Today’s Guest: Don Barnes, lead singer, 38 Special
(NOTE – The following interview I conducted with 38 Special lead singer Don Barnes was originally published on August 16, 1986. — Bob Andelman)
Southern rock is dead, extinct.
That’s not exactly big news, but it really hit home when word got out that 38 Special’s Donnie Van Zant had donated his familiar cowboy hat to a display in Dallas’ new Hard Rock Cafe and that everyone in the band had been t0 the barber.
“Actually,” says lead singer and guitarist Don Barnes by telephone from Tulsa, Okla., “we’ve changed quite a bit. Our manager said it was hard to get some doors open because people looking at our pictures (saw) just another Southern or country rock band. We were tired of fighting that all the time. We’re dressing more contemporary now.”
The change in the look of 38 Special comes several Years after the evolution of the band’s sound from a blistering guitar attack force to a romantic pop outfit.
“We had always been pigeon-holed in that ‘just another Southern rock band’ category, and that’s plagued us all these Years,” says Barnes, whose group still managed three platinum albums. “We want to be accepted as an American Pop, rock ‘n’ roll band. That’s been a long, hard fight.”
After a decade together, Barnes, Van Zant, guitarist Jeff Carlisi, bassist Larry Junstrom and drummers Steve Brookins and Jack Grondin have good reason to want to be considered a pop, rather than Southern, band.
DON BARNES interview excerpt: “My dad was the music director in a church when I was a kid. There were some songs he’d sing – Baptist hymns – if you listen to ‘Has There Ever Been a Good Goodbye,’ it’s a real gospel melody, a nod to those melodies in church..”
“A lot has changed in 10 years,” says Barnes. “The three-chord blues based boogie music has been done by the best. Lynyrd Skynyrd was the best. After their plane went down (October 1977), Southern rock died, as far as we’re concerned. All the, other groups that came after them were just trying to fill the void. After’ awhile it was just silly.”
If 38 Special hadn’t pursued its unexpected romantic pop success with “Hold on Loosely” in 1981, Barnes says he thinks “we’d be playing the clubs just like these other Southern bands that had moderate: success (but) couldn’t change.”
Like Molly Hatchet?
“That’s one of them,” he concedes. “They just kind of faded away, fell by the wayside. You can choose to be stubborn and just stick with the tried and true that every’ body else has done or you can take some risks.
“We felt like we came in on the decline of all that, the whiskey and alligators. We felt like we were cutting ourselves short, that we weren’t using the influences we had grown up with – The Beatles and the radio hits.”
The original concept of 38 Special had Donnie Van Zant as primary singer. The band was a South’ ern boogie septet that announced its arrival in 1978 with “Rockin’ Into the Night.”
But over the years, guitarist Barnes began singing a few songs the ones radio came to love. “Hold -’ on Loosely” was the third most frequently played song on the airwaves in 1981. More pop hits followed under Barnes’ vocals – “Fantasy Girl,” “Back Where You Belong” and “Like No Other Night” from the latest album, “Strength in Numbers.”
“Donnie and I support each other immensely,” Barnes insists, deflecting any rumors of jealousy between himself and Van Zant. “We’ve always wanted to win as a team. It doesn’t matter who carries the ball – that’s always been our philosophy.
“It turned out that the romantic appeal of my voice is appealing to radio,” Barnes continues. “But people still love Donnie, and he’s a great showman. There’s a lot of songs he does for People (who) like the harder edged rock, the earthier rock. I think we complement each other well.”
In concert, the singing responsibilities are split about equally between Barnes and Van Zant, each handling 10 songs.
Then 38 Special made a change behind the scenes in the recording of “strength in Numbers,” hiring Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac is among his credits) to Produce in’ stead of doing the job themselves.
The first thing Olsen told the boys from Jacksonville was to lighten up a bit.
“The most invaluable thing we Iearned from Keith Olsen,” says Barnes, “was that it’s a real exercise in control to only put the essential things on the tape and not everything – ‘Take whatever cleverness you do come up with, condense it down to just the essential element of ft.’ “
In other words, when one guitar could create the spirit and fire that would carry a song, Olsen told the boys they shouldn’t clutter it up or sterilize it by showing off.
DON BARNES interview excerpt: “We want to be accepted as an American pop, rock ‘n’ roll band. That’s been a long, hard fight.”
“We realize now,” says Barnes, that “you can take one guitar, turn it up real loud, and it will carry the song on its own. All the other colorings and textures are just the most basic additions that you can put on there. It’s a less-is-more philosophy. Be creative but don’t give it the overkill syndrome.
“The record benefited” from that attitude, he adds, “because when you turn it up on a great system it sounds 20 feet high.”
Barnes cites “Has There Ever Been a Good Goodbye” as a very hard song for him to record because of its sad overtones.
“Some of those lines really hit home,” he says. “There have been sad goodbyes in my lifetime, whether it was a girl or a person who has been killed. You can really draw from those kind of emotions. That song is a classic to me because every time I hear it it’s hard to listen to, it’s hard to sing it.”
The gestation of “Good Goodbye” goes back to a gospel influence in Barnes’ childhood.
“My dad was the music director in a church when I was a kid,” he recalls. “There were some songs he’d sing – Baptist hymns – if you listen to ‘Has There Ever Been a Good Goodbye,’ it’s a real gospel melody, a nod to those melodies in church.”
Church? Haircuts? No more cowboy hat? Even someone who doesn’t buy the contention that Southern rock is dead must realize it’s playing by new rules.
“People,” warns Don Barnes, “don’t underestimate us. We can always explore different avenues. But we can still sting.”