Song Premiere: Dolly Parton Sings “Free Bird”

Listen to Parton’s glorious take on the classic from a new album honoring the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Plus, an interview with former Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle

A composite image of Dolly Parton and an album for the Artemis Pyle Band

Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP; Courtesy photo

When Artimus Pyle was sorting out which musicians would cover which songs for the new thirteen-track Anthems: Honoring the Music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one pairing was clear from the beginning. “Dolly Parton was the first one to record, and it had to be ‘Free Bird,’ the most iconic song that Skynyrd has,” says the former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer from his farm near Morganton, North Carolina. (Time will tell if fans will now start shouting “Free Bird!” at Dolly concerts.) 

The original band formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964. Pyle joined around 1975, survived the 1977 plane crash that killed lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and other members of the band and crew, and later played with the reformed band from 1987 to 1991. The past year has been tough for Pyle and Skynyrd fans—in 2023, Gary Rossington, the last living founding member, died at age 71, but not before Pyle tapped him to record his haunting “Free Bird” slide guitar part one last time. For the tribute album, the Artimus Pyle Band plays on each song, and Pyle recruited a number of special guests, including Sammy Hagar on “Simple Man” and Warren Haynes on “Saturday Night Special,” the first song Pyle recorded as a Skynyrd member in 1975.

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Listen to an exclusive early release of Parton’s beautiful version of “Free Bird” below, and read on to hear from Pyle about the track, some of his favorite Skynyrd memories, and the surprising groove he loves to jam to. Anthems: Honoring the Music of Lynyrd Skynyrd is out February 2 and available here.

How did you decide who was going to sing what on this album?

We’ve got all these great people singing songs to honor Ronnie, his music, and his band. Of course there’s “Sweet Home” and lots of others. But “Free Bird” is the big fish, and if Dolly Parton wants the big fish, she gets the big fish. Everyone else picked after that. I reached out to Gary Rossington about his iconic slide part on that song. His first reaction was, “I’d love to help you out on the album, but I’m not in good health.” I said, “Gary, Dolly is singing ‘Free Bird.’” He said, “I feel a lot better now.” [Laughs.] I’m so glad he was able to do it.

Then I’m in her studio, and Dolly said, “Let me play you my vocal.” I sat down beside her at the console, and when she came in on the first verse, tears just flowed out of my eyes. I cried like a baby. Then usually when the fast part comes on, it’s just the guitar. I made the signal to cut and said, “Dolly I’ve heard that part a million times. Thank you for what you’ve done. I’m sure you got things to do.” And she says, “Well, Artimus, I put stuff in there too!” I’m like Oh my god I just cut off Dolly Parton. I’m listening, and on her cut, Dolly is scatting! She’s got her backup singers putting on a choir of angels, and she’s ad-libbing, building up, and I’m just overwhelmed. 

Gary passed months ago, but he texted me not too long before and said we needed to get together for lunch. He told me over text that he loved “Free Bird,” he loved Dolly’s vocals on it, and he felt like Ronnie would have given it a thumbs up. Everyone in the band always loved Dolly. Allen Collins, who co-wrote “Free Bird” and played the solo, his favorite song was always her “Coat of Many Colors.” One time I heard him strumming the chords, singing it. I think Allen would really appreciate the fact that Dolly is singing “Free Bird.” 

What’s one of your favorite early memories after joining the band?

The first song I ever recorded with Lynyrd Skynyrd was “Saturday Night Special” for the Burt Reynolds movie The Longest Yard. It’s in a scene when he’s in a car that he stole from his girlfriend and drove into the river. The whole time the police were chasing him, we were on the radio. So the first time I heard myself play with Lynyrd Skynyrd was at a matinee in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at the Carolina Theater. There were six people in the whole place, but when our song came on, I stood up and yelled. They must have thought, What is this hippie yelling about? Because my hair was down to my waist and my beard was down to my belly button, and I was happy like a crazy man.

photo: Courtesy of the Artimus Pyle Band
The Artimus Pyle Band.

Is it true that you purchased your first drum set with your Marines discharge check?

I did. I had a thousand-dollar get-out check, and I went to Difiore’s Music House in Cleveland and bought a set of chrome-plated Slingerlands. When I first joined Lynyrd Skynyrd and we started touring the world, I had an actual cowbell that was from a cow. I was raised in Tennessee and Kentucky on horseback, so it just felt right. I play Gretsch ’57s now, based on a ’57 Chevy. They’re a beautiful Motor City blue, and they play like driving a Ferrari.

You’ve been to so many little towns all over the world—any that stand out?

I love St. Augustine, Florida. I’ve been going there my whole life and lived there for quite a while. It’s like living in a movie, the historic downtown. I had a place on the Intracoastal Waterway where I always enjoyed the manatees and dolphins and the water life. 

But every little town we went to on tour, even in Europe, we would ask somebody local, where does everybody from here go when they want to actually hang out? Is there a lake or a waterfall or a river where people just kick back? We found all kinds of cool places that way. I remember these bluffs in Sioux City were so beautiful. Now, I’m still getting to play all these cool venues, and people are getting creative—venues on lakes and rivers. I did a gig with Dolly Parton in Arkansas that was on a grass airport runway near a whole team of crop dusters. And I love all the little clubs and dance halls in Texas.

Okay, rapid fire:

Biscuits or cornbread? Cornbread.

Potato salad or coleslaw? Potato salad if it’s made right. Southern. Put a little tiny bit of mustard in there and I’m good.

Magnolia or live oak? I love magnolias. I love live oaks too. I’m a tree guy. I love trees. But I love the magnolia. Those blossoms just smell so good. The fragrance is very South to me.

Favorite classic TV show? The Andy Griffith Show, but only the black-and-white ones. Back in the day on our tour buses, we would always have VHS tapes of Andy Griffith. We still do that to this day, watch it on the bus before we go play.

Any surprising songs you love to play on the drums? I love Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Two of my favorite songs ever are “I Like the Way You Move,” and “Hey Ya!” I wouldn’t technically cover it, but sometimes when I go sit at my drums and play a groove, I just start singing “I like the way you move!” Onstage, I’ll stick to what I know—I’m a Southern rock drummer. But at home and in the car, I listen to it all. I’m a jazz freak.