And on October 20, 1977, the drummer for the legendary rock band was crawling from the wreckage of a fatal plane crash. He managed to escape and notify a nearby resident to summon help, and in the process he saved the lives of others who were either trapped or badly injured.
The plane crash took the lives of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, the band’s background vocalist Cassie Gaines, along with three others.
But 46 years later, nearly to the hour, Pyle walked onstage to make his Grand Ole Opry debut.
He wasn’t with Skynyrd this time: Though he re-joined the band when they reunited in the 1980s with Van Zant’s brother Johnny as the lead singer, Pyle would leave Lynyrd Skynyrd for good in 1991. But he didn’t leave music, as Pyle has spent his time performing with his own band, the Artimus Pyle Band.
And at the Opry, on the 46th anniversary of that horrific night, Pyle once again took the stage to play one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s biggest hits as the Artimus Pyle Band treated the crowd at the Grand Ole Opry to their version of “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The Opry crowd screamed as soon as the opening guitar riff hit, and there were cheers of “Roll Tide Roll” after every “Sweet home, Alabama” – something you might not expect in the typically-reverant atmosphere of the country music institution.
But it was a fitting tribute, not only to Pyle but to his former bandmates – the last of whom from the time of the plane crash passed away four months ago with the death of legendary guitarist Gary Rossington, leaving Pyle as the only band member who was on the plane that night.
It was a moment that Pyle didn’t take for granted, stepping to center stage at the end of the band’s performance and pointing, first at the crowd, and then at the sky to his fallen bandmates.
Speaking with Opry announcer Charlie Mattos after his performance, Pyle spoke of being the last surviving member of the legendary southern rock band:
“We all live, we all die, it’s how you live your life.
Gary passed away, and that makes me the last living member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m not bragging. It’s not a good feeling. As a matter of fact it’s a bad feeling.”
But though his bandmates may have passed away, Pyle and his band are doing their best to keep the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd alive.
They’re gearing up to release their next album, Anthems, which fill feature the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including a cover of “Free Bird” featuring not only Rossington performing his iconic guitar solo but also featuring the legendary Dolly Parton.
And the Artimus Pyle Band released the first single off that album today, their version of “Sweet Home Alabama” performed by Brooks & Dunn lead singer Ronnie Dunn.
It’s a fitting tribute to those that were killed on this night 46 years ago – and it was only fitting that Pyle made his Opry debut on the anniversary of the plane crash, as he works to keep the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd alive.