Along the Highway

The Melody of the Freebird Cafe
By John Fleming and Jason Manning

Melody Van Zant, the manager of the Freebird Cafe in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, is a redneck boy's fantasy girl. She stands a little over five feet tall, has a petite build, and medium-length brown hair streaked with blonde highlights. Her nose is small but blunt, and has a way of crinkling up when she smiles. Her left nostril is pierced with a silver ring and a thin armband tattoo circles her right biceps. She's 23, looks five years and younger, and smiles a lot — a broad smile of perfect teeth framed by full lips . Melody's clothes flatter her body; she's wearing a tight black top that shows her midriff and the body glitter sprinkled lightly on her bosom, tight jeans pulled low on her hips, and a black, studded belt and boots. She has a twinge of the North Florida accent, but not strong enough to be noticeable to anyone who isn't listening for it. Her mother, Judy, a native Georgian, has a much stronger accent. Melody's voice, like a lot of children of the New South, only carries the faint rising tone at the end of her sentences and a slight twang. She's cute, country, dressed provocatively, has a good job and she's not pregnant. A redneck dream girl.

Her father, of course, was Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer and creative genius behind the greatest Southern Rock band to ever walk the face of the planet — Lynyrd Skynyrd. Her mother is Ronnie's widow, Judy Jenness. Melody looks like her father, who was a stumpy, rowdy redneck from the Westside of Jacksonville with a taste for whiskey and barroom brawls . Back in the late sixties, in the rough and tumble neighborhoods of Westside, Ronnie and few high school buddies started a little band and named it after a physical education teacher, Leonard Skinner, whom they despised for enforcing the school's haircut and dress code rules. Ronnie's dad, Lacy Van Zant, was a truck driving man ("White crosses and coffee, oh Lord, are all that he needs..."), and the Van Zant line is undiluted Southern working-class.

Melody has a way, a certain look, that reminds one of her father, who died in a 1977 plane crash in Mississippi when she was only a month past her first birthday. The resemblance is subtle, maybe only wishful thinking. It's in the slight slope of her shoulders, noticeable from the back, not hunched but carried slightly forward. Ronnie was a small man, thick and compact, diminutive and tough, who carried himself squarely. There are echoes of the man in Melody, and though you wouldn't mistake her for anything but a female from the back, you can see her father's blood.

Her father's memory and spirit is strong in the Freebird Cafe the Friday night of October 15. Judy, the owner of the 2-month-old restaurant, is holding a memorabilia auction to benefit the Freebird Foundation, a non-profit organization she directs that provides scholarships to benefit graduates of area high schools, including Lee, where Ronnie dropped out. The Lynyrd Skynyrd box set is playing over the two-story restaurant's sound system. They're Skynyrd's greatest hits, songs about whiskey drinking ("I'll drink enough whiskey to float a battleship around..."), hell-raising ("There's been times I've been busted, times I've been to jail...) a mother's wisdom ("Mama told me when I was young ... be a simple man..."), and God ("You should be searchin' for the Lord up above...").

Outside the cafe, the extreme outer rain bands of Hurricane Irene, carried by a brisk offshore wind, scuttle low across the darkening horizon. The invisible setting sun had earlier turned the sky a surreal copper color that made the buildings at sunset glow as if they were viewed through amber. The Freebird Cafe sits at 100 N. 1st St., Jacksonville Beach, one block west of the Atlantic Ocean. It's an old ramshackle beach-bummish community that is trying to redefine itself with trendy nightspots. A redneck attempt at a yuppie bar sits across the street from the cafe. It's called "Bukkets," of all things. Bukkets and Freebird share opposite corners and face the public beach parking lot. Irene, sitting off the southern tip of Florida, is only able to deliver a timid, glancing blow to the North Florida coast tonight, spraying grains of sand in the face of a couple of fellows enjoying a doobie down on the beach. Ronnie, one imagines, would have liked the scene.

The festival inside the cafe is a family affair. The Skynyrd faithful have all kinds of children in tow tonight. The atmosphere is that of a tribal reunion. People hug, inquire after each other's mommas and reminisce. Everyone seems to have a home here, to be tapped into the energy, to hold a piece of the legend. In fact, but for the children, the place could be mistaken for a home for old roadies and groupies. The standard dress is a concert or band T-shirt and a lot of denim and/or leather. Melody is flitting about giving instructions to the help. A young man standing near the door stops her in mid-stride and introduces himself as "Jimmy."

"Jimmy from Arkansas?" she asks. He answers in the affirmative and immediately receives the type of affection that makes other men jealous. Melody squeezes when she hugs — let's folks know she means it. There is a real feeling of general affection in the room. A fellow in a Merle Haggard T-shirt sitting at a table says "thanks baby" to a waitress as she sets down his order. The waitress doesn't seem to take offense. The feel-good atmosphere is natural and sincere.

Skynyrd memorabilia dots the walls. It's very personal stuff — the real stuff — not the kind of factory-made, vintage-looking, knock-off stuff you find in modern restaurants. There's Ronnie's Atlanta Rhythm Section and Peter Frampton T-shirts that you can tell he actually wore. A minor-league baseball jacket he loved is also prominently displayed in a glass case near a TV on which someone has appropriately tuned in the Braves/Mets game. Other display cases contain original concert posters, fliers, and tickets. A "Citation of Achievement" from BMI reads, "In recognition of great national popularity as measured by broadcast performances."

The interior of the cafe is trimmed in rustic wood. Simple wood tables and chairs sit on top of a spacious, dark carpeted floor. A small stage connected to the back wall is arranged with instruments that stand in front of a Jack Daniel's Whiskey backdrop. Gold records decorate the wall behind the bar opposite the front door. Along the front of the room, a large staircase stretches upward from the ground floor. Another bar is on the second-floor loft where revelers look down on the stage and dance area from behind a wood railing.

The cafe's menu, which is a cardboard model of a vinyl record inside its cover, is an unapologetic homage to the band's oeuvre and its Southern roots. One can start with an appetizer of "Fried Green Tomatoes" or "Sweet Potato Chips," followed by a main dish of "Sketti" (or spaghetti, if you prefer) or "Sister Van Zant's Chili." Less formal fare includes the "Freebird Burger." The food is good, simple, and indulgent.

Wash it all down with a "Whiskey Rock 'n' Roll," which consists of Bushmill's Irish Whiskey, Bailey's Irish Cream, White Creme de Menthe, and coffee topped with whipped cream that costs $5.50 and comes to the table in a clear mug that shows it's strange chartreuse tint. Another $5.50 coffee drink is called the "Freebird," made with Bailey's, Frangelico and Grand Marnier. The beer is cheaper, $1.75 for Bud longnecks, and probably more in keeping with the Skynyrd tradition.

The Bobby Croft Band, a group of middle-aged locals with an Allmanesque sound, are the night's preliminary entertainment. They bang out some great covers including Little Feat's "Willin' " and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio." As the band jams, the dance floor fills with ever-happier tight-figured females and the occasional beer-bellied, stumbling, balding male. The whole restaurant continues to fill up and within an hour it's standing room only as Melody and Judy have more chairs and tables brought in. The Bobby Croft Band, made up of two guitarists, a keyboard player and a bassist, press on with some Carlos Santana and Muddy Waters tunes. "Baby....I wants to be loved," cries the lead singer luridly as a tipsy female dancer careens backward into the tables of the dining area. A few drinks are spilled, but people look more amused than perturbed as they help the woman back to her feet. The band breaks into Sister Hazel's "All for You."

Skynyrd tributes are everywhere in the crowd. A six foot five man with blonde hair down his back and cowboy boots sports a Ronnie Van Zant tattoo on his right biceps. Another man wears a denim jacket, the entire back of which is covered with an air-brushed portrait of Allen Collins. A young man, twisted with cerebral palsy and sitting in a wheelchair with more factory options than a new Mustang, wears an air-brushed Confederate flag T-shirt with "Freebird Forever" blazoned on it.

The bathrooms are doing fairly heavy traffic by now. In keeping with the musical theme of the restaurant, the men's room is labeled "Roadies," and the women's room "Groupies." A large burly man in the Roadie's room tells a smaller fellow, "You are a short man, but you are nothing like a midget. I have seen midgets and you are not a midget."

"No, I ain't no midget," replies the little one repeatedly and resolutely. The band, meanwhile, finishes up their set and reminds everyone to sign up for the auction.

The planned auctioneer is a Van Zant family friend. But by the time of the scheduled starting time, he hasn't made it to the Freebird Cafe. Judy begins the auction.

"We have some good items here, and all the proceeds are going to the Freebird Foundation," she begins. "Usually our auction is done by Will Jordan, but he's not here tonight, so Melody..." whistles and claps break out in the audience gathered around the low stage "...will be doing it tonight."

Melody, fortified by a couple beers, takes the stage amid cheers, whistles, and catcalls. When asked, she will claim she hasn't inherited any of her father's stage presence, but this a modest but blatant lie. With her shapely figure, pretty face, broad smile, and steady voice, she commands the room.

With a beer in hand she calls out to the crowd, "Y'all don't forget we're sending some kids to college." With that announcement the auction begins. Melody, flanked by two young girl friends and shadowed by Judy, who is always standing behind her, starts hawking the goods with the smooth rap of a carnival barker.

Some of the items are poignant mementos of Skynyrd history and sentiment, others, quite frankly, are tacky. A "Travelin' Man" promo CD with a letter from Skynyrd's manager Joe Boland goes for $70. Two Southern Rockers books signed by author Marley Brant and musician Ed King sell for $120 after brisk bidding. A Freebird Cafe custom-made Budweiser Mirror (a handsome thing indeed) brings $400. Two autographed Johnny Van Zant posters go on the block. Johnny took over as the band's lead singer after brother Ronnie's death. These posters, circa 1987, fall in the "tacky" category and Melody knows it. She laughs and cuts on her uncle: "This is when Johnny was a pretty boy - back in the day." The posters fetch an amazing $175.

Then something extraordinary comes up for auction. It's a Texas Hatters hat, black, like the one the one Ronnie used to wear in concert, his trademark. Melody dons the hat and the moment is surreal, beautiful, ironic. The ghost of her father walks on stage. Whoops and whistles ring out as she smiles brightly . She leads the bidding expertly, and the price climbs steadily. Who wouldn't want that hat, after it had been on that head? The last bid for the hat is $650. Sold.

Two Freebird Cafe Grand Opening Posters autographed by Charlie Daniels go for $250. A vintage autographed photo of Gary Rossington, who founded the band with Ronnie. It's ironic, because Gary and Judy, both shareholders in Lynyrd Skynyrd, have recently disputed the funding of concerts and the disbursement of profits from the new, re-formed, Skynyrd band's sales. One of the disputes ended up in federal district court. Judy won the case. The photo brings $350.

A vintage set of albums including the Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rossington-Collins, Contraband, and APB bands sells for $179. Original assorted Lynyrd Skynyrd travel itineraries are next for sale. "You never know where they'll be in the future, but you can see where they've been in the past," says Melody. They sell for $175.

A Charlie Daniels fiddle bow used during his performance at the grand opening. The crowd at first, amazingly, is completely unstirred by this item. Melody cries out, sincerely appalled at the low bids, "You've got to be kidding!" The embarrassed bidders ante up a bit and the bow finally goes for $300.

An authentic Gold Record, "Skynyrd's Innyrds" that was presented, by the band, to Melody is offered and the bidding is fierce. It draws the largest bid so far: $1100. The next item has some cache too, an acoustic guitar autographed by Merle Haggard that brings $700.

But why would anyone want this, a promo CD, "Solo Flyte," with a letter from Ron O'Brien? Ron O'Brien is apparently an MCA record executive that the bidders should give a damn about. The final bid is $150.

Bidding is at first weak for the next item, a Gibson Explorer guitar signed by Gary Rossington, Melody Van Zant, and Corrina Gaines. Judy, silently backing up Melody so far, now steps forward. "Who's going to give me a really good price for this guitar. And don't insult me, the guitar alone is worth 25 hundred dollars." The guitar finally sells for $3000 and Melody quips to the winner, "Hope you're a guitar player."

Another guitar, a Stratocaster Sunburst guitar signed by various members of the neo-Skynyrd outfit collects $675 for the foundation. Later an acoustic guitar signed by the original band brings $1300.

Another poignant moment stirs the crowd as a signed, framed photo of Ronnie goes up for sale. There is a brief, sublime moment as the father's face is held up next to the daughter's. The photo brings $500.

Perhaps the strangest item of the evening is next, a set of huge JBL stereo speakers that a strange man who has commandeered the microphone claims were once owned by original band member Leon Wilkerson. The crowd just stares at the man in bewilderment. There is some confusion and a few incoherent questions from up front. Again the man says that the speakers are authentic JBL's and were once owned by Wilkerson. Again confused silence. Finally the speakers are wheeled off the stage while members of the audience look at one another. Perhaps Someone needs to tell Brother Leon that his old speakers don't count as memorabilia.

The auction is soon back on track after the mike has been rescued from Speaker Man. The crowd is tired and listless, though, and offers only $200 for door signs from original Skynyrd concerts, and a promotional poster of the band nets $175. There's a strong closing, though, as the last object of the evening's auction gets the crowd excited again. It's a gold record, the last album the original band recorded, Street Survivors. It finally goes for $650.

According to the Freebird Foundation, the evening and entire weekend, which also included a picnic and private party Saturday, raised over $10,000. The faithful are still keeping the faith.

It comes as no surprise to Melody. Skynyrd's legacy, she says, hasn't been "kept alive" by anyone — it has a life of its own. "There are six- and seven-year-olds here, and their favorite band is Skynyrd."

And Ronnie's legacy isn't just the music, it's the beautiful Melody.

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