By Steve Helling/Tampa
December 02, 2013 12:00 PM

On a recent sunny afternoon in Tampa, Zander McKnight, 7, excitedly talked about his favorite things: his bike, Spider-Man, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game he attended the night before. “They are the best team ever!” he shouted, hugging his dad, musician Billy McKnight, 47. “I’m going to play football when I grow up. Or I’m going to be a singer.”

Such a scene of childhood exuberance seemed nearly impossible nine months ago when his mother, troubled country singer Mindy McCready, 37, committed suicide on Feb. 17. At the time, Zander and his half-brother Zayne, 19 months, were in foster care, already casualties of their mother’s life of volatile breakups, substance abuse and mental instability. After months of court battles, the siblings have finally found stable homes: McKnight was awarded full custody of Zander in July, and Zayne – whose father, David Wilson, committed suicide in January – lives with relatives in South Florida (see box). “Zander has been through a lot,” says McKnight. “But he’s a tough kid.”

Indeed, for nearly his entire life, Zander was at the heart of a bitter custody dispute between his parents. During their relationship, McCready attempted suicide at least twice, and McKnight, who struggled with addiction, was arrested on domestic-abuse charges in 2005. (“I was using, and I screwed up big time,” McKnight says. “I was a different person then.”) The ugliness continued in 2011, when McCready fled to Arkansas with Zander during a parental tug-of-war. After McCready’s death her mother, Gayle Inge, 58, fought McKnight’s custody bid, citing his past behavior. But today Inge and McKnight have “a good relationship,” says a source close to the family. “Everyone is working together in harmony.” Sober for seven years, McKnight is now married to Corey Rena, 40, and performing with his band the Soul Circus Cowboys. As a condition of regaining custody, he submitted to dozens of drug tests. He says, “I fought my demons very hard for the sake of Zander – and myself.”

It may take Zander some time to heal. Since arriving at McKnight’s home, he has asked about his mother. “We tell him she’s in heaven,” says McKnight. “When he’s old enough to understand, I’ll explain that she got sick and wasn’t the person she once was. I’ll only speak the highest of her.” Though Zander lives more than 150 miles away from his brother, they have seen each other regularly, and the family says they will maintain a relationship between the boys. There will be more questions for both of them as they grow up. “There are challenges on the horizon,” says McKnight. “But we’ll work through those together.”

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