Interview with .38 Special’s Don Barnes

Don Barnes is one of the founding members of the Southern rock band .38 Special.  He provides vocals and guitar for the band and is responsible for many of the group’s biggest hits, including “Rockin’ into the Night”, “Hold On Loosely” and  “Caught Up in You.  .38 Special is tours constantly and currently took out some time to chat with Media Mikes about his music and how he keeps touring fresh over the years.

Mike Gencarelli: So where are you currently touring this week?
Don Barnes: We are currently appearing at Epcot’s Food and Fine Festival concert series on 10-3-11 through 10-5-11.  It is a very exciting venue.

MG: Let’s talk about the many generations of fans that you have. How can you reflect that you not only have one generation of fans but many?
DB: Well I think it is really great because a lot of the fans were fans back in the 80’s and they played our music. We have a lot of cross sections of ages that come to our show and we like to see that. We are all big cult kid oriented kids…I mean we’re basically kids our selves. We like to crank the guitar up and be 19 years old again. People come out and it’s always a good cross-section. It’s everything you want to hear from a band. It’s just your high energy, bombastic presentation. We have people singing along and it’s a real surreal thing for us. Donny and I remember sitting at the kitchen table and scratching out lyrics and trying to come up with just the right thing to say, and then to see ten thousand people singing along. It’s an experience that not a lot of people get to have.

MG: You guys tour a lot all year. What do you guy’s do to keep that fresh and original for you?
DB: We do a hundred cities a year, every year. We’ve been doing that the past 25 years or so. We try to get our quota in, but we change the set up a bit. We move things around, we put new songs in and things. But we realized over the years that somebody that bought the album, the old vintage antique album and held on to it, that there are other songs there that may not have been top charting songs but they remember them because from when they play that album. We try to put things in that we like that are kind of in your face attitude. We’ve become kind of the premier live act because people know it’s a successful event because we bring the party to the people all the time. It’s really about the celebration of the brotherhood of us neighborhood guys. We started out a long time ago like anybody, practicing in the garage and you get the cops called on you for being too loud. But you know it’s a celebration and it’s carried us into the future. We appreciate everybody making us a part of their lives all these years. We try to bring those  songs out and we see the reaction immediately. We see high fives out there we see people singing along that have tears in their eyes because it reminds them of some time in their lives for nostalgic reasons or whatever. It really makes us play those  songs with just as much passion and commitment that was there the first time that we recorded them. It’s always been 110% from us and it’s kind of unspoken thing from us that we don’t slack up we stack up. It’s a team effort. We look at it as a real team thing. We go out there to win every night and I think that’s what has contributed to the longevity of the group.

MG: I’ve seen you all live a few times and you always have so much energy it’s unbelievable.
DB:  I appreciate that, we all played our dues, we all starved together. We all came from Jacksonville. All the groups, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Allman Brothers, to Molly Hatchet. Everybody came from Jacksonville and wonders if it’s in the water or something. Even The Outlaws are right down the road. It really was as young kids…young boys, we were playing in sailors clubs at 15 years old. We made $150 a week and that was pretty good for 15 years old. The fundamentals we learned early on about structures of songs and the craft of song writing because you learned all the popular songs back then. You start sensing the elements about what makes it popular to get it on the radio. You then decide how you will write your own songs and you starve for 10 years [laughs]. If it was easy everybody would be doing it.

MG: You have such a great library of songs, what do you do to choose your set list for each show?
DB: We see the reaction from songs we try songs out, we try to line them up. We look at it like a graph. It starts off with a big opening and the graph goes up and up and up and in the middle you give a little relief like Donnie does a tribute to his brother Ronnie from Lynyrd Skynyrd. You know Ronnie was killed in a plane crash in ’77 so we do a song called “Rebel to Rebel” that relaxes the people with the emotions and nature of the song. Then we go on climbing and climbing and we end with a big high note and everybody is exhausted along with us. It’s everything you want to hear through the history of the band. We put together a medley of secondary songs from movies. A lot of soundtracks and things. We want to make sure people hear their favorite song. Even “Back to Paradise” from “Revenge of the Nerds’ movies. We make sure we get them all in there.

MG: You’ve toured with thousands of people, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, REO Speedwagon, Hank Williams; can you share any crazy tour stories?
DB: We opened for Kiss back in the 70’s and they had a radio contest and this was back when nobody had heard about us before. Kiss was in their big wave of success, they grossed something like four million dollars that year or something. Every city had Kiss face contests and we would play and just for the first hundred rows we would see nothing but people with grease paint on their faces and it was really like “The Twilight Zone” to us.

MG: How did you all become involved with CMT’s “Road Pranks”?
DB: They just called us up and said they wanted to do a show about what people  do on their day off. That was the whole ruse was to include our crew. We talked about the ruse was they wanted to come film what bands does on their day off. In reality it was going to be that we were going to set them up and play a trick on them. The fake show was going to be called “Down Time” and I told all the crew guys so we would see all the hobbies that they have. Of course all the crew guys are all gear heads, rocket enthusiasts and tech heads with miniature rockets and stuff. We set them up bad [laughs]. In the mean time we are planning on having the fire department, Home Land Security, the cops are going to come raining down on us for using rockets and stuff.  Of course we were all in on the joke but we had to act like we were in trouble too. It worked out pretty good. Those cops were pretty good. Those cops even had me scared a little bit! When we finally revealed it to them they weren’t very happy about all that. They didn’t speak to us for a day or two there. They didn’t know how to take it. They have sworn revenge on us though that they will get us back.

MG: Tell us about the new album, Live In Texas, recently released on August 31st, 2011.
DB: We are putting together a collection of songs through several cities from Texas and calling it “Live From Texas: 36 Special”. We were able to use a lot of advances in technology, we were able to bring our own equipment and record. At first we were just going to record it and have them at the merchandise table at the shows so the fans could sort of bring the party home with them, but when we listened back we realized this was some killer stuff, it came out a lot better than we thought it was. We decided to get them packaged up and distributed. A lot of pictures and everything. The main thing with utilizing the technology though is that a listener could put on headphones on and it literally feels like you’re sitting right in the middle of the crowd and right in front of the band. That’s not something that a lot of live acts can do. It’s almost like surround sound. You can just place the crowd behind you and around you and of course the sound of the band is all over you. It’s just the celebration of all that and it’s just rockin’. We’re real happy with the way it came out. It is available now on and iTunes and in stores. “Live From Texas: 38 Special”.

MG: I hear that you are in pre-production for a new studio album, is that true?
DB: Yeah. I mean we have several projects going right now. Of course newly written songs, big rock stuff, you know, we call it Muscle and Melody. We put the Muscle of the Guitars and the strength of that in your face and good melody and story over the top. We have that going and that should be released next year. We also have an acoustic sort of version of some of the classic songs that we were able to take poetic license to change the keys and rearrange things, like the song If I’d Been the One became a really beautiful ballad. We didn’t want to take it where it was an unplugged series where bands just sat on a stools and basically played the songs the same they do electrically because that is kind of boring to us. So like “Caught Up In You”, has a beat too it and a bit of reggae. Also we are entertaining some new movie projects…soundtracks and things.

MG: What is your process when you create new songs? Where do you draw your inspiration from for certain projects?
DB: Songwriters tend to always be in search of a great premise, a good title, anything that sort of sparks the  original germ of the idea. Like Caught Up In You; years ago I was dating this girl and I said You know I can’t every get any work done, I’m just so caught up in you all the time. It was like  a lightbulb went on, like that was a great positive thing. A happy angle to it. There are other songs that have a darker side but A Whole Lot of Loosely was about a marriage that I’d gone through. It was going down hill and I thought “Why Can’t people Celebrate their differences and not try and control each other”. So out of a negative message came a positive piece of advice. We try to put the truth in our songs so people can relate to their own lives. It’s kind of undeniable thing when you use the truth.  It’s one thing to say “Ooo baby I need you, I miss you.” but that’s kind of made up, contrived song, and people sense that. If there is a real story there, I can just tell you to keep the antenna up there, from personal experiences, there is just a wealth of information there. If you can scratch down a title you can come back to it later. As far as the musical side of it, that all comes from just noodling around on a guitar or piano or something with a little micro cassette player and I can take just ten seconds of something and then move on to something else Then when you come back to it you almost can’t remember that you’d played it so you listen to it more objectively from a different perspective and you think “Hey that’s not a bad idea, I can make a song out of that.” That all comes from experience, of learning how to noodle around and how to entertain yourself.