Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash survivor pays tribute to lives lost in tragedy 45 years ago

The 45th anniversary of a Southern rock tragedy will arrive next month.

Former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle honors the memory of those whose lives were lost by continuing to make music.

On October 20, 1977, a plane carrying the band Lynyrd Skynyrd to a tour stop in Baton Rouge ran out of fuel and crashed in a wooded area near the Mississippi-Louisiana border.

Twenty-six people were on board the plane, which was torn apart during the descent.

Six people died, including two members of the Oklahoma band – guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines.

Pyle was among 20 survivors. Despite the injuries sustained in the accident, he left the wreckage to seek help for his friends. The trip included an encounter with an armed farmer who saw Pyle’s bloodied body and suspected an escaped convict was on the loose.

People also read…

For a recreation of the story, watch “Street Survivors: The True Story of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Plane Crash.” The film, completed despite legal hurdles, is available on streaming services, Blu-Ray and DVD.

“There have been many variations, narratives and contradictions to this story, but I was there,” Pyle says at the start of the film. “It’s something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did. It’s more than a story about the plane crash. It’s about the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the greatest Southern rock band of all time.

Pyle took part in a series of interviews this week to talk about commemorating the 45th anniversary of the crash and honoring those who died, including Lynyrd Skynyrd singer and bandleader Ronnie Van Zant. Plans are for Pyle to continue touring with his band of 12. The Artimus Pyle Group has a tribute record on the way, and the album will feature “named” guests.

“We put 17 strong Nashville tracks in the box, and we invited guest artists to come,” Pyle said.

“We have Sammy Hagar singing ‘Simple Man.’ Billy Ray Cyrus sings ‘Call Me the Breeze’ Ronnie Dunn from Brooks & Dunn sings ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and Warren Hayes sings ‘Saturday Night Special’ and we have other big stars that I don’t have permission to say their names at the moment, but they are #1 icons in the music industry who are going to pay tribute with their voices on these tracks that we’ve been charting. We don’t have a name for the album yet, but it’s a tribute to Ronnie, his band and his music. It’s coming out soon. It’ll blow your mind when you hear it.

Besides Van Zant and the Gaines siblings (born in Miami, Okla.), other people who died in the crash were assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray.

Cassie Gaines joined the group before her brother. Steve Gaines was with the band for two albums – a 1976 live project and 1977’s “Street Survivors”, released three days before the plane crash.

Steve Gaines is credited as writer or co-writer on four “Street Survivors” tracks – “I Know A Little”, “You Got That Right”, “I Never Dreamed” and “Ain’t No Good Life” . The album went gold in 10 days en route to double platinum status. The original album cover, featuring band members standing amid flames, was replaced as it was considered to be in bad taste after the plane crash. The aircraft did not ignite on impact as the aircraft was low on fuel.

Pyle, in a phone interview with the Tulsa World, said Steve was one of the greatest people he’s ever met. He expanded the compliment to include Cassie, another brother of Gaines (Bob), and their parents.

“They were just a different group of individuals,” he said. “They liked the music. Both mother and father supported Cassie, Steve and Bob. They actually built a canteen for their kids to play music for all the kids in the neighborhood so they have a place to go and stay off the streets.

Speaking only of Steve Gaines, Pyle called him a special guy – one whose green thumb allowed him to “grow anything”.

“But he was one of the greatest guitarists out there—completely fluid. Singer. Songwriter. Ronnie Van Zant immediately bonded with Steve Gaines,” Pyle said.

“They had the chance to release a few things together that would cement Steve Gaines in the music world, but Steve didn’t get the chance to spread his wings as much as Ronnie Van Zant. Ronnie spread his wings like an eagle and Steve was like a hawk. He didn’t quite manage to do that. But all the songs that Steve wrote… he was able to do so much in such a short time, and it was the same for Ronnie, actually. I just think about the possibilities of what it could have been with Steve and Ronnie. There would have been many more great collaborations, but we are lucky to have what we have.

Asked specifically about Cassie Gaines, Pyle provided background (attended Memphis State, sang in a production of “Hair”, performed in off-Broadway plays) and said, “She was absolutely gorgeous and had a smile that wouldn’t stop I moved back to Miami Oklahoma and hung out about 10 years ago with people who knew her Her high school sweetheart I hung out with him and got to know Cassie better.

Cassie Gaines was one of the Honkettes, the name given to the female backing vocalists of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“Ronnie wanted three types of singers,” Pyle said. “He had this formula. JoJo Billingsley had a kind of whiskey voice. He wanted Leslie Hawkins. It was his soprano. And then Cassie was the middle voice. And it worked really well because their vocals are so much a part of Skynyrd’s songs, the ones they’re on of course. Ronnie knew what he was doing.

Billingsley was not part of the traveling party when the plane crashed. Cassie Gaines and others were afraid to fly the Convair CV-240 (Aerosmith refused to use it) due to previous scary experiences on the same aircraft. These experiences are chronicled in the film, which reminds viewers that Van Zant thought he wouldn’t live to be 30. He died three months before his 30th birthday.

Because viewers know what is coming, it is difficult to watch parts of the film. It’s difficult for Pyle too. In 2021, told an interviewer that he had seen the film 11 times and cried each time.

“Every time I watch it, it’s very moving,” he said. “The CGI of the plane crash, it all looks so real. They made it look like what we went through. I’m really proud of the movie. I wish it had a bigger budget, but we did our best with what we had and I’m very proud of that.

Pyle is the central figure in the film and much of it is told from his point of view. Asked about the importance of sharing the story, he said he could have sold his story for a million or two million dollars – and didn’t. He said he didn’t make a dime on the film, although he did make music, since his band, friends and family contributed to the soundtrack.

“The movie could have been shelved,” Pyle said, referring to courtroom challenges that had to be overcome before the movie could be finished. “These young actors and actresses, they were acting and putting their hearts and souls into a movie that could have been put away forever. But we won the case. We prevailed. We are so happy. Like I said, I didn’t get paid for this movie. I just wanted the fans to know what we went through on that fateful day.

Two members of Lynyrd Skynyrd from Oklahoma – Steve Gaines and his sister, Cassie Gaines – died in a plane crash 45 years ago next month. Former band drummer Artimus Pyle honors their memory by continuing to make music. Grace Wood and James Watts talk about this and other upcoming Scene features.