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The day the music died

On Oct. 2, 1977, Austin Peay State University announced the headlining act for that year’s homecoming concert. Many students were shocked to learn that the legendary southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd would be playing hits like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” in the Dunn Center.

            “The Peay was ready for a good rock and roll homecoming,” then-student Brian Nobes wrote in the 1978 edition of “Hail and Farewell,” APSU’s yearbook.

            Booking such a big name, it turns out, wasn’t so unusual for the University at the time. David Watson, APSU assistant to the vice president for student affairs in the 1970s, brought several major performers to Clarksville in those years.

“We had some interesting times,” Watson said. “The big sellout I had was the Doobie Brothers. We sold out and the fire marshal said we couldn’t let anybody else in. It was packed, all the bleachers were pulled out, chairs on the floor.”

Watson, as coordinator of the University’s student activities, also brought in KC and the Sunshine Band, Willie Nelson and Friends, Wild Cherry and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

            “I booked this one guy to play, and I gave it away as a free concert in the ballroom,” Watson said. The performer was a no name at the time. “It cost me $300 for the entertainer. It was Jimmy Buffet. About a year after, he was playing for $50,000 a night.”

            Still, getting Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977 was a big deal. The band was in the midst of what some critics refer to as its “peak years,” having just started its most successful tour yet. But Lynyrd Skynyrd never made it to APSU’s homecoming.

            In the 1978 “Hail and Farewell,” Nobes wrote, “on Thursday, 20 October, about 7:30 p.m., a news bulletin came on the T.V. that put me in a state of shock for about half an hour. The bulletin said something to the effect that ‘the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd was involved in a plane crash near McComb, Miss. There is no definite information about injuries.’

“After a very sleepless night, I got up early the next morning to see if there was any more information about the accident – unfortunately there wasn’t. Later that day, when the paper came out, the title read “Crash Kills Three Rock Members,” and as I read on I found out that the members killed were lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and vocalist Cassie Gaines (Steve Gaines’ sister). From this point on I must admit my homecoming was not the celebration it should have been.”

That plane crash was one of the defining moments in rock history – the equivalent to a previous generation’s loss of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in a 1959 plane crash. At APSU, the incident left University officials scrambling.

            “We had already sold about 6,500 tickets, and then the plane crashed right before they were suppose to play our gig,” Watson said. “It was an interesting time. We had to refund a whole bunch of tickets. There was no big concert that year.”

            The duo LeBlanc and Carr, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s back-up band, ended up coming to campus on Oct. 29 to host two free concerts. The band, made up of Lenny LeBlanc and Pete Carr, were well-known studio back-up musicians at the time, and they did their best considering the somber circumstances.

            “I think if you asked anybody who was at the concert,” Nobes wrote, “they would tell you that they did indeed play.”