In the Jacksonville-born Southern rock pantheon, 38 Special falls just behind The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd and just ahead of Blackfoot and Molly Hatchet. But 38 Special realized early on that they’d have to tweak their sound to stand out. So even though the 1981 album “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys” featured a decidedly hell-raising title, it also trended toward a mainstream, arena-rock sound. Lead single “Hold On Loosely” was the band’s first No. 1 Billboard hit, its main draw coming from the combination of Don Barnes’ falsetto vocals and the triple guitar attack of Barnes, Donnie Van Zant and Jeff Carlisi. Barnes described the winning formula to Folio Weekly as “muscle and melody,” and it continues to work — since the band’s last chart-topper, 1989’s “Second Chance,” they’ve released only four new albums. But they continue to be an impressive live draw, selling out stadiums, casinos and theaters worldwide.
Folio Weekly: Take us back to 38 Special’s beginnings, Don. What were those early days like in Jacksonville?
Don Barnes: Since Jacksonville’s a Navy town, everybody played sailor clubs — Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet. When you’re 15 years old making $150 a week, that’s pretty good! So we’d play the hits of the day, learning the structures of songs; at the time, we didn’t realize we were laying the foundation for the fundamentals of songwriting. You start seeing how there’s a certain craft to putting together songs: an A section, a B section, a ramp up near the chorus, a bridge. … You start seeing how those elements make for radio-worthy songs.
F.W.: What came next?
D.B.: Then you get cocky and start thinking, “I can write my own songs.” That’s when you go starve for 10 years. [Laughs.] It’s not really something I highly recommend. But the foundation was laid at an early age. There was also a lot of camaraderie in those days. We went to school with the Skynyrd guys and Ronnie Van Zant was a big mentor for the band. He was four years older than us and told us to stay hungry, to not try and be a clone of anybody else, and to always try and put your own truth in the songs — that way, your truth couldn’t be denied. And he was right.
F.W.: So how did you guys stand out?
D.B.: We started out trying to copy what had come before us before realizing it’d already been done by the best. So we were able to look inward and see that we were more influenced by British invasion groups. We call it “muscle and melody” — the snarl of the in-your-face guitars with a good melody and story on top of it. It’s a simple formula, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
F.W.: It took a while for that formula to catch on, though, right?
D.B.: When we started out, we were a brotherhood. A band is a self-support group — a gang, almost. So we suffered, living on $2.50 a day, eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, living four guys to a hotel room. … When you suffer like that, it builds a lot of character — you’re able to celebrate the highs and the lows together.
F.W.: The highs came in quick succession after 1981’s “Hold On Loosely” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
D.B.: They did. We ran into our producer Rodney Mills when we recently got inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and he said, “It’s funny — those little songs that we cobbled together 25 years ago are still being played across the country every day.” That’s really a surprise that we hadn’t anticipated. We were the flavor of the week in the ’80s, but our goal was always to create longevity.
F.W.: How have you been able to persevere?
D.B.: We’ve always had an explosive live show, so we go out there and create a big party atmosphere, lining up our 16 hit songs like artillery and just shooting ’em down. It’s like a graph — we bring the audience up with a big opening peak, give ’em a little break in the middle and then do a big finish where we leave ’em screaming. It’s instant gratification to bring joy to people every night. It’s inevitable that you’re going to fail at first, however. Only 5 percent of what we’ve done has been a success — the other 95 percent is a struggle. But it’s that 5 percent that pays off.