Listening to Don Barnes’ salad days stories, one gets the feeling that it is sort of miraculous that the band he fronts, 38 Special, became the powerhouse it did.
Barnes said he and Donnie Van Zant tried out ten bands before 38 Special jelled.
“You get to a point where some guys would show up for rehearsal and then flake away,” he said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “We all had day jobs. I would always call him up and say, ‘Let’s try this one more time. Let’s get the right people this time.’”
38 Special did, of course, finally find the right people and became one of the biggest bands of the 1980s.
Shifting from Southern Rock
Things got so bad early on that Barnes had to ask Donnie’s brother, Ronnie Van Zandt, to cosign a loan so he could buy a new amplifier.
Ronnie had achieved fame and fortune at that point as lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Ronnie, who died with two fellow bandmates in a 1977 plane crash, became a guiding force in the development of 38 Special and the life of Barnes.
“He was a mentor for the band,” Barnes said. “He was five years older than we were. Our first album was a rehash of everything that had already happened. Southern rock was waning at the time.
“He had told us, ‘Don’t be a clone of someone else. Find what makes your hearts sing. Find out what fires you up.’”
Even though they strategically performed Southern rock at the start, the members of 38 Special came to understand that they were far more interested in The Beatles and other British invasion bands.
Barnes said he was a passenger with Donnie and his father, Lacy, in a plane that flew to Mississippi to identify bodies from the crash.
“Lacy, all the way there, he said, ‘I know my son’s not gone,’” Barnes recalled. “‘My son’s not dead.’ We landed at a little private airport and Lacy said, ‘Where are we going first, Don?’ And I said, ‘Well, Lacy, we have to go to the funeral home first.’ And that’s when it hit him. That’s where we were going first. That’s where his son was.”
After Ronnie’s death, Donnie related a story to Barnes that was like a benediction from beyond the grave.
“Ronnie had told him, ‘Stick with this Barnes guy. He wants it bad enough,’” Barnes said. “That was a surprise to me. I didn’t even know he knew I existed.”
38 Special ended up pivoting from Southern Rock to a more radio-friendly sound that Barnes calls “melody and muscle.”
And the hits started coming.
“I feel like we found a little niche there that was working for us,” Barnes said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
You can thank Barnes’ busy and interesting romantic life at the time for hits like “Hold On Loosely,” “If I’d Been The One,” and “Caught Up in You.”
“Ronnie had always told us, ‘Try to put your own lives in your songs,’” Barnes said.
Asked how the band felt when success finally hit, Barnes said, “Tired.”
“We were weary from it all,” Barnes said. “My dad used to say, ‘Son, when are you going to make any money from this?’ I’d say, ‘Dad, I know this is right around the corner.’ As it turned out, it was a pretty wide corner.”
In 1987, Barnes decided to leave the band. The reason wasn’t the oft-cited creative differences, he said. It wasn’t delusions of solo grandeur.
Barnes just needed a break from the grind of being in a successful band that was trying to maintain the level of success it had achieved.
“When you’re doing that, you always have to stay five steps ahead of yourself,” he said. “You’re on a treadmill. You have contractual obligations. You’re constantly striving for perfection. It takes everything from your personal life. I thought, ‘I don’t have anyone waiting for me at home when I get off the road.’”
Shelved solo Music
Barnes did end up making a solo album with the late Jeff and Mike Porcaro of Toto, but it was shelved after the label that was supposed to put it out, A&M Records, was sold.
The album, Ride the Storm, was finally released in the summer of 2017 on the Melodic-
If you love ’80s rock of the sort that 38 Special helped define, Ride the Storm is a strong entry in that genre.
It’s not an exercise in nostalgia because it was made at a time when Barnes had every reason to expect that it would be a big hit.
“The album got five stars across the world,” Barnes said. “It just shows that they were sitting on something. They didn’t realize what they had. Yeah, I have had a few ‘What if’ moments. But I’m very happy these days. I have got a great catalog of songs.”
The music industry gives a person a thick skin, he said.
“You know you’re not going to win them all,” Barnes said. “Ninety-five percent of what you get involved in is going to end in failure. That’s why I don’t really recommend it because you sacrifice so much.”
Barnes rejoined 38 Special in 1992 and has been with them ever since. Donnie Van Zandt was forced to leave the band in 2013 because of nerve damage in his ears, although Barnes said that Van Zandt still writes music and joins the band every so often for a song or two.
A lot of venerable bands that have achieved what 38 Special has achieved aren’t comfortable with the fact that their later years are more devoted to rewarding nostalgia rather than exciting fans with new songs.
But Barnes said he sees nothing wrong with nostalgia.
“I don’t have any problem with it at all,” he said. “You see the instant reaction from the fans, people are high-fiving each other. It’s a great job to bring that sort of joy to people night after night. You look out there and feel grateful that you actually have a history, that you actually have a catalog.”