Lisa Miller is wiping away tears. It’s hard for her to talk, so the other five people in the room fall silent, sensitive to the seriousness on her face. They’ve all sat in on the same presentation; they’ve all listened to the same words. Yet Barry and Joanne McGarrh’s Freebird’s Last Flight prison ministry is hitting Miller harder than most.
“I almost died of an overdose,” Miller says softly, haltingly. “I’m just glad that I found Him in my life again and accepted Him as a higher priority. I’ve changed in so many ways.”
Minutes later, Miller returns to her cell. Barry and Joanne, however, remain standing. They’re waiting for the next group of inmates to walk in the door. This is what they do, this Henderson couple, 7 to 8 times a month in prisons and jails mostly in the Tri-State area. And Vanderburgh County Detention Center inmates like Miller love them for it.
Miller’s tears are a reaction to a unique ministry based on the music and lyrics of Southern hard-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. This mainstay of classic rock is best known for the 1970s songs “Sweet Home Alabama,” “That Smell,” and “Free Bird.” Yet despite the band’s reputation for drug and alcohol abuse, its song lyrics speak to something deeper, Barry tells inmates. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, who was raised in the Christian faith, infused references to God and praying in his writing. He also described events he and his band members had experienced, cautioning the band’s fans not to follow its example. That’s what Barry and Joanne talk about in their nonprofit Freebird Outreach Ministry Inc., founded in 2010. Yet they aren’t lecturing from on high. As they’ve told inmates repeatedly since as early as 2003, they’ve made mistakes, too.
“I’ve been looking forward to you coming here,” a female inmate exclaims as soon as she sees Joanne and Barry. It’s a Monday night, and the 18 women who’ve walked into the small room at the Vanderburgh County Detention Center are all dressed in red. They wear socks, flip flops, and several grins. Some clutch Bibles. Joanne exchanges hugs before giving a short introduction. And then Barry begins, telling how Lynyrd Skynyrd is actually the skewed spelling of the name of three original band members’ former high school teacher; how the band members battled drugs and alcohol; and that the tragic Oct. 20, 1977, plane crash killed six people, including three band members.
It was a familiar story to Jo Jo Billingsley. In an interview Barry plays for the inmates, she tells the TV show “The 700 Club” that she made a living as a backup singer before being hired to sing for Lynyrd Skynyrd. That’s when she became heavily involved in drugs and alcohol, which “disintegrated” her life. “After my dad died, I got mad at God,” she said, before she died of cancer in 2010. “So I shut the door to God, and that (left) the door to the Devil right open.” Billingsley later left the band before lead singer Ronnie Van Zant asked her to return in the fall of 1977. He wanted her to meet them immediately in Greenville, S.C.
“When I was talking to him on the phone, I heard this one word,” Billingsley said. “That one word was, ‘Wait.’” She agreed to meet the band a few days later at the Little Rock, Ark., show, which was to take place one night before the band was to play at Evansville’s Roberts Stadium. Yet that night, she had a premonition about the plane crash. “It was like the most vivid dream I’ve ever had – it was in Technicolor. And I saw the plane, and then I saw it smack the ground.” The next night, the plane carrying 26 people crashed. Billingsley, meanwhile, felt immensely guilty that she was not on that plane. She continued to abuse drugs and alcohol. It took her years before she began to sing again. When she did, she decided to sing for the Lord, she said.
Well before the crash, however, lead singer Van Zant was trying to get his life back on track. He was starting to see that drugs weren’t the answer, Barry says. The following lyrics from the 1976 song “That Smell” are about fellow band member Gary Rossington’s drunken car crash. Barry plays it on speakers right there in the jail, for all the women to hear:
“Angel of darkness is upon you/Stuck a needle in your arm/So take another toke, have a blow for your nose/One more drink fool, will drown you/Ooooh that smell/Can’t you smell that smell/Ooooh that smell/The smell of death surrounds you.”
Several of the female inmates suggest the moral of the song is to not drink and drive, but Barry goes further. To him, it’s not the story, but the vantage point of the person who’s telling it, that can have the greatest impact.
“They were going beyond saying don’t drink and drive,” he tells the inmates, many of whom nod in agreement. “Who can tell you the most that you’re being a fool? It’s someone who’s been there. Someone (who’s) been destroying their life.”
Someone like Barry.
He tells his story last, without any video. And on paper, it’s relatively simple: He started his life in the church but got into drugs and alcohol early on. He married when he was 18, had two kids, and then divorced. It’s a tale that any number of people, not just inmates, might relate to. But as is true with most things, the reality cuts much deeper.
“You’ll become a product of who you hang around,” Barry says. “I was getting high and stuff and Sandy understood that. But she should have run from me.”
His wife was able to avoid drugs and alcohol for a time as she worked to raise their two boys. Yet Barry says his partying ways influenced her to become addicted. One night, Sandy got drunk, and he put a lit joint in her hand. Harder drugs followed. While Barry became clean in 1988 and returned to the church, his wife couldn’t stop herself even though she wanted to. They divorced. On Dec. 27, 2005, Barry learned that she had shot herself in the head.
“When someone’s in the grave and two boys today don’t have their mother because of what I did, the road that I led – one plus one will equal two, always,” he says. “I was that one that made that other one equal two. I was the one that did that.”
Barry and Joanne have ministered to thousands of inmates and prisoners over the years, and they don’t always tell Barry’s own story. Yet Alan Wood, senior chaplain for the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry at the Vanderburgh County Detention Center, says that’s probably the tale that affects inmates the most. “Hearing this story made me realize that tomorrow is not promised,” adds Shayla Peyton, 35, an Evansville inmate who lost custody of her children. “For me, it was always ‘tomorrow. I’d go to church tomorrow.’ But now the Lord actually speaks to me without my mind being cluttered with different things. I want to get back to that relationship that I had with Him.”
Jacksonville, Fla., resident Tammy Van Zant, the daughter of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, says Freebird’s Last Flight aims to help people. “That’s what (my father) tried to do with his music,” she says. “I think he would definitely have his blessing on it.”
For more information about Freebird Outreach Ministry Inc., visit www.freebirdoutreach.org.