were from the field that they didn’t make.
Ramsey Russell: About 350 yards.
Gene Odom: 350 yards. We came up short around 50 yards.
Jamie Wall: First Person at the Lynyrd Skynyrd Crash
Jamie Wall: My name is Jamie Wall of Galesburg, Mississippi, and my story here is about the Lynyrd Skynyrd crash, October 20, 1977. I was the first person at the crash site. That afternoon, I had been bow hunting with my brother, and we had come in from hunting, had a friend of mine on the volunteer fire department, Steer Hetfield, called me, and said a plane had crashed between Magnolia and Galesburg we ought to get the fire department and I said, “That’s a good idea.” So I told him I was going to ride in my truck from Galesburg to Magnolia down the road, just looking. That afternoon, I saw a small plane putting out of the airport and I thought it was a small plane with one person on board. When I got to [it], I could see a helicopter down in the woods and I said to myself, “That’s where the airplane crashed, where the helicopter was just hovering above the woods.” And I stopped at Johnny Mokes’ house to let them know I was going to go through their pasture to the woods and when I got to the house, there were three survivors at the house that had walked out. Artemus Pyle, the drummer, was one of them, and Mark Frank was one and I don’t remember the third person. Johnny Neil was telling them to get off his land and now you’re trying to tell John that they were in a plane crash and I need to help, and there were some more people in the woods. And I said, “Johnny, he’s telling the truth, the plane did crash, and if you step off your porch, and look behind your house, because that field, you’ll see this helicopter and I feel sure that’s where the plane is,” and I was also a volunteer deputy sheriff, and I showed him my badge I said, “I’m going to go across your pasture and help the people,” and I had my brother with me, and we got to the woods. I left my brother in the truck. I had a radio on the truck so I could talk to people and I was telling people where to come. I said, “You stay in the truck and talk.” I crossed the creek, went to the light in the woods. It was dark by this time. And the first person I saw when I got to the plane crash was the pilot hanging upside down out of his seat. The plane was upside down. I got down on my hands and knees and prayed to God to help me, give me strength to go up and help. Well, the first thing I wanted to do is find the wings, that’s where the gas is. I didn’t want to walk up into a pile of gas and I walked around the plane twice, and the wings were ripped off and there was no gas, I felt safe. But while I was walking around the plane, I stumbled on top of two people that were alive. One of them was Paul Welch. I talked to him and I took two hunting coats and I covered him up with the hunting coats and told him help was coming. “Just stay awake, we’re going to take care of you.” The other second person I found was Steve Lawyer and he was the same way, he was kind of hurt, his legs and stuff. But he could kind of stand up. I helped him up and gave him a hunting coat and told him help was coming. There was a third person on the ground, but I didn’t find him, that was Gene Odom. The plane had twisted. The back was upright and I knew most of the people was going to be up front. But you couldn’t see the doors or the windows and there was a crack in the plane. But I didn’t go through that crack. I went through that back door and it wasn’t nothing but suitcases and stuff in there at the time and I didn’t see anybody else. Nobody answered when I called out loud. And you can’t hardly hear because of the helicopter. Well, for some reason, I climbed up on top of the [airplane] and was walking on the belly of the airplane upside down and there was a crack in it. And I got down to pray again. But I stuck my hand in that crack and I poked somebody, his name was Mark Howell. He was an electrician on the plane and I talked to him and I told him I’m going to somehow get him out of that plane through that small crack, which was about a foot long. But for some reason, I took a hatchet and started cutting a hole in that plane around that crack. I told him to close his eyes. When I got the hole big enough to pull him out, somebody tapped me on the shoulder and it was Ben Langhim, the highway patrolman. He said, “Jamie, help is coming, there’s people here.” I looked around and I could notice there were people on the ground below me helping. Other people had come. I hadn’t noticed them until that point. I don’t remember who helped me pull Mark out of that hole. I said, “Mark, I’m going to pull you out of this hole and it’s going to hurt like hell.” I said, “Alright, grit your teeth.” And I reached out his arm and pulled him out. And when I handed him down to the help on the ground I handed him to Steer Hetfield. They guy that called me. Well, after that, I’d never met Mark. But 40 years later, I met him and I’m going to tell you that story in a minute. But I climbed up in the fuselage with Duane Easley and my brother Joey. Dennis Wilson was up in the fuselage. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, who to get out next, this is upside down, you’re walking on the ceiling, you try not to step on nobody. Some people was hung up in the seat belts, you had to cut them out and we got 18 people was in that fuselage and out of the eighteen we got out, four were dead, besides the two pilots, maybe six, all the rest of them were alive, we got them out alive.
A Lasting Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd
“When you look back all these years, did that touch your life? “
Ramsey Russell: Did you know Lynyrd Skynyrd at the time of that wreck?
Jamie Wall: No, sir, I didn’t. Later on that night, when we had gotten everybody out of the plane, Aneeda Laborday from Channel Nine news out of Baton Rouge came up here and I knew her. I recognized her from TV. And she wanted to know where the crash was, I told her across the creek and she waded across the creek and I sent her to talk to my brother, Jarol Wall for an interview and he he sent her back to me and we had an interview and at the end she asked me, “Did I know who was on the plane?” I said, “Well, they tell me it’s a rock and roll group,” and she said, “It was Lynyrd Skynyrd,” and I said, “Which one was he?” So I knew the name Lynyrd Skynyrd but I didn’t realize that it was the name of the band and I thought it was a person. Then she explained to me who Lynyrd Skynyrd was.
Ramsey Russell: Do you know who they are now all these years later?
Jamie Wall: Oh yes, I’ve seen them in concert and everything since then.
Ramsey Russell: You know, having talked some of y’all down here, just regular folks, hunters and farmers, just jumping at the need to help other people, whether you knew them or not, whether they were famous or not, y’all jumped. When you look back all these years, did that touch your life? That’s what I’m trying to say, how did that affect you?
Jamie Wall: I would have done it for anybody. I would have cared, it didn’t matter to me, and like I said, I didn’t stop to even think about that. All I stopped for was to ask God to give me strength to help them do the right thing. And I reckon I might have done the right thing for Mark Howell, me and him are good friends now. If I hadn’t climbed up there to look at the crack, we might have never found him in time. But he was the oldest one airlifted to Jackson, Mississippi. He had broken shoulders, he was in bad shape. So I might have done the right thing climbing up on that plane for some reason, and getting him out so quickly.
Ramsey Russell: A lot of folks around here have said that forever nobody talked about it.
Jamie Wall: For 40 years, I really never talked about it too much. Some people would ask and I said, “Yeah, I was there,” and that was about it. I met a man from Pennsylvania years ago who said he was writing a book and I did an interview for him, but I really never talked to nobody until about four or five years ago. And really the first person I really did a lot of talking to Mike Roseville, Ralph Roseville. And he said he was writing a book about the rescuers. So I talked to him and I talked to a newspaper reporter after that and since then, I’ve talked to a lot of interviews.I don’t do it with everybody. I do it with people who are really interested in Lynyrd Skynyrd, trying to promote them or something, and they’re not in it for money.
Ramsey Russell: No. How do you feel about this monument and what kind of people have you met since? I know people from all over the world come here.
Jamie Wall: I’m glad we did it. We always wanted to do something. When we started out a couple of years ago, we all finally got together talking about it, we were going to do a little sign. Our little sign got bigger because we got more money and donations coming in. A sign turned into three granite stones which we got now and I’m proud of it. I think all the fans should be proud of it and come see it. We’re not asking for money and stuff and I come over here every now and again and I don’t mind talking to the fans. I don’t want anything from it. I want to educate them and they are very interested. If a fan shows me they’re really interested and want to know what happened to their band, I’ll talk to them.
Ramsey Russell: Have you got a favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song?
Jamie Wall: I like “Girl What’s Your Name?”
Ramsey Russell: “Girl What’s Your Name?”
Jamie Wall: But I’ve seen them in concert and I got some albums and stuff from them. I even got the original album I bought after the crash, I went found one of the original band, you know, but I bought it after the crash. I like to always like tell this story on Mark Howell, the one I got out of the plane, you know, which I think I told you didn’t I?
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. That’s right.
Jamie Wall: Me and Mark’s good friends. He lives in Pasadena, Texas now.
Ramsey Russell: Would you say your contact with Mark Hall is one of the most long lasting memories you’ve got? Like when you just think back to that night, what was the one thought you have thinking back to an initial impression or when you got back home and woke up the next morning the first thing you thought about all that?
Jamie Wall: The side of the plane walking up to it, I remember getting Mark out of that plane. Now, after we got up in the plane I helped get other people out. But I had no idea who I was getting out. Like, I didn’t know who Mark was till three years ago. He came down here to see the crash site and he got out his truck. And he got to telling his story that night. And he was telling about how this guy who said, “Look, I want you to grit your teeth, I’m going to pull you out.” When he said it, I knew who he was. I said, “Fella, you’re looking at the guy that pulled you out that night.” I told him to grit his teeth. I said it’s going to hurt like hell. I told him what I needed to get him out. I didn’t know what was wrong with him except that he was hurt. He was between the floor and the belly of the plane up into hydraulic lines and electrical lines. The plane was upside down.
Ramsey Russell: How long after that day was it before people started piling in and carving on the tree and things like that?
Jamie Wall: I can’t answer that. That happened on Thursday evening. I went home Friday and took a bath and ate for about four hours. I came back. I didn’t go home till Sunday evening. My adrenaline was pumped up. I kind of camped out down there. I could talk to my wife on radio from the crash site to the house and she would bring me stuff to eat and stuff. I just slept in the car. We just camped out for a couple nights. I didn’t come back then for forty years. I mean, I heard about the tree, and people talked about it, but I didn’t know anything about it. I never went down there.
Volunteer Firefighter Bobby “Governor” McDaniel Arrives on Scene
“They gave me the location and I had them repeat it a total of three times because they were directing me exactly to our family farm.”
Bobby McDaniel: Bobby McDaniel. I have a nickname, “Governor.”
Ramsey Russell: Governor.
Bobby McDaniel: And I was born and raised just about a mile from here. Before I moved into the town of Magnolia and later into McComb, but our family still has the farm here that I was raised in.
Ramsey Russell: Where were you around dinner time October 20, 1977? wWhat happened?
Bobby McDaniel: I was a young business person, 22 years old. I had started my own business. And I was working, a lot of my friends and all were still in college that did go to college, but I had come back and started a business.
Ramsey Russell: Did somebody call you or did you get a radio call? You were in a volunteer fire department, is that right?
Bobby McDaniel: No, no, not the volunteer fire department and the first time the first report would have been closer to around 6:15 to 6:30. The plane crashed around 5:46. But I was in the K&B drug store which has been long gone. But most people remember the K&B Purple. It probably was the first time they broke in on the AM radio inside the store that a plane crashed outside of Magnolia, of which is where I spent most of my childhood growing up. So, I ran out to my car, and I was a member of the Civil Air Patrol. So I switched my CB radio to channel 12 and reported in and asked for the directions or the location. They gave me the location and I had them repeat it a total of three times because they were directing me exactly to our family farm.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Bobby McDaniel: The plane crashed 2000 feet from the corner of our farm through the woods.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. How long did it take you to get there?
Bobby McDaniel: It’s a very funny story. I could see where it looked like somewhat of a command center being set up. I walked up in it quietly and a friend of mine’s father was one of the ambulance drivers. A great, big man, Eddie Warren Smith. He grabs me by the back of the neck and starts dragging me to his ambulance telling me, telling everybody, “This boy knows the way around!” And explained to me that they were having to go across the field that the other ambulances had gotten stuck in and had to cross a creek and they wanted to find a way around that they didn’t have to go across the creek. I rode in the ambulance and we did go around easily, branched, and turned in on a ridge on the back side. The ambulance did make it, I’m going to say, about 200 feet into the woods, which was a logging road until he determined he was not going to be able to go any further. I bailed out of the ambulance and continued on to the crash site and he and Tommy Dolldrawl, the other person on the ambulance, backed the ambulance back out.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. Describe what it was like when you got there, when you got to the site.
Bobby McDaniel: I have said this from the very beginning: the greatest thing on this rescue was the fact that the Louisiana Coast Guard helicopters happened to be in the area returning back from a training mission. Of course, they heard it over the air, turned their locators on, and they started making circles looking for the plane crash and located the plane crash before the first rescuer ever showed up. So whenever I bailed out of the ambulance, I went toward the helicopter lights and the first thing I did was I came across the wing of the plane. I thought that was the plane crash until I realized that there was more commotion further on up. I had no idea the size of the plane that we were searching for.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. How much further ahead did you have to go find it?
Bobby McDaniel: I would say about 200 feet. The plane hit the top of the first pine tree at 497 feet until it hit the base of the oak tree that actually split the plane open.
Ramsey Russell: How long did it take to get everybody? By the time y’all got everybody out across the creek and off the town, it sounds like a pretty arduous situation here.
Bobby McDaniel: We have gone over this in our minds numerous times. And I cannot tell you what the timeline was. You know, some of the passengers of the plane were up and walking around. Of course, they were in shock. Some of them we were getting out and laying them out and that was kind of my position of helping from Duane handing them out of the plane onto the ground and several of us would get them over and somewhat triage them and decide what injuries or what order they were. And of course, when we did get the deceased out, we kind of lined them up in the same little area. There was no stretcher. I want to say something about the two helicopters. One helicopter did go and land. The second helicopter was immediately over with a spotlight and a prop wash and a noise. It was just hectic. He, at some time or another, had one of the crew members propel out of the plane and it was in conversation, he instructed the helicopter to back on off and back up. So, he gained altitude and backed out to where the propwash was not over us. The noise was not as bad. But that spotlight was perfect on the plane. And if it hadn’t been for that spotlight from the helicopter, and of course the helicopter finding the plane, that rescue could have gone on much longer.
A Community Responds
“But to answer your question, it was 25 years before I walked back into those woods.”
Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir. It seems, from talking to a lot of people down here at the monument, that there were a lot of community people involved. There were a lot of rescuers, a lot of landowners, there were people on the side, there were people inside the plane or people doing triage, there’s people transport and there are people, as I understand, donating their trucks to run to town and take these people. If you had to guess, how many people might have been involved in this whole process?
Bobby McDaniel: Well, about living here for another 40 years and running into people, half of the people in Southwest Mississippi were here that night and helped that night. Everybody said “I was there,” everybody was doing this and that. The people that were actually at the plane, getting the people out of the plane, was between 6 and 20. But then we transported them across the creek and put them in the back of the pickup trucks that were able to drive across the muddy bottom. But there were all kinds of law enforcement people. It was hard. I cannot tell you if it was 100 people involved or not. I could say probably so, but at one point of time there were at least 100 people that helped in the rescue. But it’s been said that there were X amount of rescuers, and several hundred spectators. Because they were spectators. And there were some souvenir hunters. And a lot of stuff got picked up that night that I’m ashamed to say. But I’m proud to say that some of it did get given back to the families of the people on the plane within the next week or two as they were in town. They did come back and bring certain artifacts or family pictures or even the guitar. Yes, it was brought back.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. A lot of people say it wasn’t really talked about that much around here. You know, people will just be real quiet about it. They didn’t talk about it. Was that the case or were people talking?
Bobby McDaniel: I walked out of there that night with my dad. Actually, one of the neighbors had came and got him and got his tractor and front end loader to bring over, thinking it would be able to help. He had cut a tire down on the tractor. Someone had told me about it and so I found him and he and I were walking out together. That’s whenever someone came up to me and told me it was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane.
Ramsey Russell: Had you heard of the band at that point?
Bobby McDaniel: I had been to three concerts.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, really?
Bobby McDaniel: Ed Ladson went on to say, “Don’t worry Bobby. I think Lynyrd’s all going to be okay.” But to answer your question, it was 25 years before I walked back into those woods. I had done seeing all I wanted to see. And actually it was people, friends of mine that had moved into the area and stories were told, and people would say, ‘Well, that’s out near Bobby’s farm.” And people actually encouraged me to take them back to the crash site and that was the first couple of times that I did go back.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you probably had a lot of folks coming in over the year just sneaking in and looking and trying to find it.
Bobby McDaniel: People all the time had come searching for it. They would stop on the road, they would stop people, you’d be on your tractor, bush hogging or plowing, and they’d come out there flagging you down, wanting to know where the crash site was. Johnny Moat, who owned the land that the pasture that we came across on the rescue, got tired of people flagging him down and stopping him from his work. He couldn’t even get his cows milked. He built a big arbor archway, and hung rebel flags off the top of it that you could see from the road here. He would just point [at it] and they would take off across the pasture to that area.
Ramsey Russell: That’s incredible. How would you describe the events of 43 years ago having affected the Galesburg community or affecting you?
Bobby McDaniel: I’d say that in Mississippi, even, people had never heard of Galesburg, but now, Galesburg is a pretty common word, especially in Skynyrd fanbase, and then in rock and roll [in general]. But I had always been a fan of the band and, like I said, I’ve been to three other concerts. And one of the concerts was the best concert I had ever been to. I mean, it’s still number one to this day. I do a little bit of work in our community as far as community services and community support, community advertising, and I think that is something that this community has not used as far as an asset. Some people don’t agree with us on making it publicized about where they crashed and where they died. But rock and rollers, that’s the greatest band we had and this is just something that can attach us to the band or make us feel like we are somewhat closer to the band.
Ramsey Russell: I agree. A lot of people are connected to the music and in this way they can find their own closure in their own connection to the band and to the music. Last question, do you have a favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song?
Bobby McDaniel: “Curtis Loew.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash Site – Past and Present
“Y’all showed up within 15 to 20 minutes and were among the first handful of folks on the site. Describe it.”
Ramsey Russell: Where were you on October 20, 1977, around dinnertime?
Duane: Okay, this is Duane Esely. I’ve lived here all my life and around noon that day, I was baling hay, actually square bales of hay, just right through the woods here, and later that afternoon, I and a friend of mine, Wayne, went bow hunting and it was a really warm day, too warm for hunting, so we came back early and stopped over at my mom and dad’s house and that’s when we heard a helicopter go really low and we wondered what that was about. About that time, the telephone rang. Momma answered it, and she called to us and said there’s a plane going down behind our house. That was my aunt that called, and they saw it coming our way. As soon as we heard, while she told us that, we knew that the helicopter was about there. So we jumped up, and went around to the hayfield. I could see my hay hauler down in the field but we didn’t have any idea where the plane was because it’s several 1000 acres of timber back here. It was kind of a dilemma wondering “where the heck will we look?” Then we saw the helicopter coming back making big circles with a spotlight. Well, it wasn’t dark. I could still see my hay hauler but it was dark in the woods. So they were shining the light down into the under store of the forest trees, because you couldn’t see down there. Sun was already set. But I could still clearly see my hay hauler, so when he stopped circling us, we knew that was it. We were maybe a quarter of a mile away from the plane. So we took off running. Looking back, and thinking about the times the plane went over my uncle’s house, and then the phone call, we had to be at the site within 15-20 minutes of the crash. We got there, of course, and the woods were dark, but the spotlight from the helicopter made it like daylight there.
Ramsey Russell: Where y’all the first ones on the scene?
Duane: I saw some guys coming from the other direction and when we came in from the east side, I could see people coming from the west side out of the woods at the same time. I mean, that’s what I saw. I’m thinking that it seemed like maybe five or six of us got there at the same time. I don’t really know whether somebody was there before that or not. But yeah, we got there pretty much at the same time, I guess.
Ramsey Russell: What exactly did your aunt say on the phone? I know it was explained to me earlier today that we’re right in the flyway, I mean, we’re right at the planes coming out of McComb airport flying toward Baton Rouge, y’all are right under it, but what did she say that made her think something different about that plane?
Duane: Well for one thing, people out here in the country, in Galesburg, know where everybody’s house is within a few miles of which direction and they knew exactly which direction that plane was in and they knew was headed straight to our house and they also knew it was going down because the engines were not running so they called us because there’s not any other houses between their house and our house really through those woods. We were the first house.
Recalling the First Moments on Scene
“When you think back all those years, what do you remember, the smell or the sound, the lights, the emotion?”
Ramsey Russell: I wonder how old trees are at that time. They were probably pretty low to those trees.
Duane: Well, I can tell you this: the first tree that hit, the pine trees, they were really tall pines, the very first one they hit to where the nose hit the ground was almost a quarter of a mile. They were clipping trees as they went. But I know those woods were affected by the crash on the backside of our family property and we call it the back 40, it was called the mile square. Well, they started hitting the tree top, the first tree top, just about on the property land on the south side and when they hit the ground they were only a couple 100 feet from the other private land on the north side, so they went almost a quarter mile hitting trees before they hit the ground and it probably didn’t take but a few seconds.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all showed up within 15 to 20 minutes and were among the first handful of folks on the site. Describe it. I’m just imagining you have never walked up on a crashed airplane.
Duane: Well, first of all, we thought it was a small plane like a Cessna or something, and when we broke through the underbrush and we saw this really big plane, I’m going “Dang, this is a lot bigger than I thought.” So I walked up to the plane and I could hear people inside saying help me, get me out, help get me out of here, and then I could see a hand sticking out.
Ramsey Russell: Because the plane was kind of broken in half.
Duane: Where the wing tore off is where I actually saw that hand. So I walked up to the plane, I could see people on the other side, some guy with law enforcement, because he had some kind of uniform on. I walked back and said, “Well, there’s a guy over here. Let’s go, he’ll probably tell us what to do, we don’t know what to do.” So I walked back around and looked at the guy and he’s just standing there with his hands in his pocket and I said “Forget that,” because you could hear the people in there begging for help. I’m not going to stand there. I said “Help me up here,” and he did. I got up to where the wing was torn off, it was just ripped open. But I had to pull that fuselage back to shine my light up in there, but I couldn’t do anything. They had one hand like this hole in holding the fuselage up. I couldn’t do anything. Well, finally, some guy came up and got a broken limb of a tree and propped it up. That was perfect. I went down inside.
Ramsey Russell: What was the angle of the plane? You were coming in from the top, I guess with it laying on the side? You had to come down?
Duane: Well, it was tilted a little bit, yeah. It was tilted slightly so it made it a little higher. I couldn’t just climb up there without some help. That split was about seven feet probably. Anyway, I got up in the plane and now I found out later I was in the main passenger section. I didn’t know at the time who they were, of course. I started pulling on people and I mean they wouldn’t budge at all. And finally another guy jumped up there and he looked around and saw a dead person and he jumped out and left. Well, finally, Gerald Wall came and got up there with me and I tried to get several people out but couldn’t budge him. He got up there and said, “Look, we got to get them out.” I said, “Man, I’ve been trying, they won’t budge.” He said, “They got seatbelts on, get your pocket knife out.” So I did and when we started cutting belts, they just started popping out, we could pull them out then, of course it took two of us to pull one out because these people, this dead weight, they’re not even trying to climb or pull or anything. I don’t know, I guess they’re in shock and brain trauma from hitting the ground at about 200 miles an hour, but it was really strange that they were not helping us help them, like handling a 200 pound sack of feed. Well, we started pulling them out and we would pull one person out and there would be another one under him. When the plane hit, all the seats just kind of went together like an accordion in that section at least for sure. There was people on top of other people. As a matter of fact, I came to find out, one of the last ones we got out, the whole time I was standing over the back of his legs. He was laying on his face, his feet sticking up. I kept seeing feet go like this and somebody hollering but I didn’t know what it was. Every time I pulled somebody up, I was pushing on his legs, and didn’t know it. Of course, there’s sharp metal all up in there. I mean, it’s aluminum, but it’s sharp. So wound up my hands were all caught up, they were caught up, my blood, their blood on everything.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all were bringing them out and just helping people and kind of getting them rested up somewhere nearby?
Duane: Gerald and I were pulling them out and handing them down. The first one or two, I think we handed down to Wayne Blasey by himself. But then some other people got there. So we were handing them down to a couple of guys and they were passing them down a line. That’s what they told me later. I didn’t see all that. Dr. Louis had them triaged on the west side of the plane. I couldn’t see that when I was up in the plane. But when I did finally come down out of the plane, I walked around and I saw everybody was on the plane laid out, bandaged, you know, most all of them bandaged and of course the pilot and co-pilot were pinned in, we couldn’t get them out. We had to have heavy equipment to get them out. I think that one of the local farmers, Mike Wilson, got his farm tractor in, I believe I was gone when he got them out. But I left the woods about 2:30. I got home at about 2:30, but I think they said he pulled into the tree or the plane to get the pilot out because he was pinned against the tree. The co-pilot was in a little room behind the pilot and you needed a crowbar or something to get the door open and we couldn’t get the door open. So there were only two people left, two bodies left, in the plane. Actually, when the Transport Farish Fire Department got there, there was no rescue, it had been over with for about 30 minutes. The only thing left was a recovery of two bodies, but they came in with the news cameras.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I’m thinking that wasn’t a quick job, a grown man lifting dead weight 200 pound feed sacks, as you call it, getting people going very slowly and you said something about the community and the local and everybody Man,I’m sure by then a lot of folks started to show up.
Duane: Yeah, I looked it out at one point. Actually, after I came down from the plane, because I couldn’t see on the west side while I was in the plane. There were like several 100 people in the woods but they were standing back. My thought at that point was why aren’t these people helping us, we need help. But later on, I found out that the law enforcement people made them stand back because they were afraid somebody had a cigarette that might start a fire so they wouldn’t let them come close.
Ramsey Russell: They didn’t know the plane was out of fuel.
Duane: No, they didn’t know. Nobody knew that and I didn’t think about it but it wound up being only six or eight guys actually doing the actual rescue, pulling people out of the plane, bringing them to the back. But that’s why they wouldn’t let them come up. Most everybody was just watching, looking to see what’s going on.
Ramsey Russell: When you think back all those years, what do you remember, the smell or the sound, the lights, the emotion?
Duane: Two things. All I could smell was hydraulic fluid. It was strong and I smelled that for a couple of weeks. The light from the helicopter was made like daylight, of course. And the sound of that helicopter, wings, probably the rotors. That stayed with me a long time, you know. And it was constant all night, that sound.
Ramsey Russell: What time did you get back home that evening?
Duane: Well, we got home about 2:30 that next morning. I hand went into the woods at dusk or dark. I had no concept of time while we were doing that. Rescue I had no idea at all what time it was.
Ramsey Russell: Kind of involved in the moment.
Duane: It’s kind of like it took forever but it didn’t also seem like it didn’t take long at all, you know, it’s just weird.
Honoring Lynyrd Skynyrd
“It was your property on which the Lynyrd Skynyrd monument is located, you donated this piece of property. Why was that?”
Ramsey Russell: Were you a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan at the time?
Duane: I liked their music but I never went to a concert, didn’t know what they looked like. I just kind of liked the music, but I’m the kind of person, I don’t need to be entertained. I make my own entertainment by hunting and fishing and farming.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.
Duane: So yeah, I knew who they were and I like their music. Still do, of course. It’s good Southern rock, but I didn’t know it was Lynyrd Skynyrd until we got them all out, set them loaded on the ambulance, and they were headed back to the hospital and this 15 year old boy walked up and asked me did I know who this is. I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, ”That’s Lynyrd Skynyrd” and I said “What?” It started to make sense then. They all looked like a bunch of hippies and inside of the plane were dozens, at least, of what we call hippie bags, the leather, go-bags, there were lots of those. There were a whole bunch of tennis shoes and tennis shoe boxes all over the place. Hundreds at least, maybe more, playing cards. Every single thing inside that plane had blood on it. Another observation I made while we were pulling them out: when we got to Cassie Gaines, she was down in it about two or three deep. When we pulled her out, she didn’t have a speck of blood on her. None. While we were pulling around, “I was thinking, wow, this is the first one I’ve seen with no blood. None.” And we knew she was deceased, though, because obviously her neck was broken, it appeared to us anyway. Dean Kilpatrick was the first person we saw that was deceased. He had an aluminum bar stuck up under his rib cage. That’s what I remember: the smell of hydraulic fluid.
Ramsey Russell: All my life growing up, I’d heard about the wreck. In Mississippi especially we currently claim Lynyrd Skynyrd as our own. I’ve heard it was on private property, the secret site, but I’m sure over the years, y’all probably had folks from all over the world just crawling around, stalking through the woods trying to find the site. Did you ever see that?
Duane: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I didn’t see them all, I saw some of them. Around the 20th anniversary, if you would’ve got out here, you’d see cars, driving through real slow and looking and you’d know exactly what they were doing. I’ve stopped some people that were headed back there and showed them the best way to go over the years, but there’s been a lot that I didn’t see. I just didn’t get out and look for them every time.
Ramsey Russell: It was your property on which the Lynyrd Skynyrd monument is located, you donated this piece of property. Why was that? I know it affected you. I know now your personal involvement with that event. Why was it important to you to donate that land for the monument?
Duane: Well, I’ll tell you why: because I was inside that plane and I saw those people in pain and dying and bleeding to death and I heard them calling for help and I just thought that they needed to be remembered in some way.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. How did the monument idea get started?
Duane: The very first mention of that was made by Mark Frank, who was a road crew guy. We had to get together here, lots of survivors, and a bunch of us folks that was on board as rescuers, we kind of had a little get together. Mark Frank just mentioned the fact that most famous plane crashes had a monument or marker or something to that effect and that the Lynyrd Skynyrd band did not and we just everybody kind of looked at each other, and thought yeah, that’s right. We needed to do it. So we started talking about it. It just started growing and people started saying, “Look, we’ll pitch in if y’all do it.” So we started making plans, and we tried to put it on the State Highway, but going through the government is impossible sometimes. Red Tape takes years, we wanted to do it only in 2019. They were dragging around and so Bobby McDaniel approached me one day and said “what if we put it on the Easely property?” And I thought for just a second, and I said, “you know what, yeah, because that way we eliminate the state and then we can do whatever we want. And we don’t have to go through all the red tape. And we can get this done this year.” That’s how it started and we got together amd made a group of folks to get this project done. I think there are just 14 in the group. The Board, we call it the Board. We were thinking about just the roadside, but Miss Christina Anderson over here, she said,”Go big or go home.”
Ramsey Russell: Go big or go home!
Duane: Yes. We were looking at a big monument or small monument signs. She didn’t want anything small. She wanted it big, and so that’s what it is, big and beautiful.
Ramsey Russell: I got one last question for you. Do you have a favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song?
Duane: Oh, it’s got to be “Freebird.”
Ramsey Russell: “Freebird,” I agree.
Duane: I mean, everything about it. The music is so long lasting. Some really good music in it.
Local Dennis Wilson Arrives at the Crash Site
Ramsey Russell: Where were you on October 20, 1977?
Dennis Wilson: First of all, I’m Dennis Wilson. I’ve lived in the community of Galesburg all my life. I was making my living at a feed and seed store in October of 1977. I was 27 years old. Part of my assignment in October was driving a shredder truck and I had been on a shredder trucks written ryegrass and oats for fall planting most of the day. I don’t know but one particular feeling though I don’t know why I remembered it, I think because a bird hit me in the face that afternoon and I was discouraged because I was hurting a little bit, and wound up going home about five o’clock or 5:30. Shortly after then I got a call from a good friend of mine, Stuart Hemphill. He said a plane was in trouble. He had just called the McComb airport, we call it Fernwood, that he had seen the plane a little bit too low and he called them and they confirmed to him that there was indeed a plane in trouble. 20 or 30 minutes later, he called me back. The reason he called me was I was a local fire chief for the volunteer fire department, Galesburg Fire Department, back then. He said we may have to get together and go see if we can find the plane if it had crashed. Well, a few minutes later, sure enough, it did indeed crash. I was living on PP Wilson road, probably not knowing at the time only two and a half miles the way a crow flies from the actual crash site. That was my first knowing, getting that phone call and then immediately thereafter I left my house to come to this area because he gave me the general area of the intersection of PP Wilson and Highway 568. I got there, probably I would guess 6:40 – 6:45, just dust dark. There was a highway patrolman, Mr. Sammy Kean from McComb, Mississippi, who we knew because he was our patrolman. He was at the intersection of PP Wilson and 568 with blue lights on. I stopped right behind him in my 1977 GMC short wheelbase truck base truck that I’d just recently purchased and we were small talking, wondering what’s going on, what kind of plane it is. Of course, nobody knew. About that time, we see and hear a helicopter. It’s kind of good and sure enough dust-dark, or better. Right out in front of us heading south parallel with 568. It flew about a mile and a half below us down toward Gene’s grocery, made a U turn, and started going back north or northeast kind of behind us. We’re still just sitting there talking and the helicopter has a giant spotlight shining straight down under it and we hear the noise of the blades and watch the helicopter. Shortly thereafter, he crossed PP Wilson behind us and advanced about another quarter or three eighths of a mile. All of a sudden, he stopped and hovered in midair. That’s when we stopped talking. Everybody knew he had located the crash and we jumped in our vehicles. I followed patrolmen, we came up, it was right on 568, came up a quarter mile, turned on Easley Road, went about 150 yards, turned in an open gate, went out in the corner of open Bahia grass field that belonged to Johnny Moat, and we could see the helicopter. We got within, I would guess, a quarter of a mile and we had to park our vehicles and then we got out and certainly in a fast run, climbed the, ran down through the woods, because we could see and hear the helicopter. That vision is still in my mind, in that swampy area, of that helicopter with this giant floodlight shining down on an airplane that to me at the time, a country boy from a mid county, looked like a Boeing 747. Of course, it wasn’t nothing to that, everybody knows it was a smaller plane, but it just looked like a plane and it literally broke in half. It was opened and there it was in the woods, and it was almost like a scene from a twilight movie to me at the time.
Ramsey Russell: How many people were there already?
Dennis Wilson: I didn’t see anybody. There was a group of, I’m guessing, four to six or eight people kind of moving rapidly to get there. But I don’t remember seeing anybody. I was toward the front of the line, because the opening in the plane was about 12 feet where it literally broke open six or eight feet behind the pilots. When I got to the plane, somebody gave me a push up. I think it was Gerald Wall who pushed me up. I’m sliding up the plane pulling myself up. Somebody pushed me over and I literally went in the plane. As soon as I did, to my left the pilot and copilot were pancaked in their seats, and there was no way that I knew we could get them out. I was already hearing people say, “Help me, help me, help me.” That’s when we started trying to get people out. Certainly the ones that were able to help themselves. I’ve been told there was probably somebody already out of the plane before we got there, either that I can’t verify or that I can’t remember there very well could have been somebody that had gotten out on their own.
Ramsey Russell: Gone for help or something.
Dennis Wilson: Yes, sir. I went down in the plane, and it was, I guess, my assignment, for the lack of a better word, to get people loose and help slide them up to the next man, which I think was Gerald Wall. Then he would get them to the opening, and then he would slide them down to the people waiting. Shortly thereafter, people came from all around. There were, I think, three to five hundred people that wound up here before midnight that night.
Ramsey Russell: With the size of the plane and the positioning of it and where the opening was, were you having to lift them up?
Dennis Wilson: The tail in the plane that I started toward was at a 45 degree angle with the ground. It was a slant, but it wasn’t a steep incline. I was going down but it was not a tremendous incline.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve heard some of these documentaries and stuff like that. From the cockpit towards the back, was it all kind of an open floor plan or were there like barriers and walls and stuff in there?
Dennis Wilson: There were a few barriers. From what I remember, there were still some regular seats that I was using my feet on each side, I was in th aisle using my feet, using those seats as a ladder maybe to help me get down and get up. The one thing I still remember there was a guy named Ron, he was the most conscious guy that I was around. Some of them were unconscious, some of them were moaning, some of them were groaning. I’m sure several of them [were conscious], but I had more of a conversation with him. His name was Ron Eckman, and he was the band manager or assistant manager. He was in charge of the money. He paid the bills and carried the money and took up the money but his name was Ron Eckman. He told me he was from Houston, Texas. If you’ll check your records, LSU was playing Ole Miss that Saturday night. Somebody told us along the way the plane was headed to Baton Rouge. All I had on my mind was if it was going to Baton Rouge, it must have something to do with the football game Saturday night. They said, “No, we’re a band.” Maybe Ron said that, “Lynyrd Skynyrd.” Well, that didn’t mean anything to me. I’d heard of “Sweet Home Alabama,” but I will confess I didn’t know who Lynyrd Skynyrd was. I like classic country music and I wouldn’t know what I call hard rock or whatever they were. It took me about three days to learn. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ron, from what I remember, was the last person alive that I got out of there because I left him alone because he was kind of conscious. He was worrying the fire out of me wanting to know where his briefcase was. He said he had to find that briefcase. I said, “we’re going to find it, we’re going to get you fixed up.” But we helped six or eight, I guess maybe more, it was at least six and no more than 9 or 10. We got him out and then there were 1 or 2 deceased individuals and then we had left them alone and we got them out, slid into the top. Then when we got everybody except the pilot and copilot that I could see out of the plane, I came out of the plane and I think I was down in that plane at least 45 minutes. It could have been 30, could have been an hour, I really don’t know ,but when I came out of the plane, the pilot and copilot were still in their seats and they were pancaked. We knew we couldn’t get them out and I was told a neighbor went and got a tractor and because there were some oak trees right there and they had just come down at an angle and clipped. I looked at the opening after I came out and it was near 45 degrees but it was at a slant angle where it started cutting those limbs in those trees, oak trees and pine trees, until it got so low it wound up between two oak trees or something. That’s when it literally nose dived and crushed that pilot and copilot and then the impact just snapped it open. I’ve described it like you break a pencil in two and part of it kind of stays together, but the top portion was open enough for me to get down in there and help push people out.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all had to go a quarter mile into the woods across a branch. How far away from the hospital in McComb? Just getting out to the field, I guess that was a chore.
Dennis Wilson: I really wasn’t involved in that, so I can’t give you a whole lot of information about that. I do know when I came out of the plane, more and more people came in and I saw blankets, sheets, and a few cots by then. But to answer your question, I think we were probably 16 to 18 miles from the hospital in McComb and only maybe eight or nine air miles from the airport that they were trying to get back to. They came pretty close to getting back to the airport. But there were still wounded [people] on the ground when I came out of the plane, but people were busy with cots. We got to carrying people out, the wounded, and that took another hour because the ambulances came from McComb and several other places. We got all the injured out, and by then it’s 10 o’clock. I think all this started about 7:15. By then it’s 9:30 or 10 o’clock.We look over there and there’s three bodies still on the ground and as reverently as we could we made a little hammock type thing to carry them out. We brought three of them and slid them, like I said, as reverently as we could into the back of my truck because it was a new truck and I hadn’t junked it up yet, but we put them in there and covered them with a canvas or a blanket or something that somebody brought and I took them in the back of my truck to McComb because I knew they didn’t need to be on the ground any longer but when I turned in the police that ever intersection and I have my flashers on so they knew I probably had injured or deceased but I remember turning in the hospital and said “there’s no worry on these three,” and they routed me to the little maintenance building behind the hospital that had been set up already as a morgue. There was plenty of help there. I guess a corner or some of his people were there. We unloaded those guys and set them on the table in that maintenance building.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. What do you remember, just a thought, a smell, a description of a memory, most about that night? It’s just a feeling. Is there just one thought? I don’t mean anything gruesome, I’m not asking that but I’m just asking, it’s funny when I look back at some of my personal experiences, just something that stands out.
Dennis Wilson: I kind of hit on this a while ago. The thing that stands out to me was we were in a forest in Amite County and here’s this well-lit area, not very big, with a giant airplane in it and all that light and that white shiny airplane was just like a scene from a horror movie. Then when I got out of the plane there were several people that they had sat up against a tree, the ones that were able to sit up, and then some were talking, and I walked back trying to do what little I could to help anybody and one guy grabbed me on the britches leg and pulled it. He said, “Hey buddy, what about my nose?” His nose was cut on one side and laid over and I said, “It’s just a little cut, we’ll get you bandaged up, you’ll be fine.” Was it Leon Wilkerson or Billy Powell?
Ramsey Russell: Billy Powell.
Dennis Wilson: He had a horrific nose cut that almost cut his nose all the way down one side and it was laid over on the other but I tried to reassure him and say, “Hh you are alright, it’s just a little cut, you’ll be alright.” That, and talking with Ron Eckman, he mentioned the word briefcase a 100 times at night.
Ramsey Russell: It must have been important whatever was in it.
Dennis Wilson: I think there’s some money and some checks in it. I never did see it, but I heard about it.
Ramsey Russell: Have you since listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Do you have a favorite song?
Dennis Wilson: “Sweet Home Alabama” and I had heard the song before then I think but “Sweet Home Alabama” is one of my favorites. We’ve rarely mentioned it for as we hit on this earlier for years and years and years. And about 2014 redneck from Charleston, Mississippi came down and started asking me questions and everybody else and worrying the stew out of whoever he could, and it ended up being a good thing. What started out as a thought for maybe a little sign on the highway that we couldn’t get any help for, turned into, because of a few individuals, one beautiful monument. I am really proud that, even though it took 42 years, we stepped up and fixed this monument for them.
Gene Odom Remembers
Recovery and Realizations
“Yeah, my girlfriend picked me up and the first thing I wanted to do was to go visit Ronnie and see how he was doing.”
Ramsey Russell: How long were you in the hospital after the wreck? And I know they got everybody over to McComb, how long were you in the hospital? Because you sustained some pretty serious injuries.
Gene Odom: A little over three weeks, a week out there in Mississippi, and then a couple of weeks, three weeks, in Jacksonville. Then many, many, many, many weeks after that.
Ramsey Russell: While you were in the hospital, nobody told you if anybody died, what happened. They just kind of wanted you to focus on getting well and getting out.
Gene Odom: Yeah, I didn’t know. I was not told anybody passed away.
Ramsey Russell: Yep. You were discharged from the hospital and you wanted to go to visit Ronnie. What was that like?
Gene Odom: Yeah, my girlfriend picked me up and the first thing I wanted to do was to go visit Ronnie and see how he was doing. We’re driving at Orange Park, going towards his house, and she pulled into the cemetery, and I asked her, “What are you doing pulling into the cemetery?” She says, “We’re going to see Ronnie, he didn’t make it” and that’s the first time I knew about it.
Ramsey Russell: How did it hit you? That was your childhood friend.
Gene Odom: I was shocked. I was just speechless. He was in a temporary mausoleum area, because the judge had ordered the thing. It was, I don’t know the right words, surreal. I don’t know what that word really means, but it was a horrible shock. Out of everybody on that plane that could have been killed, why in the world was Ronnie Van Zant? It took me a long time to find out exactly what happened when I put two and two together. Him unsnapping his seat belt but still, why him? Why Ronnie? Tragedy. There’s force up above that makes all the decisions and you can change them and you don’t know they’re being made.
The Legacy of Lynyrd Skynryd
“How do you think Ronnie Van Zant would have wanted to be remembered?”
Ramsey Russell: Ronnie was a young man. All those guys were young back then. When you’re in your late 20s, you don’t think about mortality. You don’t think about not waking up tomorrow. You just don’t give those things thought, you’re young, you’re bulletproof. You have got a long life ahead of you. I’m sure y’all probably never talked about this, but how do you think Ronnie Van Zant would have wanted to be remembered?
Gene Odom: Him being a rock star wouldn’t have mattered to him one bit. The way he’d be remembered as a southern country boy, a barefoot country boy, who liked to fish and loved life, that’s how he’d like to be remembered. Rockstar wouldn’t make a bit of difference to him.
Ramsey Russell: If he had a favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song, what would it have been?
Gene Odom: I would say “Curtis Lowe” would probably be right at the top of his list and “Simple Man,” because that’s what he was, a simple man. Gary Rossington actually wrote those lyrics. Gary came up with “Simple Man’s” lyric and he and Ronnie sat down and wrote the words to it. He was he was a simple man. Everywhere he went, no matter who you were, your money wasn’t no good. He was paying for everything. One day, we just got per diem money, which we got $20 a day back then. We were somewhere and he paid and I said, Let me pay for something.” He went, “Gene, you see these jeans. These jeans cost $17. I ain’t going to let a $1 bill burn a hole in these $17 jeans.” That’s the kind of guy he was.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t know what attracted me to this story. Maybe it’s just that my whole life, I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd suffered a tragic fate in my home state of Mississippi. Decades later, their authentic music and lyrics still resonate. Almost half a century later, their music still speaks to many of us. They were absolute top of the world rock star legends and the whole world remembers. What song is that you want to hear? That’s right, “Freebird.” In meeting with these guests, visiting the sites, hearing their stories, I found myself wondering, how will we be remembered? Inevitably, we’ll all spend eternity staring at the bottom of headstones, figuratively speaking. I’m reminded that parents, spouses, business owners, and hunters, each of us are influencers. Our words and actions affect our family, friends, and entire community. That is our legacy. Likewise, we’re all the songs of our past: people, places, events, and even music.