All that’s left of Hell House—the sort of secret songwriting and jamming site for Lynyrd Skynyrd—is a piece of raggedy cinder block in the Clay County archives housed in the Old County Jail. The archives attract Southern rock music fans who want to be part of history.
“We’ve had people come by just to have their picture taken with that piece of cinder block,” says Clay County Archives Specialist Vishi Garig. “They come here on a quest to find out about this area as one of the birthplaces of Southern rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
Back then, Clay County was one of a few Florida hot spots for musicians—regular guys who grew up as neighbors and friends, started jamming and later made music history.
Members of Lynyrd Skynyrd came together at Hell House in Green Cove Springs to jam. Its remote location ensured privacy. Once in a while, they would include their friend, guitarist Jeff Carlisi.
“The guys in Lynyrd Skynyrd and I had similar musical tastes,” says Jeff, who with Donnie Van Zant and Don Barnes went on to found 38 Special. “It was a good ways out—a perfect place along Black Creek to get away, practice and write music. We always kept it a secret.”
Jeff, who now lives in the Panhandle, retired from 38 Special in 1997. He played in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame house band for nine years and performs at charity events.
Jeff and Donnie started a couple of bands together, playing teen clubs in the area when they were in high school.
“Most of the musicians around Jacksonville, Orange Park and Green Cove Springs knew each other,” Jeff says.
His neighborhood was rich with talent. Billy Powell, who became the keyboardist for Skynyrd, lived three blocks away. Skynyrd founders Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins lived nearby.
“We’d go over to Billy’s house and play,” Jeff says. “Leon Wilkeson was two streets over, and I’d jump on my bike and ride over to Allen’s house.”
When Jeff went off to college in Atlanta, Ronnie, Billy, Gary, Allen and Bob Burns took to the road. Jeff, Donnie and Don founded 38 Special after Jeff graduated from Georgia Tech.
Several years later, when Skynyrd and 38 Special’s rehearsal studios were near each other in downtown Jacksonville, Jeff and producer Kevin Elson sat down with Ronnie after recording a demo.
“I remember sitting there, just Ronnie, Kevin and me, and Ronnie just started singing,” Jeff says. “He never wrote down the lyrics; they just came to him. I picked up a Dobro, and we worked on the arrangement together. That was ‘Four Walls of Raiford.’”
After Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed in Mississippi in 1977 and killed six people, including Ronnie, the band’s survivors quit performing for 10 years. Johnny brought the group back together a decade later with Gary and other musicians. They still perform at area events.
Although they have traveled the globe making music, these days, Johnny and brother Donnie live next to each other on several acres in Clay County. They still make music and travel, performing as Van Zant.
“We moved back to Clay County 40 years ago and found this great land with horses out near the Black Creek Swamp,” Johnny says. “We love it here.”
The brothers often get together in their backyard studio to work on projects.
“We’re working on a gospel album,” Johnny says. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Johnny still performs and records with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
As for the Skynyrd legacy in Clay County, Johnny says he has high hopes. The 90-acre Ronnie Van Zant Memorial Park in Lake Asbury was built in 1992 and is a popular place for recreation.
“It’s great to live here,” he says. “Maybe one day they’ll put a Skynyrd museum here.”
Adapted with permission from DeSoto Magazine. The author went to high school with Jeff Carlisi and wrote about Southern rock, Capricorn Records and Allman Brothers Band for The Macon Telegraph and News.