Don Barnes Interview: Legendary Rockers 38 Special Release 'Live from Texas'
Don Barnes is one of the founding members of the southern rock band 38 Special and performed lead vocals on many of the group’s biggest hits including “Rockin’ into the Night,” “Hold on Loosely,” “Caught Up in You,” “If I’d Been the One,” “Back Where You Belong,” and “Like No Other Night.”
The Jacksonville, Florida native left the band in 1987, with the song “Back to Paradise” (from the film Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise) being his final hit with 38 Special. He released a self-titled solo album in 1989, featuring many of the top session musicians of all time such as Jeff Porcaro and Dann Huff.
"I gave him his moment with his son, but then I stood over Ronnie’s body and it was such an emotional moment to see him lying there."
Barnes rejoined 38 Special in the 1990s and has remained with them ever since.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Don, are you on the road today?
Don Barnes: I’m in South Dakota.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you affected by Hurricane Irene?
Don Barnes: I’ve got the house in Atlanta and the home in Charlottesville, Virginia and it’s headed right for there. I’ve got a little eight year old and I told his mom to pack up the car and move west. Her dad lives in West Virginia so I said, “Go to the mountains.”
We’ve had a heavy heat wave out here, 9:00 at night going on stage with a 105 heat index. That’s ridiculous. All you can do is kind of keep your legs apart like an A frame and hope you don’t fall over (laughs). When you sing it’s like hyperventilating. You’re taking real quick short breaths between lines, but then you get dizzy (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let me ask you the obvious question first. Why make a live album right now?
Don Barnes: Actually, the initial idea was to just have it available at shows, put it at the merchandise tables for people to take the party home with them. We brought our digital equipment out here and recorded a few shows. When we listened back it was actually much better than we thought we played. We were better than we thought we were (laughs). So we were able to glean some best performances through several cities across Texas.
We have our studio in Atlanta and we decided to start utilizing some of this new technology of audio equipment that we put together. We made it sound like you’re right there in the crowd sitting in front of the band. You can hear the crowd behind you and around you. It’s a real surround sound type thing.
The live album we did a long time ago … we were kind of at the mercy of the weather that afternoon and rain was blowing sideways. We only had the option of using one performance and it was a little shaky, a little rough around the edges. The mix was not the greatest. We love to have these classic songs kind of shine like they should.
Donnie and Johnny have a country career and a group called Van Zant. Johnny Van Zant is the singer for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Well, Johnny comes out and does a little cameo in the middle of a song. We actually did their song, “Help Somebody” off the album Get Right with the Man. Johnny comes out and the crowd goes wild. So it just kind of takes you for a ride. We wanted to commit that show to a recording because we revamped the whole show since then.
We took a couple of rehearsal days in Nashville and changed everything around, put a medley in of secondary songs from movies and things like that. Anyway, we were really happy with the way it came out and decided to put artwork on the album. It’s a kind of celebration of all these years of brotherhood we shared. We were like neighborhood guys, you know? It has been a long journey and we’re still doing 100 cities a year.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve been together over 35 years.
Dan Barnes: Yeah, we started when we were three years old. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why do you think the band has endured for so long?
Don Barnes: It’s just the thing of keeping the standards high. We’ve always kept that underdog spirit that comes from being from the South. We weren’t from New York or LA. I think many of those groups had that progressive thing of keeping the standards high and just not slacking up.
We found also that the fact that we’ve actually been around so long brings more people in because they think, “Well gee, they’re obviously doing something right because they’ve been around all this time so let’s go check ‘em out.” We gain new fans like that by just the fact that we’ve been around long enough to garner respect. Many fans grew up and played this music for their kids so you see a lot of 20 year olds as fans too.
The element of being onstage and seeing that instant reaction, seeing fans sing along, clapping, seeing tears in their eyes because it reminds them of something special … all of that really effects us. It makes you really want to play the songs with the same amount of passion and conviction as the first time you recorded them. If we were just going through the motions it could be so boring, but we actually get off on the whole element of being up on stage and seeing that reaction from people. It sparks us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The band’s music changed from Southern rock to more of a west coast flavor in the 80s.
Don Barnes: It was kind of a conscious effort to try to not get cloned with someone else. In the 70s we started out as Southern rock with country tones. But it had been done by the best – Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and Charlie Daniels. That was something we got from Ronnie Van Zant long ago, “Don’t try to be a clone of someone else because it’s just going to be a copy. Try to put your own influences and own truth into the songs.” There were many things we learned from him in that sense.
We searched inward and realized that we were big Beatles fans. We had many different influences than just being from the South and we loved great melodies and harmonies. So we crafted a little style of our own. There were failures in the beginning of these careers. It’s not something I’d exactly recommend to somebody else. But if you’re going to try to eat from playing music, it’s a tough road and you have to learn to accept a tremendous amount of failure. You swallow it at first because nobody knows who you are. Nobody cares whether you live or die so you have to keep pushing forward, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and trying again.
Don Barnes: It was actually our third album, Rockin’ into the Night, that cracked the door open a little bit on radio. People think that was our first album, but there were many years of struggle before that. “Rockin’ into the Night” was kind of a regional hit and has since become an anthem-like song for the band. We backed it up with “Hold on Loosely” and that blew the door wide open. Then we tried to keep following up with one song after another that radio would play because that was your life’s blood back then. Now radio is so fractured it’s a tough end road.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You and Donnie formed 38 Special in the mid 70s?
Don Barnes: Yeah, we’d been in about 15 other bands before that (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who decided on the name?
Don Barnes: It came from a story. We started like any other band and just practiced in garages, but you’d get the cops called on you for being too loud. We found these old dilapidated buildings to rehearse in while we had day jobs. After our jobs we’d all gather together, throw in some money for beer and gas, and get out there in the woods and practice. We had to fortify these buildings because somebody could break in and steal the equipment.
One building was an old auto parts condemned warehouse and we had to fortify the front wooden door. It looked like a vault after we got through with it. We put rebar and 2 x 4s and a cinderblock on the door. But, eventually, being as irresponsible as we were, we lost the key to the lock. We ended up climbing up an old rickety ladder in the back to get through a window in the top of the building.
We were out there about two months when there was a raid on the place. I guess the cops heard the noise and music coming from this old building and figured big parties were going on every night. When we stopped a song we could hear banging on that big front door and the bullhorns. We ran to the door and yelled that we didn’t have a key to the lock and that we couldn’t open the door.
One of the cops out there, like in the old wild west, said, “I’ve got a 38 Special that will do the talking for me.” We were just a bunch of unruly guys back then and thought that was a funny story. Eventually we got a club gig down in Gainesville, Florida and didn’t have a name for the band so we said, “Why don’t we just call it 38 Special for now and we’ll come up with something better later.” But we just actually never got around to changing it (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I imagine Ronnie Van Zant’s death was very tough on his brother Donnie and the whole band.
Don Barnes: Ronnie was a big mentor to us. He was four years older and sort of looked out after us. Lynyrd Skynyrd was already on their way. We saw that if they could do it, it could be done. We were actually rehearsing in our old building and were in the middle of a song when a couple of guys who worked for us busted in the door. We stopped playing and they were just ashen faced.
They said that Skynyrd’s plane had gone down. Of course, Donnie took off and went to his house. We were in denial at that point and kept thinking, “Well, everybody’s all right, right?” That’s the first thing you think, “Everybody’s okay.” They said, “No, everybody’s not okay. There have been fatalities.”
I went to Donnie’s house later that night. They were sitting around waiting on the phone call from the Sheriff’s department. Everybody was in denial and thinking, “Everybody’s okay. Ronnie’s going to be fine.” Nobody knew. Then they got the call that he was one of the fatalities. It was the end of the world for everybody.
Donnie stayed there with his mother and I flew out on a little private plane with his dad to help arrange things. All the way there, Lacy (Donnie and Ronnie’s dad) kept saying, “No, they’ve made a mistake. My son is not dead.” We got there at the little airport building and the guy was trying to give me the directions to the funeral home.
I remember Lacy saying, “So where are we going first, Don?” They had a couple of limos out there. He kept saying, “Where are we going first?” I said, “Well Lacy, we’ve got to go to the funeral home first.” That’s when he knew. I gave him his moment with his son, but then I stood over Ronnie’s body and it was such an emotional moment to see him lying there.
I flashed to a time that Ronnie had signed for an amplifier for me when I was about 19. I was married with a baby and in poverty. I had an old amp that blew up and Donnie had asked Ronnie if he would help me out. I actually met Ronnie down at the music store. He was headed out on tour but took the time to cosign for credit for an amplifier. I’ll be forever eternally grateful for that because I would have probably given up at that point. I had no hope.
When I was in the funeral home there I thought, “Here’s a man who helped me out when I was down. From here on out I’m giving 150% for him.” Those are the kinds of things you draw strength from. You can either let it take you down and get weak from it or you can draw strength from it. 1977 was a year of many funerals and much sorrow, but we picked ourselves up and made good for it.
We dedicated albums later on to Ronnie’s memory, but we realized we didn’t have our mentor anymore so we had to take everything we had learned so far and apply them. That was what Ronnie did. He approached all of that stuff like a football team. He didn’t just play around in a band. He went out there to be triumphant every night and to blow everybody off the stage. God help who had to follow them on stage. That was the attitude we took.
We went out there and burned that stage up! If we were the opening act at 7:00 the band following us would have a tough time. We took Ronnie’s attitude and spirit. We took it forward and look where it got us (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you rely on spiritual faith?
Don Barnes: Well, yeah, we all grew up in that era. My dad was the music director at a Baptist church and that’s where I got my early music experience, the first inspirations of music as a kid. But, it really was just the living example of what those guys did. We were lucky to be a part of that history.
Skynyrd was called One Percent back then and they were the best band in Jacksonville. I remember riding my bike to Allen Collins’ house and learning guitar licks from him at 13 years old. We were trading licks and listening to blues albums from England. I look back and realize that I was right in the middle of that history making stuff. They were a teen club band. We all played in teen clubs and sailor clubs. This was a Navy town. There are four Navy bases there and that’s what we all did at 15 years old.
We made $150 bucks a week playing at sailor’s clubs. We were learning the fundamentals of songwriting and the structures of songs and the craft at early ages. Of course you get cocky enough to say, “I can write my own songs.” Then you go and starve for the next ten years (laughs). But, if it was easy I guess everybody would be doing it, right?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of songwriting, I interviewed Jim Peterik last October. Is he still connected to the band?
Don Barnes: Yeah, we still get together. We’re doing 100 cities a year so it’s hard to get time, but I take flights up there and we write down some ideas. Jim’s a brilliant guy. He’s a 30-year friend and we think the world of him and his wife Karen. I think he’s reliving a childhood now with the purple hair and stripes in his head and driving his Lamborghini around (laughs). I said, “Buddy, you deserve every drop of it.”
Jim was the guy that I went to when I was having problems with my marriage. It was falling apart. At the time I thought, “Why can’t people give each other the space to be themselves and don’t try to control the other person, just celebrate their differences?” Writing songs is a very insecure thing. You have to get one other person to say, “Yeah, that’s not bad.” Then you’re off to the races. But it’s very insecure when it’s just your idea.
Anyway, I told Jim about the situation with my marriage and told him I had a title but didn’t know how to place it just right, but “What do you think about hold on loosely?” He said, “Oh yeah, but don’t let go.” And it was just like that. We wrote the whole thing like that, but I credit Jim for so much more than any of us. We’re all collaborators. We all look at ourselves as maybe not so great songwriters, but we’re great collaborators. Great collaborating is an art in itself. You throw ideas back and forth and make it grow.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is your favorite music, Don?
Don Barnes: I have plenty of favorites. Nowadays I’m into the old up-tempo blues. I’ve got my iPod just packed with all of that stuff. It’s joy to me and sounds like a party. I can crank it up in a hotel room.
Growing up I was big on the big guitar heroes – Leslie West of Mountain and Mick Ralphs from Bad Company. Mick would make that guitar have such a personality. It would speak that whole song just from a riff or something. But, Clapton was the god for me when I was a kid. I had the posters on the walls taped right to the sheetrock. My dad would be mad because it would pull the finish off the sheetrock (laughs). I had Clapton posters all over my room and a guitar was always in my hand.
I had the pleasure of having Bad Company open for us later on in the 80s and here’s Mick Ralphs, one of the major influences for me, and I couldn’t hardly speak to him for three or four days (laughs). Finally, I had the nerve to say, “Man, I just want to thank you. You don’t know what it has meant to me to follow everything you’ve done.” He’s like, “Oh right, thanks mate.” I said, “No, no, I’m serious. I really want you to know.” “All right mate, thanks.” I wanted to say, “You just don’t know what it meant to me.” Of course, we love ZZ Top and all those guys. We toured with them. Billy Gibbons is one of the greats in the world.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any plans for a new studio album?
Don Barnes: Yes. We’ve got several projects in the works here. We actually did a soundtrack to a movie named Super Troopers years ago. We were able to do all the sequential music and we wrote a song called “Trooper with an Attitude” and that’s in the show too. We are entertaining some offers to do some soundtracks.
We also have two other projects. One is new rock stuff, same kind of style as before, good songs. We’re going to get back with Jim Peterik again and recreate a lot of that stuff. The other one is we took the liberty to take some of the classic songs and redo them in different keys and slow them down or change the groove or whatever. “Caught Up in You” has kind of a world music beat to it and “If I’d Been the One” is a beautiful ballad.
Instead of just doing the Unplugged Series where the guys sit on stools and play them exactly how they did electronically which is just kind of boring to us, we took poetic license and changed these songs around. It’s a very interesting project. We’re really happy at the way it has come out. That should be out next year.
In the meantime, we’ve got Live from Texas out now. People can put headphones on, put ear buds in, and it feels like you’re right there. Even the cover looks like it’s drawing you in. It’s taken from the back end of a huge amphitheater crowd and we’re very tiny in the picture. We’re way up there, but the picture draws you in like you want to be a part of that event. That’s how we wanted the listener to feel, like there is a party going on.
You know, you might as well give away new music on the Internet because we feel like the more ears you have on your music, the more eyes. They’ll tell ten other people. You’ve got more people coming to shows, buying beer and t-shirts. It perpetuates everything moving forward.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): After all of these years, Don, what keeps driving you to perform and do you foresee a day when you might give it up?
Don Barnes: We’ve always joked that we’d do this until the wheels feel off (laughs). It’s the same spirit that we had as kids. It was our dream. It’s the old thing about being careful because you might get what you wish for. But, as kids we saw Jimi Hendrix and all these groups playing at a baseball park in Jacksonville. It was the greatest thing in the world to be up on that stage and be able to rock crowds and get the cheers and all the instant gratification from it and the reaction from crowds. That’s a spirit that’s hard to set down.
You can’t just lay it down and go, “Okay, I’ve had enough of that.” You never get enough of it. The traveling beats you up but the time on stage is great. We’re able to generate that spirit and we understand the groove. Young bands play everything ninety miles a minute thinking that’s high energy, but the strength of it is to relax and let the backbeat happen. It’s the greatest job in the world to bring joy to people every night so it would be hard to say, “Okay, I’ve had enough of bringing joy to people.”
It’s just a fun thing. We all get along. The band is like a marriage. You’re around six guys 24 hours a day so we always joke and say we can’t find no love in this band because everybody is cutting each other down and joking with each other (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But you’d rather be joking than get a “divorce,” right?
Don Barnes: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a boy’s club, you know?
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