Artimus Pyle was with Lynyrd Skynyrd during the classic era. In Decatur, IL, MetalTalk’s Ben Tschetter sat with Artimus for an hour, discussing his life and career. Here, in Part Two, they discuss how he joined the band, the legacy and how working with Dolly Parton on Freebird helped to reunite him with Gary Rossington. You can read Part One here.
Having joined Lynyrd Skynyrd when the band was already successful, did Artimus have any idea how big of a legacy the band would have and how big the band would be?
“Charlie Daniels was the one that said he told Ronnie Van Zant about me,” Artimus says. “And Marshall Tucker, all those guys told Ronnie, ‘We know a drummer who’s crazy enough to be in your band.’ Then, when Bob had his medical issues, I came in. Bob was on the road with us. Bob would play a couple of songs, and then I would finish the set. But when he had his final break, they said, ‘Artimus, we need you. We’re in London.’
“I said, ‘Well, I’m in London too.’ I was trying out for another band [Average White Band]. They wanted me because I was a white funk drummer. And they eventually replaced me with a black guy from LA who was a funk drummer. But I was over there in London, and I went to see Ed King. We had already recorded Saturday Night Special for a Burt Reynolds movie, and I was the drummer on that. Bob knew they had already brought me in for the recording of that.
“I thought that eventually they were going to bring Bob back, and we were going to do double drums. I love playing double drums. With my sons and my daughters, we play quadruple drums! The more drummers, the better. So I thought Bob was coming back. And Ronnie loved Bob and wanted him better so he could come back, so that’s what I thought was going to happen. Because the Allman Brothers had two drummers, Charlie Daniel’s band had two drummers, and later on .38 Special had two drummers.”
I asked how the dynamic changes having two drummers versus just one.
“Well, I love it, man,” Artimus said. “It’s like an engine. If you have two drummers – or three or four – it sounds like a V8. Or a V12. It sounds like a P51 Mustang V12. I was standing on the ground, and one of those Mustangs went right over me at an air show, and you could hear that 12-cylinder engine [sound effects from Artimus] just popping. And it went right by. That helped us win WWII.”
I tell Artimus I was up in Chicago today, and they had the air and water show. Man, the sounds of those planes flying over the city! It happens once a year in Chicago.
“How far (are we) away from Chicago,” Artimus asks.
Three hours, I say, telling Artimus they have the boats doing things and the planes flying over. And when they fly over the city, it echoes between the buildings. That’s what the double-drum dynamic is.
“I want this band up in Chicago,” Artimus says, “next August for the air show! I’m going to call my agent to see if he can get us a gig.”
Playing Freebird under that, that’s the American dream right there, I suggest.
“If we do Freebird and they do a flyover,” Artimus pauses, thinking. “We’re doing it! I want to be there.”
Did Artimus know how big Skynyrd would be when he was there in the moment?
“I did,” he says. “Charlie Daniels did. Marshall Tucker guys did. You know, as far as southern rock bands, Ronnie and the band were going straight up. They needed me, and I jumped in and did the best I could.”
If it hadn’t been for the plane crash, does Artimus think Skynyrd would have been with the same core guys? Was there anything big in the works that was put on hold?
“We were just hitting our stride,” he says. “Steve Gaines and Ronnie, two songwriters, hooked up. There would have been many more songs from Steve Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant. Steve Gaines would have been able to widen his legacy. He’s got a little bit of a legacy, you know, you’ve got Got That Right, Ain’t No Good Life, all the stuff that he did with Ronnie. But he would have had much more. He would have had much more time to expand his legacy.
“But I think, to fully answer your question, I knew that the band drew a lot of people. Every gig I did with them was sold out. So I said, ‘Well, there’s something going on here.’ It was playing stadiums immediately. My first gigs were like stadiums to one hundred thousand people. We opened up for the Rolling Stones for three hundred thousand people. So I had an idea that they (we) were a big deal.
“But what would have come? Ronnie Van Zant would have collaborated with people from Nashville. He loved country. He would have collaborated with a lot of people. But it is my fervent belief, and I do not deign to condescend meagre trivialities, but I am serious about this. Our band would still be together.
“Lynyrd Skynyrd would still have been together. Ronnie knew that was his bread and butter. And the whole band knew that as a core, Lynyrd Skynyrd, we were unstoppable. When we opened up for the Rolling Stones to three hundred thousand people, the London Times Mirror said that we possessed – this is how they put it – they said: ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd possessed the energy of the day.’
“Now, The Stones came out two hours late and drunk, but they can do that because they’re The Stones. But I’d put us up against anybody on the planet. And my band that’s playing tonight, I’d do the same thing. I’d open up for Taylor Swift. We would bring a show, and people will fist bump and sing every word with us.”
I asked, back then, what part did Artimus play in the songwriting process.
“There is one song that I can say with an absolute matter-of-fact,” Artimus says. “There’s one song that I will attribute to my writing with Ronnie Van Zant, and that is That Smell. Ronnie and I came up with the song, the groove, everything the night before we took it to the band.
“Back in those days, if I chimed in the song, I didn’t go, ‘Hey, I want my name on that song.’ A lot of people get their names on songs just because they were in the room. I never even thought about that because I don’t consider myself a songwriter. Now, I wrote my album Artimus Venomus, but I’m not a songwriter, so they were all just willy-nilly.
“My album Artimus Venomus, I’m very proud of it. I got Ed King on it, I got Jojo Billingsley, our backup singer, and I got Leslie Hawkins on it. I’m very proud of that effort, but we were inducted into the RRHOF while we were working on it, and my producer just put it through Pro Tools and didn’t even mix it or master it. So my album got released and not even mixed or mastered.
“I wanted to work more on the vocals because I’m not a singer, but I sang all the songs but one, and you know, I wanted to work really hard on it, and I’m not a writer, so I wanted more time, and he goes ‘No, we want to release it while you’re being inducted into the RRHOF.’
“It backfired on him, which, by the way, I haven’t spoken to him in ten years. I’m very proud of that album. I included a lot of people. I had my family on it. My friends. Leslie Hawkins and Jojo Billingsley before their deaths. I wrote a song called I Live in Jerusalem, and Jojo’s on it. I told her I want you to do a Pink Floyd wail [Great Gig In The Sky]. I said, ‘Jojo, let it rip, and she let it rip, and it’s incredible.
“You know where I got the drum beat for That Smell? Have you ever heard a song called One Of These Nights by the Eagles? So Ronnie and I are sitting there, and he’s got these words. And he’s reading the words to me, and I’m going [Snaps to One of These Nights Groove]. And Ronnie goes, ‘I like it!’ So, of course, I’m going to do a variation on a theme, and Ronnie goes, ‘Man, I like that’. So the next day, we took it to Steve Gaines and the rest of the band, and the rest is history.”
Artimus spoke of a new album from his band and how he is featured on the new Dolly Parton rock album. “My band is the basic track on our new album, which is a tribute to Ronnie Van Zant, his music, and his band. So that’s the working title: A Tribute To Ronnie Van Zant, His Music, And His Band. And I’m lucky to be included in that band. But we brought in a lot of guest singers. I have three great singers in our band. They’re all incredible.
“But we thought it would be cool to open it up. So Dave Fowler said, ‘I think I can get Dolly Parton because I worked with her producer Ken Wells, who is well respected in Nashville. I think I can get Dolly to maybe sing Freebird.’ So we laid down the track, and Dolly put her vocal on it.
“When she played it for me, I cried like a baby. I got through to Gary (Rossington) through a third party, a mutual friend. I said, ‘Ask Gary if he would like to play on Freebird.’ Gary came back through the third party, a guy named Timmy, and said, ‘Well, Artimus, Gary said he doesn’t feel really well. He’s not in good health.’
“Gary said if he starts feeling better, he’ll let me know. So I went back to Timmy and said, ‘Tell Gary, Dolly Parton’s singing it.’ I got a text in less than two minutes, and Timmy said, ‘Gary says he’s feeling a lot better!’ [Laughs].
“It was hilarious. So I hooked Gary up with Ken Wells, Dolly’s producer of 35 years. So, immediately, Gary is hooked up with a legitimate Nashville cat. And Gary’s management lied to Gary and said that Dolly pulled out of the project. I had Ken call Gary and say, ‘No, that’s the management lying to you.’ In two minutes, Gary sent me a text saying, ‘Everything’s okay, I understand.’
“So we have Gary’s iconic slide solo on the iconic Freebird with the iconic Dolly Parton. I couldn’t believe it. Against all odds – lies, cheating, thieving, stealing (from lawyers and management), I got Gary on there. And then we lost Gary. I’m so glad I put up with it and didn’t just throw in the towel.”
Artimus confirms that Freebird with the iconic Dolly Parton is the last piece Gary ever recorded.
“I’m going to show you something I don’t show many people,” Artimus says. “This is the last picture I sent Gary. That’s me in NYC. I’m doing press about the album. All these texts are all from Gary. What he says in those texts is, ‘I love the track. Ronnie would love it. All of our members in Heaven would love it…” [The rest of the texts shared by Artimus are not shared for privacy].
“He said, ‘Let’s get together for lunch. No managers, no lawyers, no people. Just you and I.’ I said it will happen. And then Gary died. These last texts from Gary and the pictures mean more to me than anything. And I may, not that I’m violating Gary’s privacy because it was all beautiful stuff, publish it. Just the last words from Gary to Artimus.
“I was able to go to the funeral, and I gave Dale (his wife) a hug, and I gave both of his daughters a hug. And I gave all three of them a clean, brand-new cotton handkerchief. I bought a new black suit, an appropriate tie, a beautiful white shirt, and a new hat and I went to Gary’s funeral. I didn’t talk to anybody. I refused to talk, yuck it up, take selfies, sign autographs. I kept to myself, away from everybody. I was only there for Gary, his two daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Annie Kathleen, and his wife, Dale. And I’m glad I went. But I went there for one reason.”
I shared MetalTalk’s sadness as Artimus’ loss with Gary, knowing how much he meant to him. “Well, we were going to get together, man,” he says, “and that would have been epic.”
The RRHOF was the last time Artimus and Gary spent time together. “He told Rolling Stone that he was going to sleep together that night in the same bed with me and that he would take a bullet for me,” Artimus says. “Rolling Stone asked him, ‘Hey Gary, how did you like playing with Artimus tonight?’ Gary goes, and he’d been drinking champagne, ‘Man, I would take a bullet for Artimus Pyle. We’re gonna sleep in the same bed tonight!’
“So the guy from Rolling Stone comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey Artimus, how did it feel for you jamming with the band?’ And I said, ‘It felt great, man.’ Gary lives on.
“Take a look at that photo over there [Artimus Pyle band press photo. Each member has a huge smile on their face. Look at that picture closely. In that group of people, we are so happy to represent.”
I asked if there were any cool upcoming projects Artimus has going on.
“Well, absolutely,” Artimus smiles. “My son Chris and the band, Pyletribe, we’re working on a new album. We have a studio that’s a good friend of ours that’s being built right now in Winston-Salem, only about an hour and a half from where I live in North Carolina. It’s one of the most beautiful studios you’ve ever seen.
“It’s different. It’s 30,000 square feet with a rooftop garden overlooking downtown Winston-Salem. It’s beautiful. It’s called Ovation. I’m going to cut an album there with my son, Marshall Daniel Pyle. He’s amazing. Hundreds of songs, unbelievable voice. We’re gonna cut a couple of new Pyletribe albums there.
“I would like APB to go in and do an all-original album. We have a lot of stuff. You’re always waiting on the next project, and it happens in a natural progression. I don’t hire, or fire, or plan. And that’s the way I roll.”
Keep an eye out for Artimus Pyle Band’s Ronnie Van Zant tribute album, as well as their appearance on Dolly Parton’s upcoming record, Rockstar, to be released on 17 November 2023.
Catch Artimus on tour with APB at various stops throughout the United States this fall. More info at the Artimus Pyle Band website.