Southern rock was born in Jacksonville in the 1960s as a new fusion of rock, blues progressions, and a heavy dose of Southern grit. Arguably the first true Southern rock group, the Allman Brothers Band, formed following a jam at a Riverside home known as the Gray House. Though they shipped out for Macon, Georgia just a few weeks later, their impact was immense in their city of origin, with a number of bands following in their footsteps over the next decade.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was next up, and by 1973 had joined the Allman Brothers as standard bearers for the Southern rock sound. Other successful bands to emerge from Jacksonville’s fertile scene at this time included Cowboy, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, and 38 Special. The subgenre outlived both the Allman Brothers, who broke up in 1976, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, who disbanded after a plane crash in 1977 that took the lives of three members, including frontman Ronnie Van Zant. In fact, Southern rock is arguably as popular now as it was in its heyday, and more recent Jacksonville bands, including JJ Grey and Mofro and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, continue to carry on its legacy.
As the birthplace of so many bands, Jacksonville also has been the final resting place for many Southern rock musicians. Chris Soldt, a Boston photographer who spent much of his life in Jacksonville, recently took a tour of the city’s Southern rock graves.
Original tomb of Ronnie Van Zant
Ronnie Van Zant (1948 – 1977), born on Woodcrest Street in Westside Jacksonville, was the frontman and founder of Lynyrd Skynyrd. His two brothers also became notable Southern rock musicians: Donnie Van Zant was a member of fellow Jacksonville band 38 Special, while Johnny became lead singer for the reunited Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987.
On October 20, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the band’s crew were flying to a tour date in Baton Rouge when the plane ran out of fuel and crashed in the Southern Mississippi woods. Among the six who died were Van Zant, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, and guitarist Steve Gaines. Van Zant and the Gaines siblings were originally laid to rest in nearby plots at Jacksonville Memory Gardens in Orange Park, Florida, with Van Zant entombed in a marble mausoleum. Also in the area are benches bearing inscriptions about music. Ever since, the site has served as a shrine for fans, who often leave flowers, guitar picks, an other tokens in tribute to the band members.
In June 2000, the graves of Van Zant and Steve Gaines were vandalized. Van Zant’s family decided to relocate his remains to Riverside Memorial Park cemetery in Jacksonville. The original mausoleum remains in place.
Cassie Gaines (1948 – 1977) joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1975 as a backup singer, one of a trio of gospel vocalists dubbed the Honkettes. Gaines and her fellow singers Jojo Billingsley and Leslie Hawkins provided a crucial element to the band’s distinctive sound. Following her death in the 1977 plane crash, Gaines was buried just behind her brother Steve’s grave in Jacksonville Memory Gardens. Her mother, also named Cassie Gaines, and father Earl Gaines are buried in adjacent plots and memorialized on the same headstone.
Original grave of Steve Gaines
Steve Gaines (1949 – 1977) joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in May 1976. The band had been looking for a new third guitar player to replace departed member Ed King, and gave Gaines an audition at the suggestion of his older sister Cassie. He died along with his sister and Van Zant in the 1977 crash and was buried in Jacksonville Memory Gardens. Gaines’ headstone stands just in front of the graves of his sister and parents, and nearby other members of the Gaines family and the former tomb of Ronnie Van Zant. After his and Van Zant’s graves were damaged by vandals in 2000, Gaines’ family reportedly removed his ashes to a private location.
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