His Tonka Toys Were Real
An Exclusive Interview with Artimus Pyle
by Michael Buffalo Smith
He was the second drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd but most fans know him as THE drummer for the South’s most popular band. Artimus Pyle played on the band’s best-loved albums, including the legendary One More from The Road which included the classic rock radio staple, the live version of “Freebird.”
He has formed and rocked with several bands, including Studebaker Hawke, Those Guys, a few variations of The Artimus Pyle Band and All Points Bulletin.
Today Artimus lives in Florida with his wife Kerri and their brand new son River. He is very happy and enjoying performing with his current band, All Points Bulletin, but during the years since the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash of 1977 and the death of several friends and bandmates, including Ronnie Van Zant, his life has been anything but a bed of roses.
Multiple vehicle wrecks, the loss of another friend and band mate, Allen Collins, and hurt feelings regarding former band mates have deeply saddened Pyle. In an exclusive interview with GRITZ, he opens up to share some of his innermost feelings. This interview is only a preview of things to come. Artimus is currently at work on a book that will unfold the entire story of his life including the Lynyrd Skynyrd years, his life in Israel and the charges that almost sent him to prison for life.
Where were you born?
Louisville, Kentucky in 1948. I was born in St. Joseph Hospital. I was raised in Tennessee on horseback, basically. I don’t even use a saddle. I ride a horse with a blanket and a bridle. That’s all I need. I like to feel the horse under me. As much as I love horses I was lucky to be born in Kentucky and raised in Tennessee. When I was a little kid I would go with my grandfather, Guy Williams, to cattle sales. One of his best friends was Al Gore, Sr. He brought his son, Al, Jr., and he and I used to jump around in cow crap all the time. It was really hilarious. We’re about the same age. I remember this little kid that used to be with this other man and I’d be with my grandpa. I guess I never dreamed that he’d grow up to be Vice President.
I was raised in an area of Tennessee that Sgt. Alvin C. York, the World War I hero that captured all the German soldiers and saved American lives was from. In fact, I am related to him. Remember the old black and white movie with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan called “Sgt. York?” Walter played Pastor Pyle down by the store. That’s my family. We were related to Sgt. Alvin York and that’s where I was raised in Tennessee. I ran bulldozers for my grandfather’s road building company when I was 9 years old every summer until I was about 18. So my Tonka toys were real. And I helped build roads in Tennessee.
My father was an architect. He followed the architectural building boom north in the fifties. We got as far north as Columbus, Ohio. That’s why I have no accent. I finished high school in Columbus. I went to Tennessee Technical University, and then joined the Marine Corps expressly to go to Vietnam. Four years later I was in the aviation program ready to go to Vietnam and the war ended. My dad was killed in a mid-air collision in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the early ‘70s. I was a Sgt. in the Marine Corps, training as an E-5 Sgt. to go to Vietnam at the time. My Dad was hit from above and behind by a B-57 bomber. Dad was in a Cessna 150, brand new, flying over some land that he was going to build on. He was flying with a man named Robert Stuttlefield who had about 36,000 hours of flying time. He was an aviation pioneer. Both of them were killed instantly.
After that, my mom moved back to Knoxville. I had met a girl from Spartanburg, S.C. named Patricia Diane Williamson and married her. She is a wonderful person and we are still best friends after all these years. She lives in Bat Cave, N.C. She went to school with George McCorkle and Doug Gray and all those from The Marshall Tucker Band.
I was in the Marine Corps with Toy Caldwell. I had heard about this big guy they called Toy. And they were messing with me because I was a Pyle. So they were calling us Gomer Pyle and Toy. Boy, did they mess with us in boot camp. But we all hooked up, and they turned me on to Charlie Daniels who, in turn, turned me on to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the rest, as they say is history.
That’s something I wanted to ask you about. Charlie Daniels told me he was involved in all that somehow.
Absolutely true. It was exactly like this. I drove to New Orleans during the early ‘70s fuel crunch. I was at Mardi Gras. I went down there to audition for Charlie. He had two drummers at the time and he was pushing his new album. He had that song out called “Uneasy Rider.” So I went to New Orleans with a friend named Sonny Matheny who eventually ended up working for Charlie for years, running sound. Then he went back to Tennessee Tech and got his degree, and now he’s the principal of a high school in Roanoke, Virginia. But Charlie loves Sonny. So, Sonny and I were at Mardi Gras. Charlie came up to me and said, "Artimus, the drummer that was going to quit decided not to quit and if I took two weeks off right now to go back to Nashville and work you in it would hurt my album sales something awful." And I need to keep these dates. So Paul Riddle from The Marshall Tucker Band, another great person, called Charlie and said, “Boy do I have a drummer for you.” So Paul was pushing me to Charlie. But this drummer Hoss Allen that was gonna quit didn’t and Charlie was just honest with me instead of giving me some big ring around the rosy, some big story, he told me the truth. He told me he knew of a band that needed a drummer and he was going to hook me up. This was when Charlie couldn’t even afford it but later, after I left, I found a fifty-dollar bill in my pocket and I didn’t have a dime. Sonny and I probably had just enough money to get us back home to Spartanburg in my Volkswagen bus.
So, Charlie played his gig at The Warehouse there in New Orleans, off the beaten track away from the French Quarter. There were thousands of people and I watched Charlie and his band play. Charlie’s bus pulled out of town and Sonny and I were gonna leave town, too after Mardi Gras. Sonny got a gig driving a bus and working on the road crew for Charlie. I didn’t get a gig but Charlie had invited me to come to Atlanta to a club called Richard’s and jam with him that night. Dickey Betts also jammed with him. There were two sets of drums and Charlie let me set up a third set of drums. So, when I left out of New Orleans I found this fifty-dollar bill in my pocket. There’s no way anybody else could have done it. It was Charlie. Then he turned me on to Skynyrd. There was this gig in Atlanta at the stadium, and it was Marshall Tucker, The Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Wet Willie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, everybody. Paul Riddle invited me to go to that show after Mardi Gras and I had jammed with Charlie at Richard’s and everything was great.
Then I left town and went home to Spartanburg and was working construction. Then I was working at an airport installing aviation electronics at the Spartanburg Airport. Then Paul called and said, ‘We’re playing a big gig in Atlanta and do you want to come?’ And I said ‘sure.’ And I went and that’s where I met everybody that day. I met Ronnie Van Zant and everybody. Ronnie’s face was all beaten up. They had just been in San Francisco and got into a big fight. Ronnie looked like the devil, all black eyes and cut up and everything. He had taken on a whole gang by himself because everybody else hid under the bus, I guess. And between Charlie Daniels and Paul Riddle pushing me and talking me up saying this is the boy for you, which was unbeknownst to me. I went home and I got this call from Ronnie and he said ‘I want you to play drums for my band. I was gonna fly five drummers down to Jacksonville but what I want to do is have you come down to Atlanta and play with Ed and Leon.’ I said ‘sure.’ So, he hired me over the phone. He said ‘I need a fire set under this band, man. Can you do that? We are right on the fence. We’re getting there, man.’
So, I went to Atlanta where I was supposed to meet up with Leon and Ed King at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom. I drove up there in my bus with my drums in it. Well, two or three blocks from the place my engine overheated and vapor locked. I just pulled up my emergency brake, unloaded my drums, rolled them up the street to the Electric Ballroom, left my Volkswagen bus sitting on Peachtree Street with the emergency blinkers on and went in, set up and played with Ed King and Leon. Ed took me next door and made me a Caesar salad, and I ate. I figured enough time had gone by so I went back to my bus. It had cooled down so I started it up and drove up to the Ballroom and got the gig. So it was Charlie Daniels and Paul Riddle believing in me and being good guys. And Ronnie said after he had met me he realized that he was talking to somebody that talked to him on the same level. I wasn’t talking up to him; I wasn’t talking down to him. We became friends. I watched Ronnie whip everybody in the band’s ass -- Leon, Billy, Allen and Gary. I used to go to their defense all the time because Ronnie couldn’t whip my ass. He was tough for a musician but I had just gotten out of the Marine Corps. I was young and wiry. You’d have to kill me at that point. Ronnie was the same way. He respected me and I respected him. I could have argued with him 24 hours a day about some things, Michael. About some of the policies, it was his band, but when he would start getting drunk and abusive, I was the only one who could talk to him.
What’s the truth about you after the crash? There are so many rumors and urban legends about you running for help and getting shot by a farmer.
Those are all true.
Do you talk to the band now?
I have not spoken to the guys in the band for some years now. I left the band because I wanted Blue Cross insurance. I wanted dental plans for our families, of us survivors. I wanted us to lead the band with integrity.
I used to come to all your APB shows in Spartanburg during the early ‘80s when you put out the two MCA albums. Remember we used to talk all the time? I loved the band you had then. Karen Blackmon, Rusty Milner and everyone.
Oh yeah. At that point in my life, I was doing a lot of alcohol and drugs. Everybody thought I was doing a lot more than I really was. It was one of those things where I had survived that airplane crash and I was a living legend, people thought, I guess. I believe people thought that they would get some sort of knowledge from me by being around me or offering me drugs. I mean, every good ol’ boy that I met had a big baseball sized hunk of cocaine. There were gorilla biscuits, Quaaludes, Seconal and just cases and cases of Heineken. The best pot a person could possibly smoke that a friend of mine was bringing in from Hawaii. I was just trying to kill myself. Obviously, I didn’t care about anybody or anything. I was stabbing my family in the back, by spending so much time...you know, if I could trade, right now, for five minutes with my family, with my first wife Patricia in my little house on Wall Street in Campobello (S.C.) for months and years of hanging out with [bad people] doing drugs and alcohol, I’d do it. But you can’t do it.
You can’t go back.
Exactly. What’s done is done. You can’t go back. You can’t change things in the past. All you can do is kind of look at what’s happening around you at this time. I now realize that the real heroes are like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, research scientists that take children out of pain...these are the real heroes. It’s definitely not rock and roll people. There are a few good ones. Like attorneys. There are very few good ones. The rest are blood sucking weasel attorneys. They are the lowest form of human existence. But the few good ones are amazing. And there are a few good music people but you could probably count them on your hands and toes, the people who have made worthwhile contributions and helped to change peoples lives for the better. I have now been in the business for a long time and I realize that all the people that I thought were my friends, that I thought loved me, have stabbed me in the back and stolen every penny they could ever get from me.
But you still have certain people you consider true friends, right?
I have a few. Real friends are few and far between. But I have my wife Kerri and a new son, River. He is eight months old. My other two sons came over here the other day and held him. I’m standing right now on the intercostal waterway. It’s about four miles wide where I’m at and I’m looking across it like a wilderness. There are sailboats going by. It’s about 82 degrees. (laughs) I bring my son out here on the deck all the time and the other day Chris and Marshall came over and they were holding little River and I’m looking at the three of them. It was amazing! His name is River Eugene Pyle. And then Christopher Chapel Pyle, and Marshall Daniel Pyle.
How old is Chris now?
I remember him sitting in on drums with the APB when he was ten-years old. Does he still play?
Oh, man. He tours the world. He just did 40 cities including Rome, Italy and Barcelona, Spain up to Norway and everywhere in between. London, Paris, all the normal places. I just did 27 cities in Europe, eight different countries and ended up a hundred miles from Russia at the Arctic Circle in Finland during the war. Every day that we were there, the USA was bombing Belgrade. It was pretty wild to experience being an American in a rock and roll band touring Europe, eight countries, Holland, Denmark, Belgium, France, England, Germany, Finland...while we were at war. While we were bombing people. That was a unique experience. But my son has a band called Royal Trucks. This is a man and wife that lived in New York and had a band called Pussy Galore. They moved to San Francisco and got into heavy heroin, wrote songs and did all this stuff within a period of about five years when they were kids. They got it all out of their system, got clean and have been writing ever since. They are about 30 years old now; they’ve got a bunch of albums. Jennifer Hererga sings lead vocals. Neal Haggerty is on guitar and vocals and they put together a band with my son on drums, a man named Dan Brown from Jacksonville Beach, Florida on bass and a Kenny Nasta who was also in one of my alternative groups that I put together called The Fenwicks with my sons and my daughters. At one time I had five of my children onstage with me performing in front of 10,000 people opening up for Foreigner in Jacksonville at the Metro Park down there. We called it A.P.B./The Fenwicks.
I’ve had All Points Bulletin together for a long time and we’re still playing as APB. We played Europe under that name, All Points Bulletin or Artimus Pyle Band, whichever floats your boat. Marshall, my middle son, is 23 years old. He was named after Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels. Marshall Daniel Pyle, and he is a singer and songwriter and plays drums. Chris is a drummer and plays flute, trumpet and guitar and he’s amazing. But Marshall concentrates on acoustic guitar. I picked him up a Texan from Gibson. They gave it to me in the factory in Nashville and I said I don’t play guitar but they gave it to me anyway so I gave it to Marshall. He’s been writing a lot of songs. Kind of a reggae, hip-hop, rock thing that he does. He’s real knowledgeable about his lyrics. They are about the environment and good things. His songs are real positive. He loves Bob Marley. He was definitely one of the good ones, Bob Marley. And I was in a band with what I think would be considered a rock and roll star, Ronnie Van Zant. I think that Ronnie, for me at least, it was like being onstage with Elvis. It was a phenomenal feeling. He had a real stage presence. That of course, was the real Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Ronnie out there, and Allen Collins.
And then Ronnie hired Steve Gaines and brought him into the fold. He loved Steve. He wrote with Steve. He would actually leave the stage in front of 200,000 people and let Steve sing a song by himself. Now, most singers are not that confident. They’re afraid to get their little wiggly ass off the stage because somebody might forget them. Ronnie had total confidence in himself, his band and Steve. It didn’t bother him a bit to take a break and walk off stage. I’d sit on the drums and look over and watch Ronnie admiring Steve playing with his band. What kind of self-respect and respect for others is that? It was the best!
So I continue to play music because of people like Ronnie and Steve and Allen and Mozart and Beethoven and all of these people who inspired me. Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. These were great musicians. I continue to play. I’m 51, and my chops are basically as good as they’ve ever been. I enjoy playing now as much as I ever have.
I’m sure everyone asks this because of the shirt you wore on the Street Survivors LP, but are you a vegetarian?
There was a period of time when all I ate where fruits and vegetables and lots of nuts. That’s why I’m so nutty now. Then I had airplane crashes, car wrecks and motorcycle wrecks and it became necessary to resume eating fish and cheese for the benefits of the oils and minerals. You know, bone building stuff. Then my children were wondering why they couldn’t have turkey say, on Thanksgiving. Soooo...seeing that I like turkey and chicken (white meat only and well done) I began including them in our family diet. Red meat & pork are unhealthy for me to consume, however, I don’t dictate anyone’s diet. For instance, my wife Kerri (who is the best eater I know) is an ovo-lacto vegetarian. Our new baby, River, is a total vegetarian. But when I am ordering a meal in a restaurant, for the sake of simplicity I tell the waitress I’m vegetarian. It’s easier than sending everything back to the kitchen because it has beef or pork stock in it.
What do you think about the new Skynyrd CD Solo Flytes?
I love it, and there’s a new one from Steve Gaines as well. On Lynyrd Skynyrd Solo Flytes, I wrote a song on that one. They digitally remastered two of my old APB songs, one from each album. There’s one that Karen Blackmon sings that I think is great called “Red Hot Light” and there’s one I wrote called “Makes More Rock” that talks about sitting in the Torch Club in Tryon. I put my name on very few songs but I am very proud to have a song that I wrote words and music to on a nationally released Lynyrd Skynyrd album. They say on Amazon.com that it’s doing very well. I’ll tell you a secret about that song. There’s a drum break in that song. That lick is a lick Ronnie Van Zant inspired me to do. He told me one time, ‘Artimus, I want you to come up with a drum lick.’ I didn’t perfect that lick until later. I use it every night. It’s a combination of half of a triplet that I picked up from Billy Cobham and Ronnie’s inspiration and the last verse says, “Sittin in the Torch Club/Thinkin of a tune/The heavies are tryin to bury me/But that won’t happen soon/You can blow up our buildings/But that just makes more rock.” That was from my experience living in Jerusalem, Israel. Seeing how the buildings over there are just rock. It seems like when they blow up a building it just gives everybody more strength. It just makes more rock. So that song comes from my life in Jerusalem, my friend Jack Miller, life in the fast lane and just give me my music. And with “the heavies are trying to bury me” I was kind of seeing into the future because eight years ago I was facing life in prison for a charge worse than murder that everyone knew I was innocent of and everybody turned their backs on me. I faced it alone. You find out who your friends are.
I was going to court every day for two years and fighting. So, that line means even more to me now, “the heavies are trying to bury me.” And it’s on a nationally released Skynyrd album and I’m so proud of it, man.. Things do come around. You know, after I left the band they tried to pretend like I didn’t exist. Then here comes “Freebird-The Movie” and “Behind the Music” and because I articulated in that stuff my feelings and they felt that it was heartfelt, they used much of my interview in both the movie and the TV show. So I’m, like, the main guy.
I have been a loyal hard working member of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band ever since Ronnie Van Zant asked me to set a fire under his band. I continue to play music for the right reasons to this day. I miss Ronnie, Steve, Cassie, Allen and Dean... I try to keep APB on the road against all odds, Mike Estes is a real trooper. Greg Baril is an unbelievable guitar player and they have to endure a lot of problems being in a band with me. They keep me going and I love playing with them.