The Ballad of Curtis Loew


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The Ballad of Curtis Loew
| published April 25, 2015 |

By Earl Perkins Thursday Review features editor

I was recently driving through the Westside of Jacksonville, Florida, very much off the main avenues and roads, and lo and behold, there it was: the Woodcrest Store, better known to many as the colorful "Country Store" described in Lynyrd Skynyrd's “The Ballad of Curtis Loew."

Tucked back in a hardscrabble section of town, it's right around the corner from what used to be Speedway Park, home to an early stock-car racing track (1947-73), now land occupied by modern apartments and subsidized housing. Though it is long gone, that half-mile dirt oval with metal and wooden bleachers stands as the only NASCAR track to ever have a black driver win—Wendell Scott's incredible Grand National Division victory in 1963. Even then, in the early 1960s, when the Saturday night sounds of that race track rumbled and gnarled their way into neighborhoods a mile or more away, that Woodcrest neighborhood was hardscrabble, tough, and a place where financial success was hard to come by.

Some of the boys who would eventually form the nucleus of that most famous of southern rock bands grew up just a few blocks away from the Woodcrest Store, and frequented its doorstep and concrete porch. The store stills stands, though it has been shuttered for several years. Its former doorway speaks to the flinty nature of the neighborhood even now—padlocked burglar bars over plate glass decorated with a large U.S. flag.

Ironically, the group Lynyrd Skynyrd rocketed to stardom in part by proudly playing to rabid fans in front of the Confederate battle flag. A cornerstone of Southern Rock, the group mostly represented a rebellious Southern swagger, which denied them inclusion in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame for several decades. It became pretty much a major embarrassment as the Hall welcomed dozens of lesser artists, until Skynyrd was finally inducted in 2006.

But getting back to the story at hand, let's talk about Curtis Loew. The name Loew came from a Loew's Theatre, which was located down the road from where the boys grew up. As for the man himself, he never really existed—just a poetic conglomeration of several fascinating characters, according to Gene Odom, Ronnie Van Zant's lifelong friend and author of the book Lynyrd Skynyrd—The Free Birds of Southern Rock.

There was Claude H. "Papa" Hamner, a talented musician who chose not to commercialize his talents, inspiring Van Zant and Odom by allowing them to hang out and practice music in his own small store, Claude's Midway Grocery. A site of after-school activity, the neighborhood establishment was sandwiched between rows of dilapidated shotgun shacks and rusted-out trailers. Hamner spent countless hours teaching Van Zant how to play blues guitar.

Then comes Rufus "Tee-tot" Payne, a blues musician who inspired Hank Williams, and Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues.

Finally, there's Shorty Medlock, an all-around character and American Delta blues player, along with being a hard-rock musician and composer. His grandson, Rickey Medlocke, played drums on several Muscle Shoals recordings, later becoming a full-time guitar player for Skynyrd. Medlocke was also frontman/guitarist for the Southern rock band Blackfoot. Hmm...Calling it a sub-genre seems just so dismissive.

Written by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant, “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” was recorded by Skynyrd and released on its 1974 album Second Helping. When a song is on the same record with “Sweet Home Alabama” (the group's biggest hit single), "I Need You," "Don't Ask Me No Questions," "Working for MCA" and "Swamp Music," there's room to be overlooked.

An October 1977 plane crash near Gillsburg, Mississippi would claim the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and vocalist Cassie Gaines, along with pilot and co-pilot, forcing the surviving members of the group to take a decade-long hiatus.

"The Ballad of Curtis Loew" was later released on several compilation albums, including The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd and All Time Greatest Hits.

"The original version of the band only played 'Curtis Loew' one time on stage," said original band member Ed King. "We were playing in a basement in some hotel and thought we'd try it. We never played it again until the Tribute Tour with Johnny Van Zant."

Skynyrd rose from the ashes, making a tremendous comeback and continuing to sell out huge venues worldwide. The band recently returned to Jacksonville's Florida Theatre, a restored classical movie palace now used for musical concerts, playing to a raucous hometown crowd. Numerous videographers crowded the intimate historic landmark, gathering footage for a potential movie down the road.

Meanwhile that little general store remains standing there—albeit mostly empty—as sturdy concrete block and mortar reminder of Skynyrd’s formative years, and those early days before they won a local “battle of the bands” contest in 1968. The Woodcrest Store is visible to the locals in the neighborhood, but its location is so far off the beaten path that to drive past it generally means you are lost. If you do happen upon it, try to imagine it as Van Zant did when he wrote that famous song: with old Mr. Loew sitting there with that blues guitar, entertaining the kids and taking nickels and dimes for tips.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Keeping Those Lighters Aloft: Lynyrd Skynyrd 40 Years After “Pronounced”; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; September 9, 2013.

Muscle Shoals: Musical Ground Zero; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; July 9, 2014.