I started hearing tales of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash of ’77 from my father when pampers were still my favorite pair of pants. I knew who Ronnie Van Zant was before Big Bird, and my Sunday dinners at Mamaw’s house were really jam sessions that became my lullabies. My father’s hair was longer than my mother’s at that time, and all the men in my family sported bloody finger tips that were slaves to those beckoning long-necked instruments. At 27 years old, in the age of whatever it is music has become that I haven’t a word that qualifies, I can bank on every family get-together bringing me back to a place when it was pure. It’s a place I can only visit through my father’s time machine in a land that existed around the time my mother discovered boys. I go back whenever my now greying father and Uncle pick up their guitars, close their eyes, and try to perfect still, that long ever-growing famously tricky six-string solo in Free Bird.
Artimus Pyle, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s drummer, and only original band-member still touring traipsed into the Applebee’s in Candler, North Carolina, my hometown about two weeks ago.
“Lorna, you got to get down here, now,” My husband’s voice was urgent on the other end of the phone.
“Why? Is something wrong?”
“No. Artimus Pyle is here. We’re hanging out, and he’s cool as hell,” my husband’s speech was hurried.
“I’ll be there in five,” I replied with my mind reeling all the things I knew about this legend. I knew he had a house in Asheville, but what was he doing at an Applebee’s in the down-home Candler suburb of the artsy town?
When I walked in, I saw him immediately and I had to catch my breath a little. I was genuinely star-struck. I swear I could smell a faint trail of smoke permeating from his long burly hair, that grew like ragged wires from under his distressed leather cowboy hat. I wondered what the eyes from behind his aviator glasses had seen in the world of rock n’ roll, fame, and heartache. I knew his eyes would certainly tell the stories of things I had never and would never see.
When my husband motioned to him, and it was our time to finally meet, I don’t remember exactly what I said. It was something to the effect of how I grew up on his music, and was proud to keep the band alive in my generation…you know, the things you say, but trying to stand out all at once. In retrospect, I may have sounded rushed, and looked like a pre-teen meeting Justin Bieber.
When I handed him the clean white half sheet of paper the waitress rustled up for me, I first noticed his time-worn hands. They shook a bit as he started to write, “Laugh, Lorna. Peace, love, and happiness (in symbols). Artimus Pyle, Drums, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame 2006.” I took the sheet from him, perusing it in awe. Then, I noticed the initials, RVZ.
“You, signed Ronnie’s initials, didn’t you?” I asked, moved that he’d not omitted the lead-singer and founding member’s name.
“You wouldn’t even know my name had it not been for that man,” he replied seriously, “and after the crash I started signing his initials.”
I thought to myself what a class-act this man truly was to carry-on the memory of his fallen band-member and how proud I was to meet him. It was then I relaxed a little bit and started just chatting with him. I found out how he co-wrote my favorite Skynyrd song, Tuesday’s Gone, and how he was always drawn to Asheville, NC. We chatted about his respect for the philanthropic Asheville-born musician, Warren Haynes, and how he’d played with him here and there. He spoke of his son, River, and how proud he was of him. I was careful not to bring up the plane crash, though I was so painfully curious about his take on it. All I knew was that Van Zant and the Gaines members perished, and Artimus survived. I wanted to know more, and maybe he sensed it, because he went into the story all on his own.”
“You know, after the crash, there was just smoke everywhere,” he began, “and I ran to the barn to get help.”
“I didn’t know you were able to that,” I replied in awe.
He went on to describe the only things he remembered, and the whirlwind it became. I could tell some of it was cloudy to him, yet still felt as real as it had over 35 years ago. My guess is it was cloudy then.
After telling me to remember that money ruins everything, I gave him a hug, noticing an unimagined raw musk about him, and he went on his way. I rushed home and googled him immediately, seeing what else I could learn. I discovered when he ran from the plane wreckage to the nearby barn, the farmer’s son actually shot Artimus in the shoulder with an air-rifle because he was startled by his appearance. I learned he never stopped revering Van Zant and the other members, and had made the legacy of the band his life. I discovered he’d had ups, and downs, but understood the things that matter in life…, respect and downright allegiance to his band, family, art, and fellow man. He is yet another jewel tucked in these blue ridge mountains; an ARTimus form in Asheville that we’re forever proud to claim.