Lynrd Skynrd'sArtimus Pyle on the band, the crash and the music


Meet Artimus Pyle: Drummer, Crash Survivor, Torch Bearer

This week’s show features an incredible story told by Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash survivor and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Artemis Pyle. Artemis was the drummer for the famed Southern Rock Band. He appeared on four of the original six albums recorded with frontman and founder Ronnie Van Zant before the band’s plane went down and crashed on the way to a gig in 1977. You probably recall the tragedy, it made news right around the world as three of the band members and several other passengers were killed that day. Artemis managed to crawl out of the wreckage to get help and his tale of survival is nothing short of chilling. His account of the tragedy, though, isn’t the sole reason I’m chatting with him. Today, in his mid-70s, and some 45 years after that fateful day, Artemis is still hell-bent on honouring Steve Van Zant’s musical legacy. Artemis records and tours with his own band, and he’s recently released a film that recreates the story of that ill-fated flight. The movie is called Street Survivors

Street Survivors The True Story of the Lynrd Skynrd Plane Crash

To my greatest surprise, Artimus started off our interview by telling me that the band had been on the way to Australia as part of the tour that ended so tragically when their plane crashed. He talks about the grief and horror of that fateful day and said it comes back in waves. “A lot of times when I’m playing the music, I’m 74 years old. So my band, they’re all in their 50s. And they grew up with the music. They play it with respect and honour and accuracy. They play it better than any band in the world. That’s why we’re doing a tribute album right now. We’re working on it for Ronnie Van Zant. The working title would be Ronnie Van Zant, His Music and His Band. And we’ve recorded a bunch of the classic songs, Free Bird, Sweet Home, Simple Man.

How did Artimus come to join the band?

Charlie Daniels and the Marshall Tucker Band were friends with Artimus and knew he was a drummer. So he met  Ronnie Van Zant in Atlanta, Georgia at this big stadium gig with all the Southern rock bands. Bob Burns had been drumming with Lynrd Skynrd but wanted out. Ronnie auditioned Artimus and he joined the band. He was considered the wild man of the band although he denies this saying ” they started that, you know, because I’m a vegetarian. So Ronnie would say that he’d let me out of the cage and feed me carrots. They made a joke about it because in my younger days, I would do stuff like climbing trees and climbing towers and jumping from one car to another car at 70 miles an hour or going down the road. And and, you know, stunts. I like doing stunts. And all the places that we played, the big arenas and the stadiums, you know, before soundcheck and around sound checks, they’d find me up in the rafters climbing around and rappelling and doing crazy stuff. So, yeah, I got I got known as wild man. But, you know, truly the wild man of rock and roll was Keith Moon from The Who.

The legend that was Ronnie Van Zant

According to Artimus, Ronnie had all of the talent. He was a prolific songwriter and he had a mastery, a stage command.  And he didn’t hoochie-coo around and jump around and wiggle and do all these little dance moves. Ronnie stood there and sang his songs because he believed every word he sang. He wasn’t just reading words or memorising words. He lived every word that he sang.

Ronnie knew he'd die young

Lynrd Skynrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant always had a feeling that he’d die young. He’d mentioned this premonition to multiple people, even telling a bandmate that he’d never live to see 30. Then 87 days before his 30th birthday, Ronnie died in that shocking plane crash. His musical genius, however, continues to live on, thanks in part to the efforts of Artimus Pyle.” Ronnie did not write hit songs. He wrote hit albums. So everybody knows every word to every song. And each person identifies to Freebird or Give Me Three Steps or The Ballad of Curtis Lowe”.

Ronnie was a gentleman, he was a fisherman, he was a prolific songwriter and an amazing person. When Ronnie would drink a lot of scotch or a lot of whiskey, his personality would change. So when he was sober, he was a gentleman, he was pleasant, he was kind of shy, and he loved life. He would get into it. But during that time the band were at the top of their game. Artimus says they played to sold-out shows all over the world and people would always come up and they’d want to get with Ronnie. And he loved talking. Ronnie was as real as they get. Ronnie was a great human being, a prolific writer and a cool guy. You get into the drugs and alcohol, which changes anybody. So yes, there were fights and there were some tense times, but always on stage, Lynrd Skynrd delivered.

Many Lynrd Skynrd fans will recall the band’s controversial use of the Confederate flag. Artemis says for them it was nothing more than a symbol of the pride they felt for their southern heritage. “In my conversations with Ronnie, I remember him saying that the confederate flag was MCA records trying to push a southern rock band. And Ronnie and the band, they’re from the south, and you know, Ronnie was definitely not a racist. I know that for a fact. He was saying to Neil Young, don’t blame all Southern men”.

Sweet Home Alabama

It doesn’t matter where you come from, we all know the song Sweet Home Alabama, don’t we? The lyrics are likely burned into your brain and you probably can’t resist the urge to get up and dance whenever that main guitar riff starts up. The single reached number eight on the charts, its popularity due at least in part to a controversy hidden in the verses. Lynyrd Skynyrd directly name-dropped their supposed adversary Neil Young in the song. Neil had expressed his disappointment with racism in the south in a couple of his tunes. Sweet Home Alabama was allegedly a response to these. 

The Crash

It was October 1977 when the plane carrying all five members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band ran out of fuel and crashed in a wooded area near Gillsburg in Mississippi. The plane had been flying to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and crashed near its destination. Three of the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 29-year-old lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister backing vocalist Cassie Gaines tragically lost their lives that day, along with several other passengers and the pilots. Surviving band member Artemis Pyle recalls the horror. “It just wasn’t a good plane. We kind of didn’t like it. When we showed up at the airport there in Jacksonville on that fateful day to start that last tour, this red, white, and blue plane showed up, and it was late. And all of a sudden, we were sitting by the hangar, and the front of the plane came up, and the pilot grabbed the brakes really hard, and the plane did a real low bow with the front landing strut. The front end of the convoyer came down real far. And I told Steve, I said, man, that’s not right. They hit the brakes too hard. So it showed me that they didn’t have a handle on this airplane”. It turned out Artemis was right. The plane itself dated back to 1947, and the pilots severely misjudged the level of fuel they were carrying on board. 

Artimus continues, “We took on 400 gallons of fuel, which is what the gauges said, but any pilot will tell you you’re supposed to take a stick and put it down in the wing tank and check your fuel and make sure you’re topped off. Our pilots made that mistake. We crashed in Mississippi. Six people were killed on impact. I looked out and saw the left wing actually come off. And it was just tremendous impact. As soon as everything stopped, I was trapped in the wreckage and I pushed through the jagged metal under me and got out and dropped to the ground. And I thought the whole plane was going to burst into flames. I didn’t know we didn’t have any gas. And then I looked around me and I realized the only thing that was gonna help my friends was help. So I knew that I had to go get help. And as I was walking toward the direction the plane was headed, the cartilage in my chest had all ripped up. And I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I felt like I was gonna die. And I felt like I needed to get somewhere and tell somebody where the plane was before I died.

For more on the story take a listen to the interview with Artimus here or head for his website

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