“If I leave here tomorrow … Would you still remember me?”
The lyrics to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern rock classic ring true now more than ever, as one of Jacksonville Beach’s longest-standing music venues winds down and prepares to forever close its doors at the end of this month.
Owners and founders of Freebird Live, Judy Van Zant-Jenness (who was married to Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie) and Melody Van Zant (her daughter), have dedicated nearly two decades of their lives to the venue, not to mention the local music scene.
Originally opening as a restaurant and museum to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Ronnie Van Zant, Melody said that the music aspect of the business was an afterthought. “I don’t think we really decided, it kind of just happened on its own.”
Originally dubbed, “Freebird Cafe,” the building served lunch and dinner and acted as a place to keep memorabilia for the band. Things began to shift around 2003. At that time, the venue was still under the Cafe name, but hosted dinner shows featuring a seated dining area and live acts.
After seeing the potential, Judy’s son, Matt Grondin, suggested that they start bringing in more bands. The only problem was that the venue’s current setup at the time didn’t allow them to host a large audience.
“As we started thinking about bigger bands, then we thought, ‘We gotta do something here with this stage,’” Judy said.
After a decision to upgrade the existing venue instead of moving elsewhere, rapid construction and revitalization began on Freebird. About a week later, the ceiling was removed (which gave the venue its now iconic viewing area), the stage was made larger and several other upgrades were installed.
Both Judy and Melody said the change was rapid, and the venue “became its own monster” based on what people wanted. The tables were removed, food was no longer served and essentially every aspect of the old cafe was changed to improve the fan experience.
The changes were well-received, and the music business took off. Soon after, acts such as Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney and many more began inquiring about performing at Freebird. On one particular night, Jason Mraz, Maroon 5 and Gavin DeGraw were all featured on the same bill.
Despite the successes of the venue, Judy eventually decided to (mostly) put the venue behind her and let Melody take over things. As time passed and speculation began to wildly whirl around in recent years, it seemed that Melody too was looking to move on.
The venue’s future became clouded as people heard it was going to be sold or moved, until it was finally announced in the end of last summer that Freebird would be sold and the Surfer Bar would take its place.
The initial reaction to news of Freebird being sold and closing wasn’t good, according to Melody.
“Well, we really didn’t get a chance to say anything, because we were waiting to see what [Jacksonville Beach] city hall was gonna do [with Surfer Bar], and The Beaches Leader kinda spilled it out,” she said. “The reaction was really bad.”
Speculation as to why Freebird was closing ranged from the building burning down to structural damage. “Some of it was funny, but some of it made me sad,” Melody said.
To all the upset people, Melody had this response, “I feel bad. I really do. But the majority of my adult life has been in that place. I have two kids myself. I was pregnant when we opened [in 1999]. I need to be home. Nobody sees the behind the scenes of what it takes [to run a venue]. Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Melody originally wanted the buyer to be someone to carry on the venue’s tradition, and at the least, keep it a music venue. But, she soon realized that she needed to let it go.
Some people have claimed that the venue will be missed, but that there are others who will fill in. Judy agreed.
“We started something, and now there’s a lot of other places doing the same thing,” she said. “It’s not like music is going to be gone. You just might have to go somewhere else to see it.”
When asked what the plans were now that the venue has a set date to be closed, Melody instantly replied that she was going to take a nice long vacation. After some R&R, she plans to continue making people’s lives better, but in a more direct and impactful way, perhaps working with nonprofits and creating events. Judy, who also owns a recording studio in New Orleans, plans to continue being active in the music scene in Florida and Jacksonville, working on festivals such as Magnolia Fest and maybe even something not too far from Freebird.
The pair have no plans to leave their local ties behind, despite the venue’s closure, and both remain adamant that the are “beach residents” and will continue to be.
In closure, I’ll leave you with two things. Firstly, get out to a show at the venue this month and send it out with a cheerful ending. To sum it all up, no one better than Ronnie Van Zant himself could finish this story off.
“For I must be traveling on now … ‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.”
(This article was originally published on Jan. 1 in Void's Health & Fitness issue)