Artimus Pyle – Wildman of Rock & Roll – June 15

Though the name Artimus Pyle may not be as well-known as his band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s is, his life story is just as fascinating. Pyle was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1948. After graduating high school in Columbus, Ohio, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968. He was honorably discharged in 1971 with a sergeant ranking. His father was also a Marine and served in the South Pacific in World War Two. His father was also a pilot and was killed in a mid-air collision when the private plane he was flying was hit by a U.S. Air Force B-57 weather reconnaissance plane over New Mexico. The Air Force eventually took responsibility for the accident and paid the Pyle family a settlement.

Artimus had been playing drums since he was a teenager so after his stint in the Marines he started playing in local bands. Ronnie Van Zant, lead singer for Lynyrd Skynyrd, contacted Artimus through a mutual friend in the Marshall Tucker Band. “I knew the guys in Marshall Tucker real well,” explained Pyle, talking by phone from his home in North Carolina. “My bands would often open for them and we’d hang out together after their shows. Skynyrd’s original drummer was Bob Burns but life on the road was tough in those days so Bob decided to quit. So Ronnie called me up and told me to bring my drums to the studio. They were recording the song “Saturday Night Special” for their third album, Nuthin’ Fancy. It was also used in the Burt Reynolds movie “The Longest Yard.” So, I recorded that song with them and was told they were going to audition a few more drummers. About a month later, Ronnie called back and said he wanted me in the band. I packed up my drums and headed to Jacksonville, Florida.”

Artimus was with the band for their next three studio albums, “Nuthin’ Fancy,” “Gimme Back My Bullets,” and “Street Survivors.” He was also on their classic live album “One More From The Road,” recorded at the famous Fox Theatre in Atlanta. “The first time I met Ronnie, he had a black eye and a banged up face, like he’d been in a bar fight,” recalled Pyle. “I learned real quick that Ronnie was the true leader of the band. He didn’t mind settling an argument with his fists if talking didn’t work. He pushed the band hard because he wanted us to be the best and we were. After Steve and Cassie Gaines joined the band and we recorded the live album, we were on fire. That album captured us at our best.”

Like many bands from that era, drugs and alcohol took their toll. Ronnie insisted that the band clean up their act and by the time they recorded “Street Survivors” in 1977, most of the hard drugs were out of the picture. “I was actually pretty easy going back in those days,” Pyle admits. “Pot was my drug of choice so I spent a lot of time riding herd over the other guys. Getting them on the bus or plane on time, making sure they got to their rooms at the hotel. I was known as “the wild man of Southern rock,” and I had my moments for sure. When we started the ’77 Street Survivors tour, we rented a private plane, an old Convair CV-240 and painted our name on the side like the Rolling Stones did. We felt like we’d finally made it to the big time.”

After a sold-out show in Greenville, South Carolina on October 20, 1977 the band boarded the plane and headed for Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The short version of the story is they ran out of gas and crashed. Artimus goes into much more detail, it’s a story he’s told many times. “The plane had been having trouble in the days before the crash and we told the pilot that we’d seen flames coming out of the right engine. They told us they would have a mechanic look at when we got to Baton Rouge. I’m a pilot, so I know that with these old planes you can’t trust the gauges. You actually should use a stick to lower into the tank to measure the fuel level. I was in the cockpit when the plane started running out of fuel. I was sitting in the jump seat and I could see the fear in their eyes. They radioed for help and the tower in Houston told them to try to land in McComb, Mississippi but we didn’t make it. The pilot tried to land in a field but the landing gear caught the tops of the trees and pulled the plane down nose first into the ground. I was able to climb out of the wreckage and go for help.”

It was about 7pm when the plane crashed but it was many hours’ later after all 26 passengers were accounted for. Six were killed and twenty were injured. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines were the three band members that were killed. The band wouldn’t share a stage together for ten years, when at a Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam in Nashville in 1987 they regrouped for a one time performance. Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny Van Zant filled in on vocals, and guitarist Ed King rejoined the group to replace Allen Collins, who was still recovering from his injuries from a serious car wreck. The response to the appearance was so overwhelming, the band decided to do a year-long tribute tour. I caught the show in Houston on Halloween night in 1987 and was blown away by how good it was. Johnny was the only non-original member on that tour.

Ronnie’s widow, Judy Van Zant, was overseeing his estate and forced each surviving member to sign an agreement stating that at least four original members must be in the band in order for them to use the Skynyrd name. However, as members quit or passed away, she revised the document each time to lower the number. Today, only guitarist Gary Rossington is an original member. Artimus quit in 1991 after the band started slipping back into the drug and alcohol abuse. “Once I got sober, it was hard to be around people that weren’t. I felt like our spirit was strong when we first got back together, but then things started going downhill. So I quit and formed my own band. I sent my two guitar players to Nashville to see Ed King, the original Skynyrd guitarist, so they could learn the songs from the guy that wrote the music. My band is incredible and we play Ronnie’s songs with the respect and honor they deserve.”

In recent years, a lot of bitterness has erupted between the current line-up in Skynyrd and Artimus. He wrote a book about his life and was part of a movie that documents the final days of the band. Both projects were stopped by Judy Van Zant and the Skynyrd organization. Naturally Artimus is upset about the circumstances. “I have a right to tell my story. I was part of the band, I survived the crash, and I was the one that went for help. Why should they have a say in my life story? Hopefully the judge will rule in our favor. Hopefully he will see that Judy has broken her own rules by allowing fewer original members to be in the band.” A brand new documentary has just been released about the group. Titled “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” it was premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Pyle attended a second showing in Nashville and says it paints an authentic picture of the band. The film is currently waiting on a national distribution deal.

My phone interview with Artimus was scheduled to last about thirty minutes but he talked well past the one hour mark. He has a fascinating story to tell and his band is serious about how they play Ronnie Van Zant’s songs. “We love playing these songs. I was there when we recorded the original versions and we do them justice. I just bought Lenny Kravitz’s tour bus and we are touring hard to bring these songs to the fans. When people ask how I want the original version of Lynyrd Skynyrd to be remembered, I say this: we were passionate about the music, we had a lot of fun together as a band and we bravely met death head on. As the plane was coming down, no one was crying hysterically, we all sat quietly in our seats with our heads down and we were prepared to accept our fate, whatever it might be. I was one of the lucky ones, I survived. Now I’m just doing my best to honor the music we made together”

If you are a fan of the music Ronnie Van Zant created with Lynyrd Skynyrd, I highly recommend seeing this show. The Artimus Pyle Band with special guest Jay Bleu opening the show will be at the Brauntex Theatre on Friday June 15. Doors open at 7pm and the show starts at 8pm. Tickets are available at Brauntex.org.

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