Band: .38 Special
Date: Saturday, Dec. 31, 10:45 p.m.
Venue: Downtown Mobile
MoonPie Over Mobile has become the Azalea City’s traditional way of ending each year. Masses of people gather under the electric light of the city’s most beloved pastry and watch it drop as the clock strikes midnight. As in prior years, the city of Mobile will provide an appropriate soundtrack to entertain those filling the streets, and this year’s music will be provided by .38 Special.
From “Hold on Loosely” to “Rockin’ into the Night,” founding vocalist/guitarist Don Barnes says the crowd won’t be disappointed with their show. In the midst of his holiday break, Barnes spent time chatting with Lagniappe about his legendary band and its plans for the Azalea City.
Stephen Centanni: What are the holidays like for you?
Don Barnes: Well, I’m home. We do about 100 cities a year, but we always make sure we take some time off at the end. It’s the old thing about being careful about getting what you wish for. We were kids with a dream, wanting to do this thing. Here we are decades later, and we’re still doing 100 cities a year.
Centanni: With that said, .38 Special still doesn’t have a problem bringing in a crowd. How does it feel to still be able to play for the old fans and bring in new ones?
Barnes: Aw, man, it’s the greatest job in the world! I can’t complain. I do complain about the traveling, because it sometimes takes a lot out of you and beats you up. When we’re on stage, we’re cranking the guitar up to 10 and 19 years old again. It’s a great job bringing that kind of joy and happiness to people. We see it as being very fortunate. Once again, you have to be careful what you wish for, but we did wish for it.
It was our calling years ago. We did the stage up and got the cops called on us for being too loud in somebody’s garage. We were neighborhood guys. We had a focus and a dream and a brotherhood to build a history for ourselves and carry on into the future. In the entertainment business, the light shines on you for a while, then it shines on somebody else. The key is to create a catalog of a lot of hit songs and take people through a journey of that history. It’s a celebration of that brotherhood and camaraderie that we still have years later. We actually like each other, which is rare.
Centanni: As far as that catalog you mentioned, .38 Special still has a quite a radio presence. What is it about your songs that has allowed them to stick with people?
Barnes: We came from Jacksonville, Florida, and Lynyrd Skynyrd was from the neighborhood. [Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zandt was a big mentor for the band. He was about five years older than us. We were rehashing what was already there with the country/Southern rock like Skynyrd and Allman Brothers and Charlie Daniels Band. Our first album was quite different from what we ended up doing, but it’s like anything. You head down the road to take that journey, and you might have to veer off on a different path just for the fact that you could keep winning somehow.
Ronnie told us back then, “Don’t try to be a clone of anybody else. Try to use your own influences and truth.” We thought that it had already been done by the best, as far as the Southern genre. We introspectively looked into our influences. We were big British Invasion fans and Beatles fans. We really liked a lot more melody than a lot of the Southern bands had. They were more blues based. We just started writing songs that we called “muscle melodies.” You’ve got that strong, in-your-face guitar attitude and a good melody and a good story, and an attitude that says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
So, I think it’s the positive element. There are a lot of songs that we do that are in major keys. A lot of people do songs in minor keys. “Caught Up in You” is a big major chord progression. It’s happy and more positive. It makes people want to put the top down and sing along to it. The element of truth in those songs came from personal experiences. Songwriting is an insecure thing, anyway. You’re coming up with things from bits of nothing. Anybody can write, “Oh, baby, I miss you and love you.” We wrote about true things from our lives.
“Hold on Loosely” was based on a bad marriage I was going through in the 1980s. I wrote that with Jim Peterik from Survivor. He wrote “Eye of the Tiger” and a lot of Survivor hits. He’s been a friend for 30 years. We’d get at a kitchen table and talk about things. He asked if everything was going all right. I was going through a rough time and said, “What is it about people that can’t celebrate their differences? They want to change each other and keep each other under a thumb. They don’t give each other room to breathe.”
I had my little notebook with me. I said, “What do you think about this title” I’d scratched down, “Hold on loosely.” He said, “Oh yeah! But don’t let go.” It was the first thing that he said. It was the perfect bookend, and we were off to the races. We were talking about true experiences and what good piece advice it is for people. Out of something negative came a positive element, and it’s rang true all these years.
Centanni: When founding members Donnie Van Zandt and Larry Junstrom left the band, a lot of your fans wondered what would happen to .38 Special, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed you down any. What was it like making that transition and restructuring the band? Were you already prepared?
Barnes: First, we’re very fortunate to have about 15 or 16 Top 40/Top 20/Top 10 songs. We took everything and stripped it down. It’s more muscular. It’s a ride, and we have a medley of great hits and secondary songs from movies and all these different things. We put a new show together, and it’s more bombastic than before. I wanted to make sure that nobody missed anything. Of course, our dear brother Donnie had inner ear nerve damage. … doctors told him that he couldn’t expose himself to anything like that again or he would go stone deaf. He had been doing it for decades. It was heartbreaking, and we’re still looking to see if he’ll do some healing and come back.
I knew that we had the artillery. I had the radio songs, and he had more of a blues-oriented voice. However, I had the voice on the radio. I knew that I could line these songs up and shoot them down. We take our crowds for a ride. It’s like a movie. We have a big, explosive opening and keep climbing all the way through one after another after another. We give them a break with “Second Chance,” and then we climb higher and higher and leave them screaming with a big explosive finish. We’re exhausted, and they’re exhausted with us.
Centanni: What do you have lined up for the New Year’s Eve set?
Barnes: It’s New Year’s Eve, so we have a bombastic show in store for everybody … everything that you want to hear from the history of the band. We have some new songs to put in there with all the hits. It’s the celebration that we always seem to bring. We just throw it down. It’s New Year’s Eve, so it’ll be wild. I understand that the mayor and the city dignitaries want to come out and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” We’ll do that too, with the countdown and everything.
.38 Special has always been known to bring the party to the people. Holidays will be coming to a close, and it’ll be a good way to head into 2017. We want to thank everybody for making us a part of their lives for so many years. It’s been a long time. We’re bringing our A game.