With a career spanning more than 40 years, 38 Special has sold more than 20 million records thanks to hits like “Second Chance,” “Rockin’ Into The Night” and “Hold On Loosely.” That’s why, when pop artist Rachel Platten canceled on this year’s Great Frederick Fair festivities, the minds responsible for bringing music to the event looked no further than the Jacksonville-based rock act. We recently caught up with singer/guitarist Don Barnes by the phone to talk about breaking into the mainstream, the status of his band’s former singer Donnie Van Zant, and how the group keeps its concerts exciting after all these years.
You’re celebrating 41 years this year. How did you decide that you wanted to give your life to music?
My dad was a music director at church years ago. So, I had the influence of some of the chord changes of that music, and then Jacksonville, Florida, is a Navy town — there’s four naval bases there. All of us kids — Gregg Allman, Ronnie Van Zant — we played sailor’s clubs at about 14, 15 years old. A hundred dollars a week is big money for a 15-year-old. We learned all the songs of the day, the hits. Santana. Three Dog Night. Beatles stuff. You learn songs’ structures, what works on radio, the payoff, the chorus. Then you get cocky and you start thinking you can write your own songs and that’s when you go starve for 10 years. You get the bug and you have to strongly believe in yourself to go professional. You fall on your face many times and you gotta pick yourself up and try it again.
It took you guys a few records before you received mainstream success. Was there a turning point? I know you started working with Jim Peterik from Survivor. He started co-writing some of the songs. Was that something that really helped you guys break through?
It was. He had a hit song at 17 years old, so he’s one of these guys who’s just obsessed with writing. He still does it all day, every day. None of us were that obsessed. He’d go to an anniversary dinner with his wife and take his notebook and his tape recorder. He doesn’t want to miss one thing. One thing he said was, ‘You gotta pay attention to the radio in your head. Just let it flow, even when you’re at sleep at night. Just hear how it’s supposed to go.’ We learned a lot from him. Great, old friend. We wrote “Hold On Loosely” at his kitchen table. We would always sit and talk about relationships. I was having problems with an old marriage way back then and I said, “What about the people who can’t let each other be themselves and grow? It’s hard to breathe? What do you think about this title, ‘Hold On Loosely?’” And he said, “Oh yeah, but don’t let go.” It was the perfect couplet. We never really claimed to be good songwriters, but we’re great collaborators.
2004 was the last studio record you guys did. It was “Drive Train,” I believe. That featured Donnie Van Zant and I know he’s had to leave with health issues. Do you envision you guys trying to do another record someday?
Yeah, we have our own studio in Atlanta. We’ve done some things, we have some good new songs, some basic tracks. We’ve kind of turned into a live business — we do 100 cities a year, so trying to get studio time is a little hard. We’ve done some writing with Donnie, but he had some inner ear nerve damage. He couldn’t be around tractor-trailers or generators or snare drums blasting or guitars. Years ago, he would want us to aim the amps at him so he could hear the guitars and I guess it might have taken its toll after all these years.
Would he be able to play in the studio with you guys?
Yeah, we would do it at a low volume in the headphones for him. But he even talked about coming out on the road and doing an acoustic set or something and the doctors told him, “No, because you’re going to be around volume.” One thing he loves to do is get on a riding lawn mower and mow his acreage out there, and he can’t do that because it’s sustained volume. He needs ear plugs and aircraft headphones.
You’re coming up to Frederick. I took a look at some recent setlists and noticed you’ve been covering The East Beats song “Good Times.”
Yeah! We love that song.
How did you come up with the idea to cover that song? That’s sort of an obscure song to do and it’s a neat choice.
It is. First of all, we revamped the whole show. It’s a whole new show now. We take the crowd for a ride. We do some little snippets of a Bad Company song or a ZZ Top song — it’s all about the energy level. We put that in there because I always liked that song. I heard it back in the ‘80s and it was a one-listen song. It was everything in your face and I was like, “We’re going to do that because nobody else has even thought of doing that.” People, it slays them. We look at a live show like a graph. Start real big and you keep going. Then somewhere around the middle, you give the audience a break with “Second Chance,” the big popular ballad. Then we just keep climbing until an exhausted finish. An hour and forty minutes later, we’re exhausted. The crowd is exhausted with us. And it’s more bang for the buck, I guess.
Are there touring partners you’ve had through your career who you’ve enjoyed touring with more than others?
There’s been so many. Styx. REO Speedwagon. Bad Company — we did a lot of shows in the ‘80s with them. AC/DC, they opened for us. Bon Jovi, they opened for us. We always joke that all these guys who opened for us went on to be huge rock gods. Years ago, everybody was trying to kick each other’s ass, being competitive. Now, they’re all our friends. We feel like we’re survivors. There’s mutual respect. We hang out, jam, sit in with those guys. It’s all a good time now.
What do you hope the legacy of the band will be to your fans when it’s all said and done?
We’ve always tried to keep our standards really high. We were painfully honest with each other when we made records and we tried to bring the best to people. We’re still striving to do the best we can. At some point, all the shows, the buses and planes take a toll, but it’s a great job. I can’t complain. It’s a great time bringing happiness to people. That’s really what we’re all about.