Lynyrd Skynyrd Lone Survivor Artimus Pyle Talks ‘Mentor’ Ronnie Van Zant, Reconnecting With Gary Rossington, and Working With Dolly Parton in an exclusive interview with MetalTalk. Here is Part One. You can read Part Two here.
19 August 2023 in Decatur, IL, MetalTalk’s Ben Tschetter had the opportunity to sit down for an intimate 1-on-1 chat with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic drummer, Artimus Pyle.
On a warm and calm summer day, hours before taking the stage for a rock show – or, more importantly, a tribute to the fallen musicians who penned the music that would be performed – MetalTalk sat down along the lakeshore to talk with a man with a storied past and a legacy that will span for the rest of humanity.
The sun shone on the waves of Lake Decatur, and a warm breeze blew through the trees surrounding the Devon Lakeshore Amphitheater. When you imagine the perfect weather for a concert, this was it. It was a peaceful setting, though, in contrast, the air would soon be filled with the sounds of sweet, southern rock in just a couple of hours.
“You see that tree, man?” Artimus asks, pointing across the property to a wilted tree. What remained of the branches twisted and curled, looking as if it was straight out of a Van Gogh painting and creating an abstract sight. Upon first impression, it was clear that he is a lover of the beauty of the world and life, as he fixated on the natural artwork which lay before us. “That tree looks like a work of art – it’s abstract, almost like Japanese. It’s very Bonzai-ish. I wish I could paint.”
He is Artimus Pyle. A member of the most iconic southern rock band of all time, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a writer on multiple household rock staples, a survivor of the deadly 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of three of his bandmates, and a gifted and influential drummer.
The last surviving member of (classic Ronnie Van Zant’s) Lynyrd Skynyrd, Artimus Pyle, walked throughout the stage, his gaze fixed upon one person, before continuing his path to our meeting spot and starting conversations with each person along the way, including members of his crew, whom he proudly talks about with kind words and gratitude, stage hands, and members of opening band Head East.
The 75-year-old drummer is a man who visibly enjoys life and the people he’s around, full of humility and a story or kind words for each person along the way.
After greeting those around him, Pyle made his way to the shade, where we took a seat to discuss lesser-talked-about stories (some of which) included his time in Ronnie Van Zant’s band, his legacy, the album of the year, which he is a part of and more.
We shared a fascinating conversation for nearly an hour, which often got sidetracked but was full of great stories. While some interviews are reworked to tell a certain narrative, we want to share the full interview, word-for-word, with a true rock ‘n’ roll legend – the last of the Street Survivors.
Before we talk about Artimus, we want to talk about the amazing musicians in his band and how they all got connected.
“I was playing all over the country,” Artimus said. “I had my band APB [Artimus Pyle Band] together since ’83, but I had gotten to where I was just jamming with different guys. I had a group in Florida I played with, I had a group in New York I played with, and I had a group in Spokane I played with.
“Because everywhere in America, you have a band that does Lynyrd Skynyrd covers. I got tired of doing that. I wanted to put a real band together. So Jerry Lyda (guitar), Scott Raines (guitar), Brad Durden (keys), and myself put the band together. Dave (Fowler, bass) came along later. He’s been with us for about seven years. We pooled our love for Ronnie Van Zant together.
“I’m 75, they’re all like 55. They grew up with the music. They play it with honour, dignity, and respect. Scott Raines and Jerry Lyda were able to go up to Nashville several times and sit with the great Ed King [who co-wrote Sweet Home Alabama and many of the Skynyrd songs]. They heard the guitar parts played from the horse’s mouth. We’ve been very fortunate in the fact that we’ve been schooled by the real deal.
“And Bob Burns, the original drummer (for Skynyrd), he was in our band. He wasn’t able to play a full two-hour set like me, but he would come out to play a couple of songs, and the crowd loved it. We would have the stage set up with double drums.
“But we lost Bob in a car wreck on a dark stormy night north of Atlanta, Georgia. He missed a turn and hit a tree, and we lost him instantly at 64 years old. I loved Bob, he was very funny, a very unique guy. He played brilliantly on all the Skynyrd stuff before me. So I tried to emulate his parts and make it sound right, my way. Saturday Night Special, That Smell, What’s Your Name, You Got That Right, those are all songs that I wrote the part, but playing Bob’s songs, I don’t take that lightly. I try to play all the parts in a way that would make him proud. I owe everything I have to every other drummer that has ever lived.
“My oldest son Chris, I’m his drummer in a band called Pyle Tribe. But this is my Skynyrd band. We’ve been together going on 15 years. These are my guys. We are a well-oiled machine. We have an amazing crew. Our tech, Thomas Grape, is an amazing IT/Tech guy. He’s brought us into the new age of tech.
“We don’t use amplifiers on our stage. It’s just my drums and their pedalboards. I’ve used in-ear monitors for like a year, but I felt disconnected from the rest of the band, so I’m back to using cabinets with a big woofer, so I can feel it – it rocks me. Grape took us into that. Our drum tech, Mickey, is amazing. All these guys have beautiful wives, children, and businesses. They don’t need this band to make money. They do it because they love the music.”
If you watch the videos online of these guys playing, they sound excellent. It sounds like the band is very fine-tuned, especially with the other band members having Pyle, Bob, and Ed as mentors.
“You’re paying attention,” Artimus smiles. “That’s exactly right. They have mentors, and of course, my mentor is Ronnie Van Zant. He taught me that plagiarism, ripping someone off… give credit where credit is due.
“And Ronnie taught me how to stay off the vocals. If I’m doing a roll (drum part) in a song, I want to make my part roll around the vocals, not over the vocals. Because we’re not a jazz band. We have vocals, and the vocals mean something. Ronnie was my mentor.
“And then every musician that I admire. I got to hang out with Paul McCartney in England, and that same day, I got to hang out with Jack Nicholson. On the Rock Legends Cruise, we were there with Don Felder, ZZ Top, the Doobie Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, Pat Benatar, Sammy Hagar, and Alice Cooper was on one of the cruises. Incredible musicians.
“And then from The Who, Roger Daltrey. I took a picture with Roger and Sebastian Bach from Skid Row, and Sebastian Bach is 6’7″. And I always thought that Roger Daltrey, in the movies, was 10 feet tall on stage, flipping his microphone. He’s a little tiny dude! So we had Roger between myself and Sebastian Bach, and Roger looked up at me, and then he looked up at Sebastian and said. ‘You Yankee chaps are quite tall!’ But Sebastian just dwarfed us.” Artimus laughs.
“But it’s a small world of musicians, really. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is actually a pretty exclusive club. I never dreamed of being in the RRHOF, I didn’t even think about it. But because of Ronnie Van Zant, I’m in the RRHOF! And I found out it’s a pretty big deal. We were in the 2006 class, the 21st class with Black Sabbath, Blondie, the Sex Pistols, and Miles Davis.”
That’s a lineup right there, we suggested.
“Right? What a lineup,” Artimus says. “And I’m a jazz freak, so I got to hang out with Herbie Hancock. He actually saw us do Freebird. He said, ‘That song, Freebird, that’s kinda wild.’ You can imagine, as a jazz cat, he’s never seen Freebird done live. It’s 15 minutes long. It’s epic. I said, ‘Sorry man’.”
I told Artimus that I’m a drummer, and what I really like about his playing is that he has his own unique style, but he kept his playing similar to Bob Burns’s style, and he kept that classic Skynyrd sound. With other bands who changed drummers, there’s a cutoff, and you can tell there are two different people playing. With you two, it’s all just one Skynyrd, and that’s really cool to me.
“Thank you for noticing that,” Artimus says, “and Bob would be proud of that too. When he left the band, he asked me, ‘Will you please take care of my band?’ Bob had medical problems, got back from a tour in Europe, and had a little bit of a breakdown physically, and that’s the last thing he asked me.
“And, of course, then years later, we got back together, and we talked every night. We both went to bed late. I went to bed at 4:30 in the morning, and Bob went to bed at 7:00. We were both night owls. We were both into horses, we were both drummers for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and we were both in the RRHOF with the same band. And we both had Chevrolet Corvairs, that was my first car. And he had one too. I couldn’t believe it. We would talk every night late, so Bob would appreciate that. He told me, Artimus, take care of my band, and I did.”
Part Two can be read here.
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.