45 Years Gone: Lynyrd Skynyrd Drummer Talks 1977 Plane Crash, Pt. 2

Lynyrd Skynyrd encapsulates the essence of Southern Rock music. Formed in Jacksonville, Florida in the mid-1960s, the band revolutionized pop culture and defined a genre. Music was never the same after Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lynyrd Skynyrd was never the same after October 20, 1977. This month marks the 45th anniversary of a disastrous plane crash that resulted in the death of six people including three Skynyrd band members.

Lead singer and chief songwriter Ronnie Van Zant was among the casualties. He was 29 years old. Others lost in the Gillsburg, Mississippi crash were background vocalist Cassie Gaines and her guitarist brother Steve. Also, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and copilot William Gray. The immense loss was felt throughout the entire music community.     

Lynyrd Skynyrd remains one of the most revolutionary and venerated bands of all time. Their 1973 song “Free Bird” survives as perhaps the most powerful anthem of the twentieth century. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, their contributions to popular music cannot be overexaggerated.

Artimus Pyle played drums with Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1974 to 1977. He was also an unwilling participant in catastrophe. In part two of Pyle’s 2021 interview with journalist Jim Clash, he chillingly recalls the 1977 plane crash. It picks up just after the free bird went down.

Artimus Pyle’s Recollection

“I knew I had to live until I could get some help. I thought I was dying. Had pain. I wanted to make sure my legs were there, and of course, my manhood. I got out through a hole underneath me, pushed through the jagged metal, cut myself up. My whole chest cartilage was broken. I did some triage I had learned in the Marine Corps, on a couple of people.

I knew that the only thing that would help them was to go get help. Every second a drop of blood drips out is a step closer to death. I found the pilot and copilot. One was decapitated, and one was hanging in a tree, body parts. It was just flesh and blood to me. Their souls and spirits had already come out of those bodies”.

“I started putting one foot in front of the other to get through the black water. It was like a swamp. It was getting dark, too, and there was a helicopter overhead looking for us. But since there was no fire, there was nothing to see. I got to a barbed-wire fence and rolled over it because I had no leverage – I had to hold my damaged chest together.

The barbs gave me puncture wounds up and down my body. On the other side of the fence were all of these cows. That’s what gave me the strength to get across a freshly-plowed field, and into the barnyard of the farmhouse. I knew that if there were cattle, there were people. I was raised on a farm with my grandfather, and animals needed to be fed”.

Lynyrd Skynyrd spilt crash

“A guy came out of the farmhouse with a rifle. I was in deep shock. It had taken like, 40 minutes to get from the crash site. He said, ‘Halt!’ I couldn’t really stop as I was dragging myself forward. So I didn’t stop exactly when he said to. Then I heard a gun shot, felt something sting my left shoulder. It spun me around.

As I went down thinking it was my last breath, I said, ‘Plane crash’. And Johnny [Mote] ran over and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry’. He picked me up, carried me into his house, with all these little farm kids around. I walked directly to the wall phone, picked it up and didn’t ask – that’s back when long distance cost money – dialed my wife, Patricia. The whole conversation was less than 30 seconds”.

“I said, ‘Honey, it’s me, we’ve had an airplane crash and there are people dead. But I’m alive, I’ve got to go. You’re going to see it on television, hear it on the radio’. She started crying, of course, but said she understood. Johnny put me in his car seat on the passenger’s side, and said, ‘You point, and I’ll drive’.

We went out of the driveway, through a ditch, up a bank and into the field via a fence. Across from where I had just walked. Behind us were rescue vehicles. Two cops tried to wrestle me into their car, like they were going to take me into custody or something. I said, ‘No, no, I’ve got to show you where the crash is’. The locals thought we were a train wreck; it had made so much noise”.

Skynyrd Article

“One cop said to leave me alone, that I had been in the crash. I said if you throw a baseball from home plate to centerfield, you’ll start seeing wreckage. Didn’t know what else to say. I was just out of my head. The guy said he understood. Then I saw like, 200 people headed into the woods with lights, jaws of life and medical bags.

Finally, someone said, ‘Artimus, we know where your friends are. Go to the hospital, you’re severely injured’”. Interviewer Jim Clash then asked Pyle if he suffers from survivor’s guilt. Artimus’ response paints a poignant picture.

“For almost 40 years, I had it. I tried to kill myself. I would drink a bunch of alcohol – I’m not a good drinker, I’m a cheap date – with the wrong people. None of us had grief counseling, therapy or anything like that. I’m talking about the whole crowd. We were all drowning in a sea of drugs and alcohol.

There was plenty of money, and everybody was feeling real sorry for themselves, some people rightly so. Teresa Gaines losing Steve – they were so in love. Today, if there’s a plane crash, immediately there’s grief counseling. Our counseling was the local bar and some moron drug dealer. And it wasn’t weed, but the heavy stuff – cocaine, distilled alcohol, that kind of thing”.

“There was always somebody there to provide [drugs and alcohol]. It eventually killed a lot of my friends, Leon [Wilkeson], Billy [Powell], Allen [Collins]. Every one of them could have lived a longer life had we gotten proper therapy. I finally decided that I’d been sad for too long, 40 years.

When this time of year came around, I would always get clinically depressed. So going forward I decided that I was going to revel in the music and the strength of Ronnie Van Zant’s prolific song-writing instead. I don’t celebrate, go out and get drunk [on the anniversary], but I am reverent and somber, think about my old friends.

I get hundreds of texts from fans this time of year. They still remember where they were when the plane went down, how much our songs mean to them.” A historical marker now stands at the crash site.

skynyrd marker

The legendary Charlie Daniels was a fan and friend of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Charlie and Ronnie Van Zant were particularly close. After the 1977 plane crash, the newspapers repeatedly asked Charlie to make a statement regarding the premature passing of his good friend. Daniels’ only retort was a short poem:  

“A brief candle, both ends burning

An endless mile, a bus wheel turning

A friend to share a lonesome time

A handshake and a sip of wine

Say it loud and let it ring

That we’re all part of everything

The future, present and the past

Fly on, proud bird, you’re free at last”

In 2019, the band Shenandoah released the song “Freebird in the Wind”, written by Nelson Blanchard and Scott Inness. The tune pays homage to those who lost their lives in the fateful crash. Charlie Daniels reads the poem that he wrote for Ronnie, forty-five years ago, over the opening. In a press release, Inness says that “We even played the demo to drummer Artimus Pyle who survived the crash, and he cried”.

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