Performing Live Makes Veteran Rocker Feel Young Again
By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer
Although he left the band to pursue a short lived solo career in 1987, singer songwriter and guitarist Don Barnes has been the voice of .38 Special since they formed in 1974. Alongside legendary bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, .38 Special help propel southern rock into the mainstream in the 1970’s. With fellow founding members Donnie Van Zant and Jeff Carlisi exiting the band in 2013 and 1997 respectively, Barnes remains the sole original member in .38 Special.
At 68, the Jacksonville Florida native is stoked to be fronting the band he helped form more than 47 years ago. “I told Donnie (Van Zant) many years ago, if I’m still looking at your face after 40 years I’ll be surprised. Honestly when we first started out, we were just young boys with a dream. We all had day jobs, but we hadn’t gone to college so I feel for certain none of us had backup plans.”
He adds, “Donnie and I tried seven or eight bands that amounted to nothing. When we finally got serious about making it, we knew we’d have to sacrifice. It would have to take up all our free time, which put a hurting on relationships and other things. But that was our dream. And 47 years later I’m still out there living my dream.”
While Skynyrd and The Allman Bros. paved the way for the Wild Eyed Southern Boys, it was .38 Special who continued to keep southern rock alive and well into the MTV generation. Their catalog of songs include easily recognizable hits such as ‘Hold On Loosely’, ‘Caught Up In You’, ‘Back Where You Belong’, Teacher Teacher’, ‘If I’d Been The One’, ‘Like No Other Night’ ‘Twentieth Century Fox’, ‘Fantasy Girl’, ‘Rockin’ Into the Night’ and ‘Wild Eyed Southern Boys’.
Much to the delight of Barnes, all ten songs remain fixtures on classic rock radio formats. “A lot of what we learned came from Ronnie VanZant (Skynyrd). He said you have to invest yourself into each song. Early on we were kind of copying what was happening musically, but when we found our signature sound things began to take off for us. Ronnie said ‘it all comes from the truth, and the truth can’t be denied’. He adds, “.38 Special is a muscles and melody band. We’re an in your face guitar band’.
During Barnes departure .38 Special had their biggest chart success with the soft rock ballad, ‘Second Chance’ which topped the Adult Contemporary, becoming the bands only number one song, and spending 22 weeks in the Hot 100. The 1989 hit was reworked from an earlier 80’s title ‘I Never Wanted Anyone Else But You,’ one Barnes originally thought was not quite right for the southern rockers. “On the plus side, it did bring some new fans for the band.”
Over .38 Special’s career they’ve released 15 albums, many garnering gold and platinum status, but the life blood of the band remain their relentless commitment to tour, playing to hundreds of thousands of fans year in and year out. “Thankfully we’re not one of those bands fans lost interest in. Aside from the pandemic last year, we’ve gotten used to playing 100 plus shows a year. We definitely play off the crowd. When you see people in the audience high-fiving one another, because we are playing songs that mean something to them is very rewarding. It makes you want to play with conviction.”
With unplanned downtime, how did Barnes fill his time during the pandemic, especially in 2020 when tours were cancelled. “We did some shows sporadically, but it had been a long time since I had a full year off. We worked on some new material. There are 14 guys in our crew, and we did our best to keep them all on the payroll.” On a more personal note, “My wife and I moved into a new home in Atlanta, so that kept us busy. And of course I have a studio in my home, so I spent some time there.”
Although it was originally recorded in 1989, his solo release ‘Ride the Storm’ was not released until 2017 on Melodic Rock Records, with the title track and ‘Looking For You’ having a harder southern rock sound. The digitally remastered and expanded two CD edition is available through various online retailers including Amazon. “I was going for a little harder edge, something to separate me from what we had done in .38.
Barnes admits he celebrated when his solo album became available. “It took a record label out of Australia to make it happen. It was a long time coming, but when it did my wife and I cracked open a bottle of champagne to celebrate.” The album met with great reviews. “It received five stars in Germany, and did well on several rock radio charts. After that many years, it was just nice to have fans of mine and .38 to be able to hear something I poured my heart and soul into.”
With .38 Special pretty much at their peak in the mid 1980’s what lead Barnes to fly the coop. “There were a couple of reasons. Certainly it wasn’t anything to do with turmoil in the band. We all got along well even after I left. Basically I thought we were doing the same album over and over again. The demand for recording new product was insane from the record company. You’d be on tour and six months later they expected a new album.”
He goes on to say, “After ten straight years, I felt burnt out. I had to get off that treadmill. I didn’t have a personal life. I needed the down time, and of course part of me wanted to see if I could do something on my own. A&M offered me a solo album, so I thought I’d give it a shot.”
How is it his solo effort never saw the light of day after it was recorded. “A&M got sold to Polygram, and somehow my record got shelved. There is a lot of politics in this industry, and now more than ever it’s ruled by the almighty dollar and suits”.
Now that he’s the lone original member in the band does Barnes perform any of his previously un-released songs in .38 Special concerts. “I’ll play ‘Ride The Storm’ and ‘Feelin’ Stronger Every Day’, which is an old Chicago song. I’ve loved that song ever since I heard it back in the early 70’s. I just knew it would be great arranged as a guitar version. Plus we do some movies songs. All total it’s 95 minutes of in your face rock n’ roll. Fans leave fully rocked out when they leave a .38 Special show.”
.38 Special had mild success prior to the 1980’s but it was ‘Hold On Loosely’ that brought them nationwide acclaim. Co-written by Barnes, Carlisi, and Jim Peterik of Survivor fame, the track has a unique back story. .38 Special have the rare distinction of being the 13th artist to have their video played on MTV during the video music channel’s August 1, 1981 debut.
‘Hold On Loosely’ the first track from their fourth studio album ‘Wild-Eyed Southern Boys’. Released as the lead single from the album, the song reached No. 3 on the Billboard Rock Tracks chart and No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Barnes recalls having to film videos during the early 80’s to accompany their latest singles. “The format (MTV) was new to every artist. They literally filmed us playing live, and that became our video. It got a lot of MTV airplay because they didn’t have as many videos to play. It helped get our name out, and fans got to see what we looked like. After that we had to shoot a video for every single that got sent to radio.”
Looking back on the .38’s historic run from opening act to headliner, Barnes recalls several interesting moments in time. “In 1978 we opened for KISS. Talk about an odd pairing. We were still basically unknown to a lot people. I remember being on stage and looking out, maybe 80 rows deep and you have all these KISS faces staring at you.”
Barnes does recall a humorous backstage story. “Back then KISS was very secretive about their identities. I remember walking by and Gene’s door was open a little bit, just enough for me to see in, and he’s on this pedestal and they’re putting on his costume, with wings and all. He looks over at me and says ‘Can you believe all I have to go through to entertain our fans.”
Coming full circle, Barnes recollects being on the flip side of coin. “A lot of bands opened for us over the years, especially in mid 80’s. We had gained quite a following in the northeast, and I remember they booked us to play at the Meadowlands Arena (NJ) in 1986. The promoter came back and said are you sure you want to play the arena. We don’t want you guys to play in front of a smaller crowd. We said yes we want to play. Long story short we sold out 24K tickets.”
The opening band just happened to be upstart New Jersey natives Bon Jovi. “They toured with us for several weeks, before they got pulled off. Apparently their album (Slippery When Wet) was soaring up the charts. I can’t tell you how many bands that opened for us went on to huge success. Certainly Bon Jovi did.”
With all of .38 Special’s staying power and chart success, are they worthy of making it into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame?’. “It’s not something we concentrate on. Occasionally you hear rumblings about it, but there are lots of band not in the Hall of Fame, many we’ve toured with over the years. We’re in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and that’s nice. But at this point in our history there is little emphasis on being asked to join the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. If it happens, great. I feel like we’ve already been victorious, just being out here 47 years.”
While he admits to never having a secondary plan, Barnes does shed a few ideas if rock n’ roll hadn’t worked out. “There was no real back plan. I literally had to make it. Even when we were just playing clubs early on, I always felt we’d get to the next level. But somewhere in the back of my mind I told myself, if I don’t make it by 28 maybe I’d like to do film editing.” He turned 28 in 1980. “We were making good strides by then, had songs on the radio, and were just a few steps away from going over big. So I never had to rely on any alternative plan.”
Barnes who will turn 69 later this year, sees no reason to slow down. “I consider it a challenge to keep pressing on. I love touring. I’m living my dream. Playing 100 shows a year is perfect for me. I get a rush from the fans we see year in and year out, and honestly when I’m out there on stage in front of thousands of fans, I feel like that like I’m 19 or 20 again.”
Fans who want to relive their glory years and the songs of .38 Special can see Don Barnes and the band, when they perform live at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Thursday August 26th. Visit the coliseum website or box office for tickets and details.
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