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38 Special holding on loosely to their roots

Band found success after moving away from Southern rock roots


Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published December 1, 2021

When Donnie Van Zant and Don Barnes founded 38 Special in 1974, it was meant to be a Southern rock band in the tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers.

After all, Donnie was and is the brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd founder Ronnie Van Zant.

Unfortunately, strict adherence to the Southern rock tradition did not bring them commercial success.

“When you start out, you’re kind of emulating what came before you,” vocalist Don Barnes told the St. Pete Catalyst. “We were trying to do Skynyrd, or Charlie Daniels, or Marshall Tucker. People were saying ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd Junior’ and all that. We were trying to find a sound, a style that was different.”

It was Ronnie Van Zant who, shortly before his death in 1977, told the band that they needed to move past the past.

“Ronnie came to us and said, ‘Quit trying to be a clone of what’s already out there,’” Barnes recalled. “And that was just a great big light bulb. He said, ‘Stop doing that because you’re not going to get anywhere. What made your heart sing?’

Finding Their Own Sound

“We were fans of the British invasion, more melody, muscle, and that kind of thing. Animals and Beatles stuff. So we just re-fashioned it all. We were pretty accomplished guitar players, and we’d been trying to put the kitchen sink in there. So we just stripped it all down.”

38 Special, performing Dec. 11 at the Honeywell Center in Wabash, shifted to a more radio-friendly, less explicitly Southern sound and scored hits with “Hold on Loosely,” “Caught Up in You,” and many other songs.

Van Zant was forced to leave the band in 2013 because of hearing loss. He would be fully deaf today if he hadn’t quit, Barnes told the Abilene Reporter News.

“It’s not worth it,” Barnes said. “If that was me, I’d be gone tomorrow. He wouldn’t be able to hear at the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner tables. He just walked away from it.”

There had never been a single drop of bad blood between them, Barnes said.

“We weren’t competitors on a team,” he said. “It didn’t matter who carried the ball.”

Carrying on the Legacy

Barnes has continued to carry the torch for the band, and he doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon.

“We have a line that we’re going to do it until the wheels fall off,” he told the Aquarian. “There is no better way to have your life go by then just going out and following the dream you had as young guys.”

Barnes insists that he never tires of performing the band’s hits.

“It’s kind of like turning a child loose in the world and hope people respect them,” he told the Mitchell Republic. “We see what it does to people and it amps us up.

“It’s kind of a surreal experience to see 10,000 people singing the words to a song that you recall sitting around the kitchen table scratching the lyrics out to.”

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