While the rock and roll world remembers Bob Burns as the drum-hammering titan behind such classic anthems as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps” and “Simple Man,” Kristen and Lou Burns remember their father a little differently.
To them, he wasn’t the cymbal-pounder behind classic rock staples such as “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” or “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” he was the man who would go to Waffle House three times a day just to purchase meals for random customers and pay people $250 to drop by and pet his animals once a week.
“He was the most amazing person and he was the most giving person. He never met a stranger,” said his 35-year-old daughter Lauren “Lou” Burns. “He was a kind, kind soul. A lot of people took advantage of that, but he loved to play practical jokes on people … we laughed a lot, our whole family.”
Her father was a founding member of the venerable Southern rock outfit Lynyrd Skynyrd and played the drums on the band’s first two studio albums, which featured many of the act’s most iconic tracks, including the nine-minute epic “Free Bird.” He resided in Cartersville for close to 20 years before dying in an automobile accident in April 2015 at age 64.
Lou still maintains her dad’s old motor home — the same one she and her sister used to travel on when they were kids. From encountering alligators on freeways to dealing with her father’s grudge-holding impersonator, she has no dearth of memories from being on-the-road with her rock star father.
“Me and dad took a shift driving and then Kristen and mom took a shift driving,” she recounted one experience. “Well, somehow, in the mix of something, somebody took a wrong turn or didn’t make a turn, and we went through the Everglades in the middle of a tropical depression — it was like a grade one hurricane.”
Not that Bob himself wasn’t ready to raise a little hell every now and then. Kristen, 33, recalled her dad confronting a man who groped his wife at a convenience store.
“We caught him and we drug him back there,” she said. “We threw him up against the car wash … dad goes and puts his boot up against the guy’s throat and he goes ‘you better be glad I didn’t get a hold of you, boy.'”
Of course, music was just as big a part of their upbringing as getting lost in the swamp and roughing up perverts at gas stations. Kristen reminisced on her father’s all night jam sessions.
“He would just get on a roll with some crazy, funky stuff and just keep going,” she said.
Her sister, likewise, has fond recollections of her dad’s time in the downstairs studio.
“He named it the Kraken — ‘Let’s go release the Kraken,'” Lou said. “His drums were set up in the basement, right next to the chimney. So all the nails in the chimney were literally pushed out of the wood from the vibrations.”
The Skynyrd discography was practically “embedded in our head,” Kristen said. She remembered her mother singing “Coming Home” the night she passed away. “That’s a big heart-wrencher for us,” she said. “I can’t listen to it without crying.”
While often chaotic, Lou said her home-life was no doubt one filled with love and affection.
“We always thought we were dysfunctional, because as much as we would laugh we would fight,” she said. “But now that mom and dad are both gone, me and my sister, we’re both realizing we weren’t dysfunctional. We were the most functional family that we knew of — we had a really tight bond.”
Both siblings inherited their father’s creative talent. They’re both musicians and painters, and even their day jobs in house remodeling and landscaping give them plenty of opportunities to ply their artistic abilities.
After the deaths of their parents, the twosome once known as “the rebels” of Tower Ridge Road turned to each other for support. Their trying times, however, weren’t finished — a mammogram and subsequent biopsy revealed Lou had two different types of cancer in one of her breasts.
Lou was relatively upbeat for her originally scheduled lumpectomy. She even recalled dancing around in “that ugly paper gown” before the operation. After a series of mishaps — including getting a saline bag stuck in her hair — she literally vaulted from the gurney and ran out of the hospital before going under the knife.
“I started crying and they’re like ‘look, Lou, you’ve got to do something about this. This is something you’re going to have to do anyway,'” she recounted.
She ended up getting a double mastectomy.
“In each one of those cancers, I had two different types — invasive ductal and invasive lobular, and two sub-cancers within those cancers,” she said. “One of my doctors told me I was a medical mystery because it’s so weird to have two different types of breast cancer … she was like ‘how did this one person get all those strange things?'”
Compounding her medical crisis was another ailment, Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome — a fairly rare condition that produces an irregular heartbeat and palpitations, among other symptoms.
Eventually, she got in touch with representatives of the Hope Center in Cartersville.
“It’s an amazing place,” she said. “They gave me Medicaid for the breast cancer and came up with a list of doctors — I called and interviewed all of them and wound up having some wonderful doctors.”
Lou’s health issues, however, continued when her body rejected one of her reconstructive breast implants.
“My whole breast was about to turn inside out,” she said. “It was literally squeezing the tissue expander like a pimple. It was just going to push it right out of my body.”
Then she had a port put in for chemotherapy.
“They couldn’t put it on the righthand side because of me having cancer on that side,” she said. “They also removed 16 lymph nodes, so I have a little bit of numbness and lymphedema in my right arm — they had to put the port in my left arm, it crosses over my chest to go in and out my heart.”
She referred to her chemo treatments as “the most god-awful” thing she can imagine. “It literally makes you feel like you’re going to die,” she said.
Her series of illnesses has also caused the family great economic duress. She has to drive from Plainville to Buckhead two to three times a week for checkups, then to Kennestone Hospital an additional two to three times. “I have not worked, really, since December, so the financial side of it has been extremely rough.”
That’s where Southern Devil Harley-Davidson, at 2281 U.S. 411, stepped up to the plate. They commemorated their fourth anniversary with the first annual Bob Burns Memorial Benefit Concert Saturday, an event featuring such illustrious musicians as Artimus Pyle of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame and Michael S. Allman, son of the late Gregg Allman.
Although free for attendees, Harley-Davidson did collect donations all day to help Lou with her health care costs.
“This is amazing,” Lou said. “Dad did so much charity work, and we were always on the giving side of it. So it’s really interesting to see what its like to be on the receiving side. Our whole family, we have sowed so many seeds in the community, and I guess this is the community paying us back.”
Although grateful for the outpouring of support from the local community, Lou also said her story serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of regular breast cancer screenings.
“I didn’t get checked for seven years. Had I gone to the doctor and been tested, I might have been able to get away with just having a lumpectomy,” she said. “But it got to the point where it had already spread to my lymph nodes, so now I’m having to go through the chemo. If you can’t afford the doctor, go to the health department, it’s not that expensive — your life is worth more than the dollars you’re going to pay to have yourself examined.”