Best Seat in the House

Drumming with Charlie Daniels, a memorable slice of pizza with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Artemis Pyle, and going gonzo for Southern rock

Ain’t it good to be alive and be in Tennessee!

That’s something Charlie Daniels used to bellow out on stage, typically when he was playing back on his midstate home turf.

In the late 1970s, he was the big kahuna of the growing band-centric genre of Southern rock, which included such diverse groups as Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and the Allman Brothers. Charlie had paid his dues as in the 1960s as a Nashville session guitarist (he played with Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Pete Seeger and Flatt & Scruggs) and touring road dog. He produced an album by The Youngbloods.

In the early 1970s, he’d had enough of all that and wanted to helm his own group. The Charlie Daniels Band finally hit the airwaves with “Uneasy Rider” in 1973. I remember him performing that song solo, on Ralph Emery’s early-morning weekday TV show, when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember thinking, wow, he looks like he’s not used to being up this early.

Starting the next year, Charlie would throw a big annual homecoming bash, the Volunteer Jam, in the Nashville area. He’d invite all his Southern rock friends to share the stage, along with special surprise guests from the wider musical world—James Brown, Ted Nugent, George Thorogood, Crystal Gayle, Roy Acuff, Alabama, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Don Henley after he’d gone solo from the Eagles. It was the big all-star concert event of the year, with a proudly Southern-fried spin.

In my role as a journalist, I crossed paths with Charlie several times over the years. And his music was a formative part of my teenage years, which happened to be the era in with Southern Rock was on the ascending arc of its curve, and South-rooted FM rock was at its zenith…especially in the South. I played in a band during high school—drums—and would put down the sticks and pick up a pawnshop fiddle to play a screech-y version of “The South’s Gonna Do It,” the CDB’s breakout hit from 1974. (Fortunately, in those dark ages of technology, no home video exists of me playing the fiddle.)

A few years later, I got to know one of Charlie’s two drummers, Freddy Edwards, when I was dispatched to interview and photograph him for the newspaper The Portland (Tenn.) Leader, for which I was working during college breaks. Freddy and his wife had bought a house locally, less than a mile from where I grew up, and we got to be friends. I photographed him for the piece in his basement, playing his drums. It looked a lot like the basement in my house, where I’d learned to play on my kit.

And in an interview that would presage my movie-reviewing career by some three decades, we talked about a wide range of things—including the movie Freddy and Colleen had just seen, Day of the Dolphin, starring George C. Scott. I don’t remember much else about the interview, but I do remember how impressed Freddy was with the story about “intelligent” research dolphins who are kidnapped in a diabolical ploy to use for a political assassination.

Freddy invited me one day to come along with him to a CDB rehearsal, at Charlie’s place in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Why, of course! To give the pretense of something professional, I brought along my camera and snapped some pics of Charlie and the band running through songs for the album, Million Mile Reflections, they were getting ready to record in the studio. Freddy asked me if I wanted to sit down behind his drums and play a bit while the band loosened up and jammed—on a tune that turned out to be the albums’ opening cut, a song called “Passing Lane.” To this day, whenever I hear that song, I hear the groove that I had locked into that morning in the rehearsal house on Charlie’s place.

A few more years rolled by. I interviewed and photographed Charlie for a magazine cover story after he won a CMA Award for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It was my first job out of college, and I met him at the south Nashville home of his manager, Joe Sullivan, the former DJ who founded Sound Seventy Productions. I took some portraits of Charlie leaning back in a swing in Sullivan’s backyard, against a wall of sheared rocks, because it had a kind of Mount Rushmore feel. Charlie was himself a mountain of a man, a big guy. And if Southern rock had a Mount Rushmore, he would have certainly been on it.

“I’m just a country boy who plays the guitar and the fiddle,” Charlie told me, spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice with an emphatic splat into a pop bottle. “That’s all I am. I ain’t no better than anyone else. I don’t look at myself as being separated from the rest of the human race just because I sold a few records.”

He went on to sell a few more records, and I went to several Volunteer Jam events, marathon kaleidoscopes of eclectic performances, all revolving for that one night around Charlie Daniels. One piece I wrote on the Jam in the early ’80s described the performers cycling on and off stage like precision figurines in a massive Swiss clock of Southern rock, musical moving parts all clicking and ticking in sync with the night’s schedule. But you never knew who’d be coming up next. Appropriately enough, the Jams always closed in a late-night jam session, with everyone who’d performed that evening invited to return to the stage and join in.

As a fledgling music journalist, I’d been reading a lot of Rolling Stone, trying to soak up some of the mojo about how the big boys covered big musical stories. One of the RS “correspondents” was Hunter S. Thompson, whose counter-cultural “gonzo journalism” was a free-wheeling mixture of surrealism built around his own outrageous experiences. In Thompson’s world, a writer did than simply report a story—he became part of the story, shaping and sizing it by his presence and participation. I wasn’t gonzo enough to throw myself into Thompson’s dizzying swirl of whiskey, weed, cocaine and acid, but it did give me an idea.

I called Charlie’s publicist, Paula Szeigis, and pitched my proposal for covering the upcoming Volunteer Jam XIII, set that summer at the outdoor Starwood Amphitheater. Charlie knows I’m a drummer, I reminded Paula. What if I played drums during the Jam’s closing jam session, and wrote about it, for coverage? That seemed like something Hunter S. Thompson might have done if he were covering a Charlie Daniels event for Rolling Stone. It seemed gonzo tailor-made for me.

Paula seemed to like the idea, and said she’d run it by Charlie. A couple of weeks later, I got the confirmation call. I’d be drumming at the Volunteer Jam.

At the event, I picked up my laminate and milled around backstage with all the other musicians—Stevie Ray Vaughn was there, so was William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Over there is the L.A. rock band Great White, and is that Amy Grant’s husband, Gary Chapman? Yep, it is!  

But the VIPs of the evening were the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, making their first appearance with Johnny Van Zandt as then new front man. He was the little brother of Ronnie, who died in the tragic airplane crash ten years earlier; the crash killed a total of six band members and crew, including guitarist Steve Gaines and his backup vocalist sister, Cassie. That night’s Volunteer Jam was a reunion of the surviving members, who’d decided to pull all their loose ends back together after the setback and re-form for a tribute tour.

It would be the final time they’d share the stage with Allen Collins, who appeared in a wheelchair, waving to the crowd. But his guitar-playing days were over. I think a lot of the crowd at Starwood thought Collins was incapicated because of injuries after the plane crash, but actually, he’d been paralyzed in a 1986 car accident when his new black Thunderbird flipped on a Florida highway, killing his girlfriend passenger. He would never play guitar again, and he died three years later.

There was Ed King, the former Strawberry Alarm Clock member who’d joined Skynyrd in 1972. And there was bass player Leon Wilkeson and drummer Artemis Pyle (more about him later), the former U.S. Marine and aviator who’d replaced the band’s original drummer, Bob Burns, in 1974. And there was Gary Rossington, one of the band’s founding members, and piano player Billy Powell, who started as a Skynyrd roadie but became a part of the group after the band heard him noodling around on a keyboard.

With Rossington’s death March 5, the band’s “classic” lineup was all gone—Ronnie Van Zant, Gaines, Wilkeson, Powell, Burns and King. I’ve been thinking about how almost all the Skynyrd band members I watched that night are no longer with us, and three of them had perished a full decade earlier. It had been a rough road for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Southern rock, as a genre, would soon be past its heyday, a retro relic of another place and time.  

I’ve been thinking about the times I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd, the times I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd, and about the time I reviewed their sophomore album, Second Helping, for my high school newspaper. Believe it or not, I slagged Bob Burns’ drumming. (He left the band in 1974 after a mental breakdown.)  And I’ve been thinking about a night in 1989 in Elliston Place, Nashville’s West End music district, when I sat down at a table in The End, the little rock club across the street from the Exit In, and had some pizza with Artemis Pyle.

I was playing drums in a little Beatles cover band, Day Tripperz, and we making a return appearance at the club. There were maybe 20 or so people there; it was a weeknight. I couldn’t see very clearly; it was dim and dark. But I could make out the silhouette of one guy, with long dark hair, and he seemed a little bit older than the otherwise college-age crowd. Then a delivery guy from Obie’s Pizza, across the parking lot, came into the club and yelled, “Artemis! Pizza for Artemis.”

I’d never heard the name Artemis until I started reading album credits and music features and came across Artemis Pyle. Could this be that Artemis, the one who drummed for Lynyrd Skynyrd?

Indeed, it was.

Our band was on a break, so I went over and introduced myself. He had friendly eyes and a big, fuzzy beard that seemed to meld with his long hair to completely obscure his face, and he asked me to pull up a chair. He was likeable and talkative. We bantered with a bit of drummer small talk, and then he told me about surviving the plane crash, and how he wanted to write a book, called “The Best Seat in the House,” about his perspective as Skynyrd’s stickman, getting to see everything—on stage and in the audience—from his seat behind his double-bass rig on the drum riser. Artemis didn’t sing; he just drummed…and watched. But the title had a double meaning. If he hadn’t been where he was sitting on that ill-fated Conair CV-240, when it plowed into the Mississippi swamp, if he’d been in another seat, situated somewhere else in the plane, he might not have made it. As it was, Artemis was the only survivor capable of crawling from the wrecked fuselage and trekking into the night looking for help, covered with mud and blood.

Best seat in the house, for sure.

At the Volunteer Jam event, I didn’t know when I’d play on stage, with whom, or what songs. So I just hung out, me and my laminated backstage pass, waiting for my cue and watching the musical flow—and the frenzy when Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage, plowing into the opening bars of “Workin’ For MCA.”

When my “spot” finally came, at the evening’s big closing jam, I was instructed to come up on stage and stand behind one of the two risers on the backline; there were two drummers playing to keep the beat going and avoid any interruption when a sub would come aboard. One of the drummers, on the other riser, was Artemis. The risers were about three feet high, and they had a couple of little steps. A stagehand was standing beside me, behind the platform, and when one song finished, he reached up and put his hands into the rear of the drummer’s pants waistband and gave a tug—time to “switch out.”

The newly de-throned drummer hopped down, handed me his sticks and I climbed up. And before I could say “Yikes!” the 15 or 16 musicians on stage launched into a rocking version of “That Good Ol’ Mountain Dew.” Charlie was leading and calling the shots, throwing in fiddle breaks. Our two-drummer rhythm section was churning. And most of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band members—and various other musicians—were scattered about, picking and playing and trying to get all their chords in the right spots.

I could see the stage stretched out in front of me, with the edge about 40 or 50 feet away. The audience was a churning sea of faces on the other side, disappearing up the hillside into the night. The sound is different, on a big stage like that, from what you’d hear in the audience. I could barely hear when Charlie turned away from the stage and told the musicians what song we’d be doing next, and then we were launched into a peppy version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

I’d never played that, or the other song, either. But luckily, growing up steeped in music, I was familiar with them. I just locked in with Artemis, and away we went.

And then I got the tug; my time was up, and there was yet another drummer waiting to take my spot for the big finale, the closing jam number.

I didn’t get any pictures; it’s hard to photograph and drum at the same time. And all my Nashville press colleagues—from the Tennessean, from the Banner, from Billboard, from the Associated Press—had left early, to beat the traffic, along with most of the publicists who were there. I haven’t, to this day, come across anyone who witnessed me playing drums on the stage with Charlie Daniels and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

But I did.

And for a few minutes, I knew what Charlie Daniels meant, about it being good to be alive, and be in Tennessee—I was alive, in Tennessee, playing drums at an event I’d previously only experienced as a spectator. I was alive, even as the specter of death loomed in the gloomy recesses of Southern rock’s musical soundscape, waiting to pluck more victims. My heartbeat had synched with my drum beat, and I knew exactly what Artemis Pyle would later be talking about, off West End Avenue, over slices of Obie’s Pizza.

I, too, felt like I had the best seat in the house, and in a lot of ways, I always have.

—Neil Pond, March 2023


One thought on “Best Seat in the House

  1. AL says:

    Great memories!

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