Back when Lynyrd Skynyrd was the southern rock ‘n’ roll band to beat, 38 Special followed them out of working-class Jacksonville. Same look, same attitude, same sound … and 38’s lead singer Donnie Van Zant was actually the younger brother of Ronnie Van Zant, the enigmatic frontman for the very successful Skynyrd.
That was the mid 1970s. As Lynyrd Skynyrd was notching hit after hit and playing sellout stadium shows, 38 Special was struggling.
“When you start out you’re kind of emulating what came before you,” says Don Barnes, one of 38 Special’s founding guitarists. “We were trying to do Skynyrd, or Charlie Daniels or Marshall Tucker. People were saying ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd Junior’ and all that. We were trying to find a sound, a style that was different.”
Barnes, the sole original member of 38 Special, brings the band to a socially-distanced Ruth Eckerd Hall Dec. 9. After more than 40 years spent on the road, he’s only played about 10 shows in 2020 (for one of them, the band was hired by a rich guy in Michigan to play in a big field for his wife’s 50th birthday party).
“We’re in the people-gathering business,” he says. “It’s been different for us, but we’re looking forward to getting back to it.”
It’s common for bands of this vintage to have just one or two original members in the lineup, playing the old hits and keeping the flame alive for the faithful.
In many cases, the “new edition” can barely lay claim to a connection with the classic lineup.
Barnes, however, was the lead singer on “Hold on Loosely,” “Caught Up in You,” “Rockin’ Into the Night,” “If I’d Been the One” and “Back Where You Belong,” the signature 38 Special songs.
So he’s the guy.
In the early days, he explains, “Donnie was the one singing all the songs. And he was the one who suggested I sing. It wasn’t any competition. We were behind the 8-ball. We had two albums out and we were going to get dropped by the record company. So we had to look and be painfully honest with ourselves.
“It turned out Donnie had more of an earthy voice. It wasn’t so relate-able at radio. And I had the more melodic voice that they liked. It didn’t matter who carried the ball, as long as we won as a team.”
And Ronnie Van Zant, not long before his death in 1977, also had a strong hand in changing the fortunes of 38 Special.
“Ronnie came to us and said ‘Quit trying to be a clone of what’s already out there.’ And that was just a great big lightbulb. He said ‘Stop doing that, because you’re not going to get anywhere. What made your heart sing?’
“We were fans of the British invasion, more melody, muscle and that kind of thing. Animals and Beatles stuff. So we just re-fashioned it all. We were pretty accomplished guitar players, and we’d been trying to put the kitchen sink in there. So we just stripped it all down.”
Once 38 Special found its groove, with strong pop/rock songs written by Barnes and Illinois scribe Jim Peterik (who penned “Eye of the Tiger,” among others), the game changed. The band’s albums Wild-Eyed Southern Boys, Special Forces and Tour de Force each sold more than a million copies.
They soldiered on, even after the music business changed, and the hits stopped coming, after even after Donnie Van Zant’s retirement from road work, due to progressive hearing loss, in 2013.
The musicians playing behind him in today’s 38 Special, Barnes insists, are peerless.
These days, 38 Special is a brand, a corporation co-owned by Barnes and Van Zant, who still write songs together.
“Donnie and I had been in 10 or 12 bands before 38 Special,” Barnes recalls. “Then we’d go off and I’d go dig palm tree holes, or drive trucks, and he went and worked for the railroad. He was making eyeglass at Bausch & Loam, I remember that.
“It’s only right that the two guys who drove around at night, looking for shacks to practice in, would end up with the ownership.”
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