Featuring Shenandoah singer Marty Raybon’s plaintive country vocal and Daniels reciting a poem that lies at the grave of Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, the sorrowful tune recounts the events of October 20, 1977. That day, the band boarded a Convair CV-240 on their way to a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but they never made it, crashing into a wooded area near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Van Zant was killed, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray.
A video for the tribute shows Shenandoah recording the track at Muscle Shoals Sound in Muscle Shoals, Alabama — the same studio where Skynyrd laid down some of its earliest tracks. And it also shows Daniels reading from the poem, which Raybon says is meant to connect past and present, not just grab headlines.
“Everyone knows Charlie Daniels plays a pivotal role in the Southern rock genre,” Raybon explains. “He also has a friendship with Lynyrd Skynyrd that goes back nearly four decades including a close relationship with Ronnie (Van Zant) before he passed away. With the connection he has to the history behind the song, we felt he would be perfect to have on this record, and we were honored when he said yes.”
“Freebird in the Wind” was written by Nelson Blanchard and Scott Inness after the pair visited the crash site and met with two of the first responders. They were so moved by the experience, they decided to put it in song, and even have the blessing of one of the band’s surviving members. “We even played the demo to drummer Artimus Pyle who survived the crash, and he cried,” Inness says. “We truly feel we captured the story in a song.”
For his part, Raybon felt the same way.
“The first time I heard this song, I remember thinking ‘Wow, what memories it brought back.’ Then I thought ‘My goodness what a tribute,'” he says. “Not that they were in a plane crash and not that one of the most gifted songwriters and vocalists in Southern rock had been killed, but the love for who and what they were had not died. We recorded this song not to gain from it, but to pay our respect to them.”
True to that ideal, all proceeds from the song will go to the Lynyrd Skynyrd Foundation, the band’s official charity.
In related news, an in-depth documentary titled I’ll Never Forget You: The Last 72 Hours of Lynyrd Skynyrd is coming to DVD on December 13. Featuring survivors’ first-hand accounts of events leading up to the crash, detailed animations explaining the crash itself and a look at the tragedy’s aftermath, it aims to provide more insight on the fateful flight than ever before.