A Southern rock mainstay still has his band on the road after 40 grueling yet ultimately satisfying years.
By Steve Houk
It was back in the early 80’s, and the guys in 38 Special knew they had played to packed houses in the Northeast before, so why not play the huge Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey’s Meadowlands? I mean, they had a couple hit records and some hot FM radio singles like “Hold On Loosely” and “Caught Up In You” under their belt, so their confidence was brimming. But as band co-founder and sole survivor Don Barnes tells it, their management and handlers didn’t share the band’s belief they could fill the big venue.
“They were all like, ‘You don’t really want to go in there and embarrass yourself, ‘cuz you might get like half house,’ ” Barnes said recently from the road, a place he knows well after 40 years out on it. “We kept thinkin’ that we have been back there so many times, we really feel like they would come out and see us. And they thought ‘Well, it’s your funeral, we’re gonna advise you against that, you might want to play a smaller venue, ‘ but we were pretty stubborn about it, and kept saying ‘No, we can do it.’ And buddy, let me tell ya, 24,000 people came out there, and they had to eat their words. That’s one of the cherished memories of up and coming, to finally reach that pinnacle.”
It’s around 35 years later, and 38 Special has pretty much gone the way all the other big Southern rock bands have gone — except maybe the Allman Brothers — where arenas are no longer on the itinerary. But as with many of their counterparts, the baby boomers that showed up at the big gigs back then are still rabid fans today who love hearing the music of their youth, so packed clubs, theaters and festivals are still the order of the day, like the fifteen or so thousand who showed up at a recent outdoor show in Illinois. And you can expect a pretty decent crowd of 38 Specialers to show up Friday night when Barnes’ band plays the Birchmere in Alexandria.
The last remaining member left from the original lineup, Barnes founded 38 Special with childhood pal and former 38 Special lead singer Donnie Van Zant while living in Jacksonville in 1974. Van Zant is the younger brother of the legendary Ronnie Van Zant, who fronted Lynyrd Skynyrd until his death in a plane crash in 1977, and the older sibling of Johnny Van Zant, who would eventually take over for Ronnie and who sings with Skynyrd today.
“We grew up on the same street (as the Van Zants), when I was a kid,” the affable Barnes said. “Three guys who ended up in 38 Special also lived on Woodcrest Road. It was a big four lane road, and when we were young, our parents wouldn’t allow us to go on the other side of Woodcrest, that’s where the Van Zants lived. There were over there on the ‘bad side of town,’ the wrong side of the tracks kinda thing.”
Barnes saw his buddies in Skynyrd slowly climbing their way towards success, so he and Van Zant decided they would give rock and roll a shot too. And the camraderie with the guys in what would become Skynyrd was a key component in Barnes learning the rock and roll ropes.
“I was right there in the middle of all this history being made,” Barnes continued. “Ridin’ my bike to go to (Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist) Allen Collins‘ house when I was 13 years old, him having some European English import records, and we’d sit down and we’d pick out guitar licks, and he would show me a few things. I mean, this was (one of the guys) who wrote “Free Bird” eventually, ya know. He would have a big Vox Super Beatle amp in his hallway and he’d just be rattling the windows when his Mom would come in from work, and she’d be so proud of her son. My mother would never let that happen in my house. And Ronnie, he was four years older and a big mentor as well for us.”
Being a navy town, Jacksonville was full of venues the sailors would frequent on leave, and it gave budding young Southern rockers ample opportunities to play live and hone both their performing and songwriting chops.
“They had four naval bases there,” Barnes said, “so all of us kids, I mean from Duane Allman and Gregg Allman to Ronnie Van Zant, everybody played the sailor’s clubs. We were fifteen years old making a hundred bucks a week, that was big money for a fifteen year old kid. There we learned the foundations, the structures of the craft of songwriting, playing the hits of the day, radio songs, and you realized it was a craft, there was a system to it where you have the A section and a B section and then a ramp that goes up to the chorus, and then the bridge and that kind of thing. You learned the structures at an early age. And then we’d get cocky and think, ‘Oh well I can write my own songs now.’ And that’s when you go starve for ten years.”
Barnes and Van Zant played in “like, fifteen bands before 38 Special” and then began to pick up the stronger guys from other local groups as they began to focus on their big dream.
“It started like any band, you play in somebody’s garage and get the cops called on you for playing too loud. But you really tried to get guys who would commit to it. Skynyrd was kinda just taking off and we thought that we were really gonna be serious about it. But it was hard, we all had day jobs too. I wouldn’t recommend it to many kids today, because you work so so hard, and there are no guarantees, and you can give 110% and still not make it. But it does build character, I guess.”
Don Barnes (center rear) and the original 38 Special lineup, circa 1980
After conquering the local bar scene, 38 Special sucked it up taking warm up slots often on three act bills playing mostly to alot of yet-to-be-filled chairs, but to their major credit, they played as if their lives depended on it, keeping the standards high no matter what the crowd was. And it turned out that being humble and working hard was well worth the effort.
“We tried to act like we were the headliner, ya know like God help who was following us, we tried to throw it all down at ‘em, so hopefully they would go home and tell somebody. Just keeping that high standard. We felt like if we got a couple of sentences at the bottom of the review the next day, you know it’d say, ‘Peter Frampton did blah blah, and Gary Wright did this, and 38 Special delivered a lively set at 7 0’clock,’ we thought wow, that could mean something! But it never really did.”
Along with the Van Zants, Barnes and his 38 Special boys, and the Allman Brothers, Jacksonville was also a rock and roll breeding ground for the likes of former Eagle Don Felder, Stephen Stills and in nearby Gainesville, Tom Petty, among others. So what was it about this Florida navy town that made it a mecca for young soon-to-be rock superstars?
“People ask what’s in the water down there, I don’t know,” Barnes said. “But I’ll tell ya, comin’ from the west side of Jacksonville, it’s pretty much no man’s land, you either end up drivin’ a truck or goin’ to prison or something. I really think there’s a thread of that underdog spirit, ya know, that comes from not being from New York or L.A. so you really gotta show your stuff to people, you gotta put it in their face, get out there and make your statement. I think that’s what the underlying aggression, the big strong guitars, ya know, “Listen to me!” You’re there screamin’ at people, basically to pay attention, because you’re not fashionable, you’re not from a hip place. I think that common thread of the underdog spirit is what is prevalent with all those people.”
After two middling albums in the mid-70’s kept the band a relative unknown outside of the South, 38 Special shifted into more of an arena-style Southern rock sound and got some attention in 1980 with their third effort Rockin’ Into The Night, but it would be their next two albums Wild Eyed Southern Boys (1981) and Special Forces (1982) that would vault them up onto that elusive next level of stardom. Two Barnes-penned and sung singles, “Hold on Loosely and “Caught Up In You”, were the lightning in the bottle that got them that coveted heavy FM radio airplay and seats began filling in arenas. But Barnes is quick to point out that the road to making it is long and arduous, and can sometimes temper the success.
“It’s such a long road, and it’s tiny baby steps at a time, and when things started happening, you’re a little bit anxious about it all because you worked so hard for so long. It took a lot longer than we thought it would, ya know, we’d do interviews and people would ask, ‘How do you feel now that you’ve made it?’ and we were just so weary. Our management was always about pushing forward, saying don’t be complacent, because there are bigger things to get. If I had to do it all over again, I’d try to enjoy myself a little bit more. Because it was always about push push push all the time, there were times when we’d do nine months of a tour to promote the record, then you’d have to do another record, but you have no songs written, not one note, and you’re so burned out from the road.”
Barnes left the band in 1987 — “It had been ten years of absolute pushing and I was worn out”– and had a solid solo album done and ready for release, but it never saw the light of day, becoming a casualty of the sale of A & M Records. It was a crushing blow for Barnes: “I went on vacation after that, I said I’m going to the islands somewhere, and I did.” He eventually rallied and rejoined 38 Special in 1992, and has been the driving force and band anchor ever since. “I picked up right where I left off,” he said. “There were no ill feelings. Once we lit it all back up, it was all back, the formula was there. We kept going onward and upward, ya know.”
Don Barnes onstage with 38 Special, 2014
What keeps Don Barnes — or any of his fellow Southern rock survivors for that matter who are still out there banging away four decades later (like Henry Paul with the Outlaws, Doug Gray with the Marshall Tucker Band and Gary Rossington with Lynyrd Skynyrd) — still working hard out there on the road, playing dozens of shows a year to adoring fans, after all this time? It’s all about using the emotion of the songs they remember to create an experience for those fans, and giving them something special every night.
“I guess it’s that instant reaction in people’s faces,” Barnes said. “These songs have a history all their own, so when we go out there, we take the crowd up, up, up up and they are just manic at the end because we’re unfolding all the history from the beginning. We’re there to make sure they have the greatest time. We see ‘em singing along, giving each other high fives, clapping and yelling, and we also see tears in someone’s eyes if a song reminds them of something or someone. And you see these kids, they’ve learned about all the songs through games and stuff. That is the fuel right there, seeing something you created from that long ago, that after all the scratching and all the suffering, it really worked out OK. You really mean something to these people. It really is special to us.”