When Artimus Pyle, the drummer of Lynyrd Skynyrd for the bulk of the Seventies, heard the news yesterday about the death of his former bandmate, guitarist Gary Rossington, he immediately pulled up the last text messages between the two.
“I’ve already gone back, looked at them, and read the entire thread between Gary and I. And I will cherish these texts for the rest of my life,” Pyle, who replaced original drummer Bob Burns in 1975, tells Rolling Stone over the phone from his home in rural North Carolina.
Rossington died March 5 at 71 after years of health issues that knocked him off the road on more than a few occasions. Perhaps best known for his slide-guitar work on Skynyrd’s immortal “Free Bird,” Rossington was the last founding member of the Southern-rock titans.
“When Bob, Gary and [singer] Ronnie [Van Zant] got together in Bob’s carport on the west side of Jacksonville, Florida, they put something together that went worldwide,” Pyle says. “Everyone will remember Gary as a road dog, trouper, songwriter, and one of the greatest guitar players that ever lived. He just loved being onstage.”
Pyle first crossed paths with Rossington in 1973 and officially joined Skynyrd two years later. Pyle says Rossington and fellow guitarists Ed King and Allen Collins each had their own playing style, which gave Skynyrd so much of its depth.
“That was Ronnie’s genius,” Pyle says, “being able to bring together what wouldn’t seem like a feasible pairing — three completely different [guitar] voices.”
With the death of Rossington, Pyle, 74, is now the only living member of the band to be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: He was inducted with Rossington, Burns, Van Zant, Collins, King, Billy Powell, Steve Gaines, and Leon Wilkeson in 2006. He’s also the last survivor of the band’s tragic plane crash in 1977, which killed six people, including Van Zant, Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines.
“As it turns out, being the last living member of Lynyrd Skynyrd is not all it’s cracked up to be,” Pyle says. “It’s painful, and I’m trying to process it and deal with it.”
Pyle, who, like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, lauded Rossington’s playing, notes that he’s finding solace by remembering all the moments he and Rossington shared together throughout their years.
“I’m thinking about the good times, you know? The fun things we did, those giant concerts, like in London playing Knebworth [in 1976] and opening up for the Rolling Stones,” Pyle says. “Gary and I were very close. We liked a lot of the same things — listening to Jeff Beck at his house on his gigantic stereo, out on the water in his boat, riding horses together.”
Pyle, who currently plays drums in his rock ensemble the Artimus Pyle Band, was embroiled in a 2017 lawsuit with members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including Rossington, over the release of a dramatic movie about the plane crash.
“At this point in my life, especially since Gary passed away, all of that bad stuff, all of the reasons I was mad at everybody? I don’t want to remember those things,” Pyle says. “I don’t want to ever talk about it again — the music business did not kill our love for the music, it never did. Gary’s place in music history is rock solid. Fly on, fly high, our free bird brother.”