Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (indicted on March 13, 2006), Thomas Delmer “Artimus” Pyle is an American musician who replaced Bob Burns, LYNYRD SKYNYRD’s original drummer due to his recurring battle with mental illness. Artimus played drums with LYNYRD SKYNYRD from 1974 to 1977 and then again from 1987 to 1991. Just five days into SKYNYRD’s “Street Survivors Tour” that started on 10/15/77 the band’s plane crashed in Gillsburg, MS killing the plane’s pilot and co-pilot, and band members, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, backup vocalist and Honkette Cassie Gaines, her brother, guitarist Steve Gaines and the band’s assistant road manager on impact. The band’s fifth album Street Survivors was released on 10/17/77. The album’s original cover art featured the band in flames but was pulled from record shelves after the band’s plane crash on 10/20/77 and reissued with a black background. Artimus survived the life changing plane crash. After surviving the crash Artimus’ training as a service medic helped provide him with the skills he used to pull some of the survivors from the wreckage and go for help. Because of Artimus’ heroic efforts and quick thinking first responders were able to locate the wreakage to provide the survivors with necessary medical attention. After years of legal battles with lead singer and founding band member Ronnie Van Zant’s wife Judy Van Zant, Artimus’ story has now been told and released as his new movie Street Survivors: The True Story Of The Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash. The following interview is Artimus’ way to help bring awareness to his story with the hope that LYNYRD SKYNYRD fans will finally hear his long overdue recollection and story of the plane crash that changed music history forever.
KNAC.COM: On behalf of KNAC.COM and myself, I would like to thank you for extending me the honor and privilege of interviewing you. I sincerely appreciate you for it! Before we get started, I’ve gotta share my story with you. As a young teenager I remember watching the live coverage of the plane crash in disbelief and shock! My brother Joel had just purchased your newly released album Street Surviors three days before. And now, the media was reporting a plane crash involving the members of LYNYRD SKYNYRD! I remember hoping and praying that everyone had survived. That said, I am especially grateful for the opportunity of interviewing you, a plane survivor!
PYLE: The pleasure is all mine!
KNAC.COM: It’s been a long time coming and an uphill legal battle with being able to tell your story of the band’s plane crash 44 years ago on 10/20/77, around 6:48 pm in the Gillsburg, Mississippi swampland.” Now that your movie Street Survivors: The True Story Of The Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash has been released, can you kindly share some of the emotions that you’re feeling these days?”
PYLE: I feel relieved now that the movie has finally been released. My story and the truth of our plane crash can finally be shared with our fans. It has been a long time coming and it finally happened! Just to tell my story, I had to go to the highest court and win! Every step of the way, Judy (Van Zant), Ronnie’s wife fought me and has tried to stop me from telling my own story! Judy controls everything that Ronnie created and she’s not ready to give that up anytime soon because she’s making so much money from it! Aside from all of my legal battles, I am truly grateful that I can finally share my story with the fans. For that, I’m extremely thankful to Cleopatra and to everyone that helped make my story a reality.
KNAC.COM: How involved were you with casting the actors and production?
PYLE: Although I did not help cast the actors, I did have an opportunity to meet with them. I believe casting and production did a great job at picking and choosing the actors most qualified to play myself and especially Ronnie although he (Taylor Clift) may have been a bit taller than Ronnie. I believe he was the perfect guy to play him!
KNAC.COM: Were you involved in mentoring the person who played you (Ian Shultis)? Did you guys have the opportunity to hang with each other?
PYLE: Yes, I did have the opportunity to meet Ian Shultis and to visit the set a few times during filming. Ian was great and I was really happy with the Casting Director’s choice of who they picked to play me!
KNAC.COM: You’re recognized as not only a survivor but also as a hero. How does that make you feel?
PYLE: I really do not see myself as a hero. The truth is once my military training kicked in along with the adrenaline rush, all I was trying to do was to help save the lives of my friends by getting them the medical attention that they all needed as quickly as possible! Unfortunately, Ronnie (Van Zant), Steve (Gaines) and Casey (Gaines) did not survive the impact of our plane crash. Since then, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them and wish for them to be here.
KNAC.COM: What gives you the strength to continue to move forward daily after such a life-changing traumatizing event?
PYLE: The friendships and the music that we made together and especially my children and grandchildren is what brings me peace and happiness these days, including being on friendly teams with all of my exes!
KNAC.COM: Do you have any new music projects that you’re currently working on?
PYLE: Yes! I’ve got new music that I’ve written with my sons that we play with our band, THE ARTIMUS PYLE TRIBE. We’re always working on writing new music! We’re currently booking shows for both of my bands. In fact, we’ve got a charity event that we’re playing this weekend that will benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer organization!
KNAC.COM: During the height of the pandemic, what helped you get through the lockdown?
PYLE: I leaned on the support of my family in addition to knowing that my story and the movie of our plane crash was in the making and finally going to be told for all of the SKYNYRD fans!
KNAC.COM: Did you discover any new talents that you didn’t know you had during the pandemic?
PYLE: I discovered that I was a much better writer that I ever thought was possible!
KNAC.COM: Are you in contact with guitarist and founding member Gary (Rossington) and current SKYNYRD lead singer Johnny (Van Zant)? If so, how often do you see each other?
PYLE: Unfortunately, no. Gary’s wife and Ronnie’s wife Judy make sure they do everything they can to keep that from happening. They don’t want anything to jeopardize all of the money that is being made off of Ronnie and the current SKYNYRD lineup with Johnny. It really is unfortunate considering the fact that Ronnie had divorce papers drawn up and was going to have Judy served after the tour we were on ended. I saw the papers myself! Ronnie actually had them ready to go in his briefcase. The only reason why he never divorced Judy is because of our plane crashed and his passing.
KNAC.COM: Have you tried to mend the broken bridge with Judy Van Zant or at the very least have you extended an olive branch?
PYLE: I’ve extended that branch over and over again, but Judy will not budge. She’s got full control and say over everything that SKYNYRD does including control over the current lineup with Johnny Van Zant and she’s not ready to give that up! She’s making way too much money off of Ronnie and SKYNYRD to have that happen.
KNAC.COM: “Gene Odom, Ronnie’s childhood best friend and the band’s security guard wrote a book titled I’ll Never Forget You. That same book was then turned into a documentary titled I’ll Never Forget You: The Last 72 Hours. Have you watched it and If so, what are your thoughts about Gene’s recollection of the events leading up to the crash?
PYLE: The majority of Gene’s stories are untrue and I personally believe that the only thing Gene Odom is interested in is how much money he can make off of Ronnie’s death and the SKYNYRD name! Ronnie would be hurt and disappointed in his childhood friend. It’s really very sad. In fact, the last time that I saw Gene was at keyboardist Billy Powell’s funeral back in 2009. He was more interested in making money than the unexpected and sudden loss of Billy.
On the day of Billy’s funeral, I drove my truck to his funeral and so when I was getting out of my truck, Gene came running up to me with another one of his money making ideas! That idea sickened me! Gene said “Hey, Artimus we oughta make some shirts that say Gary Rossington and Artimus Pyle were here to celebrate the life of Billy Powell! He said we can make a whole bunch of money if we did it! After he pitched that idea to me I told him to get out of my face and to never contact me again! That’s the kind of person that Gene Odom really is. Ronnie would be so disappointed and hurt because he trusted and called Gene a friend!
KNAC.COM: Have you had a chance to revisit the crash site and the LYNYRD SKYNYRD Monument in Magnolia, MS that is dedicated to the six people who lost their lives that night?
PYLE: Yes, I had the opportunity to stop by in our tour bus one day. It is a beautiful memorial and dedication to all of my friends who were lost that day. I am truly grateful to all of the fans who donated to the memorial and to all of the people that have dedicated so much of their time and energy in keeping my friends’ memories alive.
KNAC.COM: On a lighter note, I saw the coolest YouTube video of you and Bob Burns drumming together on a cruise ship. How did that legendary event happen?
PYLE: I’d always respected Bob Burns and loved his drumming style. I am so happy that we were able to become friends. That said, I wanted to make sure that he got his due respect and recognition as SKYNYRD’s original drummer and so I invited him up to play a few songs with me and my band. I loved it and the fans loved it. I will always hold that memory close to my heart! I never like the fact that I was Bob’s replacement in SKYNYRD due to his mental issues, but I am forever grateful that I was the person that Ronnie believed in and trusted to help keep the band going!
KNAC.COM: I’ve read that the ARTIMUS PYLE BAND has been referred to as a Skynyrd Tribute Band how does that make you feel?
PYLE: The way I see it is besides Gary, I am the next living person closest to being an original band member there is! Ronnie himself chose to be in the band unlike guitarist and drummer Rickey Medlocke who was always a session player and fill-in for SKYNYRD and never an official band member. Rickey became a band member in the current line up of SKYNYRD after Ronnie’s passing. For me, the current SKYNYRD lineup with Johnny (Van Zant), who doesn’t do Ronnie’s songs justice, is a tribute SKYNYRD band. Also here recently Gary hasn’t even been playing with them due to his declining health and the multiple heart procedures that he’s had to have. More than likely Gary will be retiring from the band soon so there will not even be one single original band member in the current SKYNYRD lineup.
KNAC.COM: Now that Street Survivors: The True Story Of The Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash is finally out, what’s next for you?
PYLE: I’ll continue playing in my ARTIMUS PYLE BAND and performing the music of LYNYRD SKYNYRD that Ronnie loved so much as well as performing and writing new music with my sons in my ARTIMUS PYLE TRIBE band.
KNAC.COM: Is there a message that you’d like to send to your former band mate, Gary? How about Johnny?
PYLE: Yes. I want Gary to know that I love and care about him very much. I hope one day that we can be reunited as the brothers that we once were. With regards to Johnny, I want him to know that I always respected him as Ronnie’s little brother and that I hope that one day we can put all of the bad feelings behind us to honor Ronnie’s legacy the way that Ronnie would want and expect us to.
KNAC.COM: Do you have any parting words for your fans?
PYLE: Yes. I would like to thank every SKYNYRD fan out there for helping to keep the SKYNYRD musical legacy alive. I hope that you all find my story and movie as truthful and emotionally moving as I did. I wish you and your families the best of health during these challenging times. And, I hope to see you at my next show!