38 Special

An interview with Don Barnes from 38 Special
by Tommy Rage
May 2019

38 Special

38 Special

Southern Rock. The fast guitars and up-tempo bluesy rhythms of the 1970’s flourished across radio stations throughout the US, taking outlaw country to a whole new level. Mixing working-class values with the excesses of the southern-boys lifestyle, Southern Rock was everywhere. Bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet and 38 Special packed arenas throughout the 70’s and early 80’s and paved the way for future Southern Rock bands like the The Black Crows, Kid Rock and Black Stone Cherry.

Beginning with Donnie Van Zant (guitar, vocals), Steve Brookins (drums), Jack Grondin (percussion), Jeff Carlisi (guitar), Ken Lyons (bass), and Don Barnes (vocals, guitar) a Jacksonville, Florida band named 38 Special has stayed true to the Southern Rock mantra for more than 40 years. Founding lead singer and guitarist Don Barnes, the last original member of 38 Special, talks about growing up with the band’s co-founder: Donnie Van Zant and the Van Zant family. “There were three of us from the band that grew up on the same street in Jacksonville, on Woodcrest Road. Because there was a 4-lane road where we lived, I’d always joke that the good guys lived on one side and the Van Zants’ lived on the other [laughter]. We all grew up together and played in bands at the teen center together, and I knew their mom and dad. Their mom, Marion would cook for all the boys and their dad would fix cars and things. I remember being under my Chevy Impala with their dad, Lacy, dropping the transmission out. When Ronnie (Lynyrd Skynyrd) came in off the road, he came home and laughed at us in the garage, ‘What the hell you guys doing?’ he asked [laughter]. It was interesting times for sure.”

Don Barnes still gets a chuckle from telling the story about how the band got its’ name. “It’s funny, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, we all came from Jacksonville. We played for years in clubs, rehearsing, we rehearsed half our life away [laughter]. Back in those days you couldn’t practice in your garage, the neighbors would complain, and you would get the cops called on you. We all had day jobs. Donnie and I found an old auto part warehouse that had been condemned. It had electricity, but no water. The roof leaked, and we had put our instruments up on pallets because the rain would soak our equipment and amps. So, we would drive out to the middle of nowhere after our day jobs and practice. We had fortified the front door with rebar and 2x4s and put a big lock on the door with a tractor-chain to keep people out. We lost the key to the lock, so we used to climb up this drainpipe on the side of the building and get in a top window. We would just climb in and out through the window. One night the cops showed up thinking there was a wild party out in the woods. They were going to raid the shop, and we were playing inside. We stopped playing and heard them over a bullhorn saying that they wanted us to come out. We yelled through the door that we didn’t have the key and we would have to climb out. We heard one of the cops say, ‘That’s all right. We’ll let this 38 Special do the talking’, and he shot the lock off [laughter]. We didn’t have a name for the band for our first show in Gainesville, so we thought we would just use 38 Special for now, and come up with a better name later on, but we just never did; and it’s kind of funny.”

With a name picked out and a contract signed with A&M Records, the band put out two albums: 38 Special in 1977 and Special Delivery in 1978 before finding success a year later with their third release Rockin’ into the Night. “By the time our third album came out, we were wondering what it would take to get on the radio. So, we changed our formula a little, and did some extra things, and went outside ourselves, doing more of an ‘arena-rock’ sound. When most people hear Rockin’ into the Night they hear the hunger and passion of the songs, but when I hear it, I hear myself singing with desperation [laughter]. When you are desperate like we were, it shows in those songs. With Rockin’ into the Night we finally got our foot in the door, and it was proof of what we could do.”

With their new-found sound and words of inspiration from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant, Barnes reflects on the bands 1981 Top 20 album. “When Wild-Eyed Southern Boys, came out, it had ‘Fantasy Girl’ and “Hold On Loosely’ on it, and it busted the door down for radio play. We gave a hundred and ten percent and we had gone through the tragedy of losing Ronnie, who was a mentor to us. He had told us, ‘Don’t copy everyone else or do what’s been done before you. Put your own influences into your music.’ We were fans of blues, and bands from the British Invasion like the Animals and the Beatles. We liked the ‘muscle and melody’ sound of the guitar and vocals, and it worked for us; so we stuck with it. We were very happy to hear our songs on the radio after going through the struggles of starting out. It wasn’t all happy and joyful times.”

The band continued into the 80’s with hits ‘Caught Up In You’, ‘Back Where You Belong’, ‘If I’d Been The One’, and the Top 25 hit from the movie Teachers. “‘Teacher, Teacher’ was a fun [song] to do. It only took a day, or a day and a half. We were on the road touring. Because we were playing all these arenas, I heard the repeat from the echoes, and I wanted to put more of that repeat echo sound on the vocals. So, if you hear that song, you can hear the repeat echo because I liked that sound [laughter].”

Now on tour with Toby Keith and playing Breese Stevens Field on June 21st, Barnes still loves playing live for 38 Special fans across the US. “Man, I got to tell you, our live show has always been our forte. The studio work is what’s tough for us, but the live stuff is the thing we love to do. We are fortunate to have about 16 Top 40 songs throughout the history of the band, so we are able to link them all up, and take people for a ride. Everyone gets to hear their favorites and it’s a huge explosive presentation. We take everyone through the history of what we’ve been through and being a part of the backbone to rock. We are very proud of our legacy and humbled by it.” 

Barnes is truly looking forward to returning to Madison and laughed at his memory of 38 Special playing Madison years ago. “We’ve played Madison in the 80’s and 90’s and have always had a great time. One time awhile back, we were at the hotel before a show. One of crew guys at the arena told us about a girl who was backstage before the show. She was really upset that her brother had been working on a hay baler to earn enough money for a ticket to our show. She said we were his favorite band. Unfortunately, he fell off the baler, and it rolled over him in the dirt. He was in the hospital and couldn’t come to the show. So, we all went to the hospital to see him. He had tire tracks across his shoulder; thank goodness he wasn’t hurt too bad. We brought him albums, a t-shirt and took photos with him. I’m sure it was memorable for him, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten. It was the least we could do. We have always loved Madison and we are looking forward to coming back.”

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