Dolly Parton joins the tribute for a rousing rendition of “Free Bird.”
Great news: The Artimus Pyle Band has released its long-awaited Anthems — Honoring the Music of Lynyrd Skynyrd album. Better news: Pyle’s new version of “Free Bird” with Dolly Parton is every bit as terrific as he promised us it would be last year.
“I never thought it would happen,” said Pyle, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member and former drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd, “but I can tell you — I’ve heard it, and [original Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington] put his slide solo on it, and Dolly put her vocal on it, and it’ll make you cry. And it made me cry when Dolly played it for me a couple of months ago, before she even knew she was going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We had laid that track down. And later she asked me, ‘Can I put it on my record, too? I’m going to do a rock record, so I deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.’ And I said, ‘Well Dolly, you deserve everything. You’re a humanitarian. So of course put it on your record, too.’ So that’s how it came about.”
And yes, Dolly Parton did include it on her Rockstar album. But why that particular song?
“Well, she told me she loves the song,” Pyle replied. “And sitting there with her at the board in her studio listening to her vocal, and the song that my band cut for her — it brought tears to my eyes. And so she owns it. She made it her own, like Dolly does. She put her own spin on it. I mean from front to back. She doesn’t stop singing when the guitar solo comes in. She takes it right to the end, man. She ad-libs and does all this cool stuff with her backup singers. It sounds like a choir of angels has descended upon the guitar solo in ‘Free Bird.’ It’s utterly fantastic. Dolly knows a good song when she hears it. And she put her heart and soul into that because she knew Ronnie Van Zant as a singer-songwriter.”
Often recognized as the untamed force behind Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pyle’s impactful double bass drumming was instrumental in defining the band’s iconic sound. Pyle survived the band’s tragic 1977 plane crash that took six lives, including band leader Ronnie Van Zant. He pays tribute to his former bandmates with Anthems, a collection of 13 tracks that features contributions from such artists as Ronnie Dunn, Sammy Hagar, Lee Brice, Billy Ray Cyrus, Warren Hayes, Michael Ray, Chris Janson, LOCASH, Jerrod Niemann, Marty Raybon, Lindsay Ell — and Dolly Parton. You can stream or purchase the album here.
During a recent interview, we asked Pyle if he ever was overcome with emotion while again performing and recording the songs he once played with absent friends.
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “I experience that sadness and emotion overwhelmingly. Even when I’m playing live, there’ll be moments where I’m thinking about my past band, the Lynyrd Skynyrd band, and I’m looking out at my current band. We’ve been together 15 years, and we play the music with ferocity and accuracy and respect and honor. But there’s always moments where it comes up and I reflect. Sometimes the tears come, and they’re basically tears of joy, and I get it under control. There's only been a couple of times when somebody in the audience noticed that I was upset. They come through the line to get something signed, and they just kind of take me aside and say, ‘Did I see tears?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it happens.’
“And there were moments in the studio. We were working so hard being on the road, coming in from Texas, going through Nashville, parking the bus in the parking lot of the studio, getting off, going in, cutting a couple of tracks, getting back on the bus, going home, and then repeating the whole process. And, yes, there were moments in the studio when I thought about my friends. But most of it was thinking that I was doing something that everybody would be proud of.”
While promoting Anthems, Pyle added, “I’ve had some people say to me: ‘Wow, this is a really great album, but why now? Why record a bunch of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs that have already been recorded?’
“And the answer to that is that Ronnie Van Zant deserves it. His band deserves it. And when I say deserves it, what is it? It is the fact that we take modern recording techniques in Nashville with a great producer, who is Dolly Parton’s producer, Kent Wells. He’s been with her for 35 years. He's respected in Nashville, and he's an amazing guy, one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen. He's a vocalist. He can do anything. And Kent was producing this record.
“So there were those moments where I was thinking everything is right. And I’m thinking about Ronnie going, ‘Hey, Artimus, you're going to do a new album, and you’re going to do “Free Bird.” You better get somebody good to sing it, boy.’ And I just look up and say, “Well, how about Dolly Parton?’”