ORANGE PARK – Johnny Van Zant was at home – literally – signing autographs and posing for pictures last week.
The private opening of Sweet Homegrown Traditions at the Thrasher-Horne Center was a rare opportunity for the Lynyrd Skynyrd front man to reflect on his family’s life of music. Far away from the blinding stage lights and ear-shattering, heart-pounding riffs of “Free Bird,” Van Zant was surrounded by friends and family who came together to honor a family whose roots run deep in Clay County.
“I fit here,” Van Zant said. “I feel at home. This is why I love Clay County.”
The exhibit, which highlights the Van Zant family legacy in the county, is at the Thrasher-Horne box office. There are several rooms of displays and photos that tells an amazing story of three boys – Ronnie, Donnie and Johnny – who carved a path away from Jacksonville’s Westside with their unapologetic and wildly-popular blue-collar music.
The display is a treasure map of a journey that’s continued for more than 50 years after Ronnie finally surrounded himself with friends from his Little League team and his Shantytown neighborhood to create Lynyrd Skynyrd. The music had attitude and was unlike anything else being played.
Donnie went his own way, mixing his Southern roots with pop and rock to form 38 Special.
The walls inside Thrasher-Horne are covered with gold and platinum albums from both bands, as well as childhood photos of the entire family.
There’s also a copy of a newspaper that reports the tragic story of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash into the Mississippi woods on Oct. 20, 1977. Ronnie died with five other people in a plane crash in 1977.
Johnny revived the band 10 years later and continues to tour.
Donnie is retired from 38 Special, but he still works on projects with the band and his brother. Their collaborations are made easy by the fact they are next-door neighbors in Middleburg.
“This is amazing,” Johnny said. “I’ve seen a lot of old stuff I haven’t seen in a long time. Heck, there’s stuff in here I’ve never seen. When you’re involved with it (touring), you don’t have time to think about it. We’re just simple guys from Middleburg. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate this.”
Van Zant walked around the exhibit with his wife, Lisa.
Larry Junstrom made a rare public appearance. He was a founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but he’s best known for playing bass with 38 Special from 1977 until 2014. He’s now retired and living in Interlachen.
Sweet Homegrown Tradition is open to the public during box office hours. It will remain at the Thrasher-Horne Center until the Help Somebody 3 concert on Nov. 9 to benefit St. Michael’s Soldiers. The show will feature sets from 38 Special with Brett Myers, the Curt Towne Band and Pinto Graham.