Interview with Don Barnes from .38 Special: Finding The Fountain Of Youth

Active since 1974, hard rockers .38 Special are still going strong with a full head of steam. Led by Don Barnes and Donnie Van Zant, the group went on to become one of the biggest bands in the ‘80s. From 1981 to 1987, the group released five albums, with four of them going platinum and another garnering gold. But it’s not like they’ve fallen off the face of the Earth since then. In fact, they’ve released several CDs, including Drivetrain, which in 2004, was heavily featured in the movie Super Troopers. With a new disc in the works, the band is showing no signs of calling it quits.

The southern rockers will be playing at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, NJ, on Saturday, May 7. The comical yet courteous vocalist/guitarist Don Barnes checked in from Virginia for the following phone conversation.

Currently, how focused are you and the band when it comes to touring?

Oh man, we still do 100 cities a year. We’re still out there every year. You know, there was a period of the longevity we achieved back then we didn’t realize it was going to carry that long into it, but you know, that was our goal in the first place. We were kind of the flavor of the week back so long ago, so we understand how the light shines on you for a while, then it’s going to shine on someone else. But we’re very fortunate to have songs that have had the legs to carry into the future and radio stations still play those songs all over the country.

We played in Atlanta, where we did all those records, and the producer came out. We haven’t seen him in 20 years or so, and he said ‘Can you believe all those songs we cobbled together?’ Because we were kind of all green at the time and we were doing the best we could to put something out there. You have to accept a lot of failure first and he was just remarking on how much they carried into the future. That’s the thing with groups today: they don’t realize that inevitably, you’re going to fail for a while and people aren’t prepared for that. I guess if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Are you doing any special, out of the ordinary songs on your upcoming tour?

It’s a long history of everything you want to hear through the history of the band. We even put some melodies together of secondary songs from movies. We did a full movie soundtrack to the movie Super Troopers, it was a few years ago and older ones, “Teacher, Teacher,” from the movie Teachers. And “Back To Paradise” from Revenge Of The Nerds. And then we actually do have new material.

Actually, Donnie had the good fortune to have a country music career with his brother Johnnie, called Van Zant. They had a big hit song called “Get Right With The Man,” and so we put that into the show, too. We worked it out ourselves, kind of an electric version of it. It’s a little bit of every kind of emotion because some of our songs are aggressive and in your face. It’s hard, powerful—“Chain Lightning,” those songs, and other ones are a little bit more romantic, I guess, “Caught Up In You” and “Hold On Loosely.”

What is your favorite song to perform live?

I think it would probably be “Chain Lightning” because we recorded kind of an epic thing. We wanted all the big sound effects and all, but we were big fans of like, Bad Company— groups like that back in the old days—and “Chain Lightning” kind of broke through with big, fat guitars and we just liked the passion and the fire.

You’re going to be playing Springstock 2011 in Lakewood, NJ with Edgar Winter. Have you ever done a show with him before?

Oh yeah, we’ve done a lot of shows. I know Edgar personally. We’ve done some personal appearance things to together—Edgar and I. But he’s been rockin’ since the early ‘70s. I told him, I used to drive a delivery truck and listen to him on the radio (laughs). We’ve done a lot of shows over the years together and it’s a big night of rocking evenings, with the attitudes and aggressiveness. And it’s a good time.

How was it touring with Lynyrd Skynyrd over the years?

They’re kind of the neighborhood guys, you know. We all came from Jacksonville, Florida, so we grew up with the original guys. A lot of them are not here today, most of them are gone, but we certainly took influence from Ronnie Van Zant. He was a big mentor for the band. He was about four years older than the rest us and you can just see the guy comes from the wrong side of the tracks and he makes the whole world listen to him because he’s got that fire. He wouldn’t back down from many things. That was our approach over the years, as we took a lot of that influence, getting up there [on stage] and not being afraid to project and really bowl over the crowd. Back when we were opening shows, we had the attitude of ‘God help whoever has to follow us, because we’re going to set this place on fire, raise the roof on the place’ and that’s the attitude they had. It’s kind of like a football team, you go out there to win and we go out there to win every night.

Is there any venue you like to play at more than others?

There’s been so many over the years. We’ve been around the world, you know, play guitar, see the world (laughs). But there have been great venues. The Meadowlands actually stands out for us, because there was a story that’s one of our favorites. Back in the late ‘80s we were playing all over the country and we had handlers, accountants and people tell us ‘Don’t go in there and try to headline a big place like the Meadowlands.’ I think it held 24,000 people. We felt like we had been up in that area, we built a fan base and laid the groundwork for fans to come out and buy tickets to come see us.

That was the old school way to do it. You kept hitting these cities one after another, keep coming back and maybe play the middle slot with another group or something. You start out doing the 7 o’clock show and then you play at 8:30 or whatever. We kept doing that over and over in the Northern Virginia area and we felt at that time to headline the Meadowlands, and they said ‘Eh, I don’t know, you don’t want to embarrass yourself. You don’t want to go out there and have the house sell tickets.’ We kind of took a risk and we told all those guys we feel we could do it because we had a lot of faith and fans. And we went in there and buddy, 24,000 people came out and sold the place out. It was a real triumphant benchmark in our lives.

What has been your most memorable moment performing on stage?

Probably, when somebody trips or falls or something (laughs). Back in the ‘80s when we were all younger, everybody was running up ramps and jumping around, and there were all those kinds of incidents where your feet get too far ahead of you. We used to have a little unspoken rule that if somebody fell down, we would all just go down (laughs). So people thought it was part of the show, so we would [lie] on our back and play guitar for a second.

Do you have any idea how long the band will keep touring and playing?

We have a line that we’re going to do it until the wheels fall off (laughs)! There is no better way to have your life go by then just going out and following the dream you had as young guys. We were, like I said, a little pack of neighborhood guys and we’re still out there. I joke with [Donnie Van Zant] saying, ‘Man, only if I would have know that 35 years later, I would still be looking into your face’ (laughs). But we’ve been able to find tolerance with each other, and we really do have mutual respect. After all these years it sounds like a candy coated story but it really is a marriage.

We’ve spent more time together with each other than with our own wives and of course, this band has outlasted a few of these guys marriages (laughs). But again, we have a good time and as long as we’re having a good time, that’s what it’s all about. We’ll just do it until we can’t do it anymore but right now, we’re still as strong as ever. People are still amazed by that. They come up like, ‘Wow. You guys haven’t missed a lick. You guys are just as tight, just as forceful and everything.’ We don’t slack up, we stack up. That’s our motto.

Any plans for after the tour is over?

We all kind of go our separate ways. A lot of us are big, deep-sea fisherman. We do things in our off time—I like to snow ski. I grew up in Florida so I never learned to snow ski until about 15 years ago. A lot of these guys are bikers. Our drummer has a big Harley and these guys are dirt bikers and I tell them, ‘You got to watch your hands, watch your limbs, you’re going to need those things’ (laughs). They get kind of nutty, but we find our things to do. I have a boat and just to be out on the water is a whole different reality. There’s no traffic, there’s no crowds, there’s no big, giant 50-foot tall PA systems (laughs). You’re just out there drifting so it’s a good escape for me.

.38 Special will be playing at FirstEnergy Park, in Lakewood, NJ, on Saturday, May 7. Gates open at 4 p.m. and tickets are on sale now.