Today (October 20) marks the 40th anniversary of one of rock’s most notorious tragedies — the plane crash that killed three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and others.
The tragedy occurred when the group’s charter Convair CV-300 was traveling from Greenville, S.C., to Baton Rouge, La., crash landing after running low on fuel in a forest just northeast of Gillsburg, Miss. Frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his older sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines, were killed, along with assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the plane’s two pilots. Other band and crew members were seriously injured, and Skynyrd disbanded for a decade following the crash.
Current guitarist Rickey Medlocke, an early member of Skynyrd who was leading his band Blackfoot at the time, tells us he’ll never forget hearing the news:
“On that day they took off from Greenville, S.C., I was arriving into Columbia, S.C. to play a gig. That’s where I was the night when I got the message from my folks, and you gotta understand my mom and my dad, they were real upset. My ma, she just loved the boys, and my dad picked the phone up right away when I called him after I heard about it and I asked him, I said, ‘Tell me this is not true’ and he said, ‘I’m afraid it is,’ and he told me who all perished and told me Ronnie was the first one.”
Medlocke adds that he experienced a bit of survivor’s guilt in the wake of the crash:
“After that I always kinda felt like maybe if I’d have been there, y’know, I could’ve maybe helped and changed something, but…as Gary (Rossington) said, he said, ‘No, Rickey, you couldn’t change anything. It was meant for you to be here now and not then,’ so there you have it.”
Rossington, who’s the sole member involved in the crash who’s still with Skynyrd, says the tragedy left him with a renewed sense of gratitude for being a live and a stronger purpose for the music:
“After the initial shock of it and the injuries and the heartbreak and all that — ’cause we were more like a family than a band. We were childhood friends and all that. But it’s just great to keep playing and I just thank God I’m still alive, y’know. I figured that’s why I’m still here so long is to keep playing for the people, making the people, our audience happy, and the fans. It’s really all for them…I think we’re blessed just to be able to play and share our music and our brand and the stories of Skynyrd… It’s just a great thing to do. Since the plane crash I’m just thankful to still be here and try to make my way through this life.”
Skynyrd regrouped during 1987 with Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny singing, and the group has continued uninterrupted ever since.
Former drummer Artimus Pyle recently made an unauthorized film about the crash, but a U.S. District Court ruled that his involvement in Street Survivor: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash, is illegal due to a 1987 consent order that prohibits any band member from participating in a Skynyrd-related project without the consent of the surviving members of the group’s pre-crash era.
Gary Graff is an award-winning music journalist who not only covers music but has written books on Bob Seger, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.