There’s Still Something Special About .38
The Don Barnes Interview
by Michael Buffalo Smith
One of the hardest working bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s, still going strong into the new millennium, is .38 Special. With a string of Top 40 hits a mile long, the band just keeps getting better and better. Along with co-bandleader Donnie Van Zant, Don Barnes has ridden the wave from the very beginning, playing guitar and singing with one of the finest voices in classic (or Southern) rock.
GRITZ spoke with Barnes by phone from his Atlanta home about the band, his past, his future and Donnie’s brother Ronnie Van Zant.
When is the new studio album coming out?
Well, we are probably doing it in sections. Six songs this spring. Danny just got off the road with Gregg Allman and Friends. He needs some time off the road. We will go out and do six weeks of shows and then come back and finish it. But we have some great stuff, really powerful songs. We just put everything on hold and did this live album. That was pretty much the strategy to reacquaint the public with the history of the band and all the singles through the years.
Let’s jump back to the very beginning. Where did you originally come from, and where do you live now?
I was from Jacksonville Florida and live in Atlanta now. I moved up here about 1984 after spending 32 years in Jacksonville, it was hot and humid and flat. We did a lot of records up here at Doraville, Ga. It is a pretty historic place. I would come up here and drive a rental car around Atlanta and get lost. I liked the change of seasons and the terrain of the area and over the years we have all migrated up here from Atlanta. There is a whole different attitude here. This is more of a hub. When the plane lands in Atlanta you can just go on home.
When and how did you get involved in music?
My family was musical. My Dad was the musical director in the Baptist Church growing up. My brother and sister and I were all steeped in the church music. My Dad played the piano and we learned some of that from him. My brother was four years older than I am and he went on to be a big musical guy in high school with the hootenannies. I watched him and, of course, the Beatles were a big influence on the Ed Sullivan Show. Over the years my sister sang a cappella in the choir and there were some simple piano chords that we knew, and then I picked up some guitar chords. Donnie Van Zant and I have known each other all these years. There were about 15-20 bands before .38 special. We’ve known each other since we were 12 years old.
Speaking of earlier bands, was he in Alice Marr with you? What’s the story on that and where did you get that name?
Donnie had come across an old encyclopedia that told about an old ghost ship. Legend had it that all of the people on the boat were dead of the plague and it was an old odd name, so we used that. Billy Powell was actually on the keyboards in that band. We offered him to join us and we played a few gigs and then it was not long before he started being a roadie for Skynyrd.
What is the story about the van you got from the Ocean Way Auto parts?
There was an old truck called big blue that kept falling apart. It kept eating up all of our profits. I remember coming home with $30 after fixing this truck. Donnie and I would ride around and try to find an obscure place to rehearse. We would find these places for fifty bucks a month to rehearse, of course we had day jobs then. The guy could not figure out why we wanted to rent this place. There was manure, and we had to shovel it out of there and then get some pallets to stand on for a floor. We had the place fortified and had it vaulted up with 2 x 4’s and a big motorcycle chain that went through the hole in the door to lock it with this old rusty lock. Then we had to climb in a window to get in and out. One night we were rehearsing and heard someone banging on the door and when we looked, there were 12 constables banging on the door to get in. We were yelling and telling them we couldn’t open the door and one of them yelled that he had a .38 special to use on the door if we wouldn’t let him in. So when we had our first show, we had not thought of a name so we decided to use that name.
Wow, with just a little shift of fate you could have named the band Rusty Lock!
(Laughs) That’s right.
But you would have had to be a heavy metal band.
(More laughter) We became friends of some of those officers after that. Over the years we had moved into town and these officers looked after us.
You guys have had some songs on movie soundtracks. How did this affect the band?
For a while we had a lofty position with A&M Records and they had A&M Films and they wanted us to do a song for their movie Revenge of the Nerds. So, we did “Back to Paradise.” It was a good song, not a great movie. Before that we did “Caught up in You” in the movie Spring Break. And we did a song in Teacher, Teacher, with Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams.
We would just stop in the studio and do a couple of days recording and whip it out for a song track. They wanted you to do a three-track so they can remove the vocals if necessary. That was a good vehicle to propel a song forward.
During the time period you were not in .38 Special did you do solo albums?
There was a period of time when I was not involved with the band. You tend to put your personal life on hold and we had achieved lots of our dreams, money and success and I felt like I needed to leave for a while and take another path. I did a solo album with A&M and then they were bought out by Polygram. The solo record was not released at the time and it is still there. It could be released in the future. I was able to write with lots of other writers and it was a good growth period. John Bettis and Jim Valance and Randy Goodrum are just a few of the guys I got to work with. I was able to absorb those different influences and come back to the band with much more creativity. They were able to explore many more avenues with other than Max Carl and Danny Chauncey. This was a good break and I had met my wife during this period. I have been married for five years now and bought a boat, learned to ski and gotten some balance and reflection on my life and creativity.
I let some of the readers know that we were talking with you and some of them wanted to know if you had hung out with Lacy Van Zant and what do you think of him.
Lacy has been a big mentor of the band. Ronnie (Van Zant) was a tremendous mentor. Coming from the wrong side of the tracks, he made the whole world listen to him. He had such strength and fortitude and perseverance. This was an influence we took and there was no other band that experienced that.
Lacy was so supportive when we were just sleeping on a mattress in a van. He would talk about perseverance and keeping your chin up. Lacy is a great guy and we go back to when we were kids. We all grew up on the same street, Donnie and Steve Brookins were all friends. Lacy was the patriarch of the whole group. He is a great man and when the tragedy happened (the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash of 1977) and I was the one who flew out with Lacy to identify the bodies, the strength that this man displayed was monumental. Lacy was in denial on the plane and hoped that there was a mistake and that his son was not dead. I had to find out who was where and we had to get to the funeral home to identify the body. After seeing Ronnie at the funeral home and paying last respects with Lacy, I felt changed because this man had helped me at an early age. He had co-signed for me to get an amp when I was young. He felt I wanted it bad enough to make something of myself as a musician. Up until then I was giving about 80% of my talent, but after seeing Ronnie dead and remembering his kindness, I try to give 100%.
We then went to the hospital and saw all the other people who were hurt. They all looked at Lacy through stitches and swelling and he told me not to say anything about Ronnie. He just stood there and said that Ronnie was fine and you just get better and rest. This man had just been to the funeral home and seen his son dead and decided to keep that to himself for these guys to heal. I told him that it was the strongest thing I had seen a man do. They were ripped from their life and career and there is justice that they can get back out there. Johnny does a great job and they perform very well. Everything was taken from them so quickly. Ronnie would have wanted them to go on. I have nothing but great respect for him and the Van Zant family.
What else do you remember about the early days of Skynyrd?
I used to ride my bike over to Allen’s house and listen to records. His Mom was great and very sweet. I remember walking into his house and he had this Vox amp there and she would just smile and be really proud of him. At the time you are part of the history in the making and we were just kids together. They were one of the first bands from Jacksonville to make it on their own material. There is a lot of musical history in Jacksonville.
Moving into the present time and have been enjoying this Live from Sturgis CD (CMC International, 1999). I heard that the weather was not very good when you recorded this show.
We did not have the luxury of taking music from several shows. The logistics of getting a camera crew and audio trucks in the midst of this biker rally was not easy. There are 5-6 stages going and the day we pulled up there there were 40 mile-an-hour winds blowing sideways and rain. You would think that it would have been mild but it was cold and nasty weather. We had this giant 32-foot backdrop made and it was like a sail in this 40-mile wind. It almost pulled light trusses down. There is some mist coming out where we are singing. The guy with the camera was a distraction but people did come out and we had a great time doing the show. Then everyone got drunk on the bus on the way out of town -- stress relief. This was something that came out good considering all the problems.
Personally, how did you feel about this album?
I felt like there is a meaty sound there we captured on tape. The last show of this tour was at Myrtle Beach and we blew the roof off the place. I wish we had recorded that one, too. It came out great considering all of the obstacles we had to overcome. There is a lot of truth in all of our songs. Ronnie taught us that. He was a true down home poet that put his poems to music. “Hold On Loosely” was written about a woman that I was married to and she was not letting me be myself. Jim was talking about the couplet line “but don’t let go.” I can’t get anything done because I’m caught up in you all the time. We tend to find the destination first and write it into that. Other songwriters say they come up with a melody line and then write the lyrics and add the music. For some other people it works the other way.
So, you really were heavily influenced by Ronnie Van Zant?
Basically, you can listen to Ronnie and get a biography of Ronnie through his music. Like I said he was a true real life poet. The "Ballad of Curtis Leow” song was written about a house that was literally up on concrete blocks, just a wooden shack. It was a little store and there was an old black guy that sat around there and sang.
What can you tell us about how you feel about the new studio album?
The last studio album was a different departure for the band. We wanted to show some growth and evolution from the band and were trying to reinvent ourselves. This was a much more diverse record. We used some other instruments on there, some 12 strings. We did this with Joe Hardy out in Nashville. We used 12-string mandolins and all these odd things from around the studio. We were layering and overdubbing unusual instruments. We did address some issues about redemption and family spousal abuse. At this point we felt like our fans were surprised without the usual in your face guitars. We are going back to “in your face guitars” with muscle and melody. Our trademark is the congenial snarl of the guitar and that great melody that is singable and memorable. The muscle and melody is something that works for us.
How do you feel about the fans?
We have a strong fan base throughout the country. We like to let our fans come backstage and get an autograph and pictures. We know that without our fans we would not be working for 25 years. We are flattered to have longevity and it was our goal in the first place. We were the flavor of the week at one time and now it is nice to hear songs that are 20 years old. That was our goal in the first place. We have been very proud and happy to have achieved that. We have had some fans that have grown up with us. We have had some real good experiences. One of the songs off of the last studio album was debuted in space. A few astronauts came up onto the bus in Houston. You know how they wake them up with music and they had picked one of our songs and we were invited to the Houston Space Center to sightsee. Then, the astronauts came to the bus and were real quiet and nice and said, “Do you mind if we come on your bus?” We said, “Are you kidding? Anytime. Mind if we come on the space shuttle?” (laughs)
Have you seen our webzine?
Oh, yes. I enjoyed reading about everyone, Jimmy Hall and Edgar Winter. Edgar, ironically enough, played the sax solo on our second album. We did a record with Dan Hartman, who is no longer with us, (formerly of The Edgar Winter Group) that he produced in Connecticut in Westport. This guy was a consummate musician. He played the piano like Elton John -- he could sing it and then add a guitar. He played Jackson 5 or R&B stuff. One morning he got up at his house and he was playing a Strat that he had tuned down and playing Jimi Hendrix. He sounded just like him. He lived around the corner from Edgar and he said “Let me call Edgar and get him over to play sax.” It was on a song called “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.” We said, wow, the famous Edgar Winter. He put his sax together and blew us away. He did about five takes and we kept the first one because it was so awesome. He put the soul in his solo and he wanted to perfect it, but the first one was so great. We went over to his house and and looked at all the awards on his walls. We have done several shows with him and he rocks the house. What a great musician!
And he just played for the President on New Year’s Eve.
We had the opportunity to meet the President at the Democratic Convention for the Governors. When it was over he just walked out into the crowd and we met him and got pictures with him. I told him he could play in our band anytime. He has lots of charisma and makes you feel very good.