By Steve Spears, Stuck in the ’80s host
38 Special is one of those powerful bands that dominated FM radio play in the ’80s. From “Hold On Loosely” through “Caught Up in You,” “Back Where You Belong,” “Chain Lightning” and finally “Second Chance” in the waning years of the decade, the band formed in Jacksonville, Florida, by childhood friends Don Barnes and Donnie Van Zant were a hit machine and a force to reckon with on stage.
Don Barnes joined me for a Zoom chat recently from his home in Atlanta. We talked about the upcoming voyage of The 80s Cruise, our mutual stints in Jacksonville – I spent four years working for the city’s newspaper in the early ’90s – and the band’s journey to break free of the Southern Rock sound of the 1970s and find their own direction in the ’80s. Here are some highlights. Listen to the full interview at: https://bit.ly/3ZS7855
Steve: I saw 38 Special play alongside REO Speedwagon in Clearwater, Florida back in 2007. You wore out the audience. We were beat by the time REO took the stage!
Don: All those guys, Kansas, Styx, REO, they say, “We hate following you guys!” They’re all good friends of ours. You can count on pretty much one hand all the survivors of ’80s groups. I’m talking about big guitar bands with radio hit songs and all. We’re lucky to be among some rare company there. Over the years, we never slack up, we stack up, man! That’s kind of our unwritten, unspoken rule. Put the muscle in melody, we call it. Put the snarl of the guitars in the face with a great story and good melody. We feel like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right, Steve?
I’m looking forward to the show on the cruise because I will know the word to every single song that you play most likely.
Yeah, we’re not one of those groups that play one song and then say, “Thank you very much” and then “Our next song is this…” We line them up, we push them back-to-back and just keep taking them for a ride. It’s a great job to bring that kind of joy to people. You see them high-fiving each other, singing along, sometimes you see some tears in their eyes or a song might remind them of something. But it is an emotional experience for us because we do see all that directly. It kind of gets me a little choked up every now and then.
It’s easy for us to get choked up. Those songs hit right in the old memory gut.
All those songs represented milestones in our life. “Hold On Loosely” … I wrote that with Jim Peterik and Jeff Carlisi from the band. Jim Peterik was from the band Survivor. He later had written “Eye of the Tiger” so he’s no slouch. The first time we met him, we sat at his breakfast table and we were just kind of meeting each other for the first time. He said, “So how you guys been doing?” I was going through a kind of a relationship that had gotten a little sour and I had a little notebook of titles and I said, “What is it about people, they just can’t seem to tolerate their differences, they try to change each other. What do you think about this title? Hold On Loosely.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, but don’t let go.” And that was a perfect couplet, first thing out of his mouth. So we were off to the races there.
I’m curious, when you play that song now, because of its genesis being in a time of a little bit more strife, what goes through your head?
I see the people’s faces, that’s what I see and that makes my heart sing. We were young boys with a dream. And that’s something that’s a full fleshed-out dream. It’s a big risk to take something like this. We didn’t have anything to fall back on, and we didn’t have schooling or training or anything. We had done three albums that went right over the cliff, Steve. But if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.
I started my newspaper career in your hometown of Jacksonville…
The Times-Union, yeah! Well, this is a full circle because if you remember, the top of the street was Jackson Street and there was an old warehouse there and that was our rehearsal building, right across the street from the Times-Union building.
Yeah, Lynyrd Skynyrd had bought us the sandwich shop next door and gutted it and made a little eight-track studio. So we were all working right on that corner, that’s crazy!
It’s the town that birthed Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet too. What made Jacksonville such a unique place to start a dream like that?
It was a Navy town, I guess you knew that. It’s four or five naval bases there and all the sailors would come in on ships and they’d have their leave. And so as young kids, I’m talking about Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, Ronnie Vance, and everybody played the enlisted men’s clubs at Mayport, Cecil Field, and NAS Jacksonville. So at 15 years old, you could go and play cover songs with your little neighborhood band. It was an early proving ground, a kind of a foundation to learn the craft of writing songs. Skynyrd and Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot, everybody came from that area. I guess we all owe our careers to the Navy, playing for sailors. We were up there watching them drink and fight on leave.
I had read that Ronnie Van Zant gave you some advice early on too: Don’t be a clone of something that’s already there, find your own niche.
Yeah, he was watching us come in on the tail end of the Southern rock bands, and it was kind of waning at the time by the time the ’80s came around. And he just kind of put his foot down and he said, “Stop trying to be a clone of whatever else came before you. Do what makes your heart sing.” And we took that to task. We were more melody oriented. Foreigner, Boston, and Styx, and everybody is coming up with the great arena rock. And we liked that kind of big guitars, big presentation. So we stripped it all away and came down to just eight notes. We crafted a style and a sound that actually worked.
Is there anything special planned for 2024, which marks the 50th anniversary of the band?
Yeah, we’re gonna try to change the set around and make it a celebration. Donnie has come out a few times on past shows. He had to step away. He had inner ear nerve damage after all these years, I guess you’ve read that. It was really serious. They told him that, if you continue doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna be absolutely stone deaf. He owns the trademark and I have his blessing and we’ve gone on. But he does come out every now and then for guest appearances. But yeah, we’ll have something special.
Until that happens, we’ll wait for early spring and the cruise.
We’re looking forward to it ourselves because we’re fans of a lot of those guys there. Wang Chung – I love those guys. Their shows are just wonderful and spirited. We’ll see you around there on the boat. Cruises are great, man. Everything is 13 stories high. They’ve got shopping malls and bars open all night long. It’s a wild time!
(Steve Spears is the creator and co-host of the Stuck in the ’80s podcast, the longest-running podcast about ’80s pop culture. He and co-host Brad William are the emcees for Big 80s Trivia on each voyage of The 80s Cruise. Find out more at sit80s.com.)