Artimus Pyle Interview: Plane Crash Haunts Lynyrd Skynyrd Drummer
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Musicians
Image attributed to Artimus Pyle
Long considered the “wild man” of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Artimus Pyle’s powerful and distinctive double bass drumming helped define the legendary Skynyrd sound. He got his first real break at the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam, then with other work for the Marshall Tucker Band, Pyle became known as a powerful session drummer.
Using his connections with Daniels and Tucker, Pyle met with Ronnie Van Zant and Ed King at Studio One in Doraville, Georgia. Pyle greatly impressed Van Zant and his live debut with the band took place in Jacksonville’s Sgt. Pepper’s Club in October 1974. When Bob Burns left the band permanently following Skynyrd’s first European tour in December 1974, Pyle quickly got the nod as Skynyrd’s new drummer.
"I’d get really drunk, and somebody would say, 'Well, here’s some cocaine. That’ll straighten you up.' Then you do a bump of cocaine, and then you want more alcohol. I watched it destroy so many of my friends. I knew I had to get a handle on it two years after the plane crash."
Pyle’s movie, Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash, recreates the story of the ill-fated flight of October 20, 1977, through the eyes of the former Skynyrd drummer, who not only survived the crash that claimed the lives of Van Zant and five others, but also physically pulled the remaining survivors out of the plane wreckage before staggering toward the nearest farmhouse to seek help.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who gave you the nickname “Artimus”?
Artimus Pyle: I was going to Tennessee University in Cookeville, Tennessee. Everybody had nicknames like Snake, Woody and Flash. Don Nelson’s middle name was Flash. A friend of mine, whose nickname was snake, dubbed me Artimus because we were taking Greek mythology in one of my classes, and he came up with Artimus. I thought it was a girl’s name, so I hated it. Then a show called The Wild Wild West came out with Artemus Gordon, and it was a guy. So I was happy about that.
There is a Greek mythology Artemus, which I think is the sister of Apollo. Also there is the moon rocket named Artemis. People have sent me memes of the rocket on the launch pad with a picture of me down the side of the rocket. It’s a different spelling though.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your film is called Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash. Naming it the true story implies that there are other accounts that were told over the years?
Artimus Pyle: To be honest with you, the movie is from my perspective. But I open the movie by saying, “There have been many accounts.” You know, if there are 16 people standing on a corner, and there’s a car wreck, you might get at least eight different stories of what happened. I’m not blaming anybody. I’m not saying there aren’t discrepancies. A lot of people were traumatized in that plane crash. It’s something we all have to live with every day. Every time we shut our eyes to go to sleep, it’s there. It’s like a parent losing a child, which has got to be the very worst there ever is. It never leaves us.
This plane crash, because of how traumatic and intense it was, never leaves us. So there were different accounts of the plane crash, and I’m not saying anything against anybody that remembers anything that they remember. All I know is that I was never knocked unconscious. I am a pilot. I lost my father in a plane crash. I lost all of my friends in a plane crash. If I’m not qualified to tell the story, no one is. So I call it, The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash. There were people who have chimed in who weren’t even there. So they don’t know. But I know. So that’s on their conscience.
I know what I saw because I was back and forth to the cockpit. I am a pilot, so I had reason to really pay attention, and I was never knocked unconscious. So that’s the reasoning for that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The fact that you’re a pilot is an interesting point. Were you having conversations with the pilot and co-pilot when the plane began having problems?
Artimus Pyle: Oh, yeah. I kept going back and forth into the cabin telling everybody to put out their cigarettes, to turn off all lights and conserve any energy that we had on board that plane. Then I’d go back to the cockpit and see what their situation was. I’d flown that particular plane. Both of our airplanes, I flew. Before, we had Jerry Lee Lewis’ airplane that his pilot, Les Long, had flown for Jerry Lee for eight years. The plane was a Rolls Royce powered turbo prop which was fast and nimble.
The plane we crashed was a Pratt and Whitney reciprocal with less power. It was kind of funky. It was red, white and blue. They painted our name, Lynyrd Skynyrd, on a banner across the nose. So we just kind of took it. But the last thing we said before the plane crashed, as we were talking and sitting up in the front of the plane, was that we were going to get a Learjet for just the band and two brand new tour buses for the crew and our backup singers. Our time in the air would not be two and a half hours or two hours, but it would be more like 35-45 minutes. We were going to buy a brand new Learjet just for the seven of us.
But of course, Ronnie was killed, as was that dream of moving our whole operation from New York City to Jacksonville to build a studio with loading docks and apartments for people that lived out of state. Every time we sent a check for a million dollars to Peter Rudge up in New York City at Sir Productions, believe me, he skimmed off a lot of money. Ronnie knew that Peter Rudge was a crook and that he was ripping us off. He knew it, and he wanted the whole operation to go back home to Jacksonville, which we all agreed on.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What kind of shape was the plane in before the crash?
Artimus Pyle: The plane we were on was ridiculous. It was not in good shape, and the gauges didn’t work. The gas gauge didn’t work because we didn’t have a full tank. We took on 400 gallons of fuel in Greenville, South Carolina. We fell 60 miles short of Baton Route, Louisiana. So we almost made it. Our glide ratio just didn’t allow it. That’s why I wanted the movie to be done to show the intensity of what the band and crew and girls went through that day and that night. We did it. We prevailed in the courts because we were sued by everybody because lies were told. That’s as negative as I’m going to get. I won’t go any further.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe your book couldn’t be published because of the lawsuit?
Artimus Pyle: Oh, I’m going to publish my book someday. I just look at it this way: one big project at a time. We’ve written a beautiful soundtrack for the movie. To realize a movie and soundtrack in normal times is hard, but during a pandemic, it’s crazy. We got passed over for a lot of things. I think there’s a lot there for a movie about something that really happened in history, with a beautiful soundtrack. We should’ve gotten at least a nomination for a Grammy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You weren’t allowed to use any Lynyrd Skynyrd music?
Artimus Pyle: No. We didn’t use any Skynyrd music because there would have been additional lawsuits. Now, we used “Call Me the Breeze.” You know why we could use “Call Me the Breeze,” which Ronnie made famous? J.J. Cale wrote “Call Me the Breeze.” So all we had to do was pay our licensing fee like any other normal band and use the music. But I knew if we had used any Skynyrd music in the movie that there would’ve been more blood-sucking, weasel attorneys crawling out of the woodwork. So that being said, we wrote a beautiful, all original soundtrack except for “Breeze,” which was used where the band was live. We used that as a live shot with the young men and women portraying us at a concert, and it worked out very well.
Now, we’re doing an album dedicated to Ronnie Van Zant, his music and his band of which I am a member. I’m very happy to be included. We’re doing this new untitled album. We don’t have a release date, but we have multiple iconic singers, male and female. I’d like to be able to tell you all their names, but I’m not allowed to yet. I can say that Sammy Hagar is singing “Simple Man,” and he does an incredible job. Ronnie Dunn from Brooks & Dunn sings “Sweet Home Alabama,” in his genuine southern accent. He has that twang, and it’s legitimate, and it sounds really cool. We’ve got 17 songs in the can. We might record more and make it a double album for Ronnie. It’s all Lynyrd Skynyrd. You know, classic Lynyrd Skynyrd.
For the soundtrack, our band APB wrote a song called “Street Survivor,” that I would put up against any southern rock song ever written including “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s strong. We all collaborated on it, and a couple of guys in the band did all the heavy lifting. We arranged it and made it our own. I channeled John Bonham for my drum part, and I love playing it live. It’s bad to the bone. Our band, consisting of Scott Raines, Jerry Lyda, Dave Fowler (who played with Dolly Parton) and Brad Durden from a southern rock band called Copperhead, has been together for 12 years, and we are good. We play this music better than anybody with accuracy, respect and honor. So we’re doing this album to commemorate the 45th year since the plane crash. It’s not a date that we celebrate. But we’re celebrating the music by putting out this incredible album with iconic singers. When the reveal comes and you get word of who’s on it, just remember we had this conversation. I’m giving you the wink, Melissa (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Got it. Thanks, Artimus. Going back to that fateful day over forty years ago for a moment, you told me you were never unconscious when the plane was going down and then crashed.
Artimus Pyle: Not once.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you believe you could’ve been spared some of the nightmares and anxiety if you had been knocked out?
Artimus Pyle: I can say this to that. I’ve been in three airplane crashes. I’ve been shot. I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been in many car wrecks and motorcycle wrecks not all my fault (laughs). But after the Skynyrd plane crash, I had survivor’s guilt. Nowadays, if you have a plane crash, there is grief counseling. Back then, the grief counseling was drugs and alcohol. So there’s about a two-year period. It took me two years to get that out of my system where I was drinking, I guess, trying to kill myself.
I’d get really drunk, and somebody would say, “Well, here’s some cocaine. That’ll straighten you up." Then you do a bump of cocaine, and then you want more alcohol. I watched it destroy so many of my friends. I knew I had to get a handle on it two years after the plane crash. I had to not let that be a part of my life, and it’s not. I’ll have a glass of wine. I’ll have a beer. But drugs, the coke and all that stuff is horrible stuff. But that was our grief counseling.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe that PTSD was just becoming known in the 1970s.
Artimus Pyle: Absolutely. I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I still have it now. I deal with it. Getting out of the plane crash and going for help … I saw some things that I wouldn’t wish anybody to see. Our pilot and co-pilot. I knew. Let’s just say they were not alive. I knew that the only thing that would help was help. So I started putting one foot in front of the other because of my Marine Corps training, and I made it out to a farmhouse and brought help back to the crash site.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What were your injuries?
Artimus Pyle: A lot of the lacerations I got happened when I was getting out of the wreckage, pushing through twisted metal to make a hole, so I could help my friend get out. Once I got out, I went back in to get him … Don Kretzschmar. So a lot of the lacerations were from getting out. But in the impact itself, I tore all the cartilage in my chest. Everything shifted. My whole chest shifted, and all of this ripped. So I had to hold myself together. It was painful. I was losing some blood, but I wasn’t bleeding out. I thought I had internal injuries, and I had to get to a farmhouse and bring help back before I died. That’s what I thought.
I didn’t know that I was going to survive. That’s where survivor’s guilt comes in. You go, “Well, why did I live and they didn’t?” I was sitting in this seat. Cassie Gaines was sitting in this seat. She died. I’m here.
So all I can do is get my incredible band and go all over the country. People love southern rock. People love Ronnie Van Zant’s southern rock. As long as I can play it right, that’s going to be a long time. This band is going to take Lynyrd Skynyrd music to the masses, to the little places that bigger bands wouldn’t play because they don’t get a hundred thousand dollars. We don’t charge a hundred thousand dollars. Sure, we like to get paid, but we’ll go play these beautiful old theaters built in the 20s where Charlie Chaplin sang and acted. We get to play all these beautiful venues all over the world, and we’re going to continue to do that.
Our movie’s out, and the soundtrack is out there. Again, I want everyone to know I don’t make money on that. I gave that story to Hollywood. We will have our new album, which is a modern edge to these classic songs with all these iconic players. We recorded “Free Bird.” The only other member of the real Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gary Rossington, and I are playing together for the first time in almost 40 years, on a track in honor of Ronnie. We have an iconic vocalist who’s being inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
We’ve got all these other great people, and the list goes on. We offered a song to Wynonna Judd because we know her heart is broken. She’s very busy and has a lot to deal with, but we thought she might need a little extra something to keep her busy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sounds good, Artimus. How would you describe your relationship with Ronnie Van Zant?
Artimus Pyle: We were the same approximate age. We had a different relationship than the rest of the band. They were all like his children. I was more like a peer. Plus, he couldn’t whip my ass. So there was that. He was abusive to the rest of the band members when alcohol came in. We did not have that relationship because I was just out of the Marines. Ronnie was an incredible person. Don’t get me wrong. Anybody that drinks too much acts like a fool sometimes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Artimus, I wish you every success with the film and new album.
Artimus Pyle: I want to thank you so much, Melissa, for giving us this opportunity. The 45th anniversary of the plane crash is a significant remembrance.
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