38 Special: 4 decades, hundreds of shows, and 1 Riverside appearance
Southern rockers finish out Down by the Riverside season on Sunday.
"Hold on Loosely." "Caught Up in You." "Rockin' Into the Night."
Southern rock band 38 Special has a slate of hits spanning several decades — but, as they say, the road from Jacksonville to Rochester was anything but an easy ride.
The band takes the Mayo Park stage at 8 p.m. Sunday, after opener Fred the Bear at 7.
Frontman Don Barnes caught us up on a summer of shows, their first hits, and the secret to 40 years' worth of longevity.
How long have you been touring again?
We had some sporadic shows in the beginning of the year, got really busy in July. And we're slammed all the way to December. No complaints here. Glad to be back. Oh my god, so is our tuner — 14 of them on the road, so they're all thrilled about getting back to making money and feeding their families and everything. It's a daunting thing to get through all that.
You've been touring for 40 years or so —
All my life. I mean, it’s the whole thing about being careful, you might get what you wish for. We were all young boys with a dream. Like, every guy wants to do that, but most people ... We were just too stubborn to quit, you know — most people end up walking away from it, but we felt like we had something special to offer.
We definitely paid our dues, went through all the starvation periods and the failure of albums — that's the thing most people don't realize, that you have to accept so much failure first, and still say, "It's OK. We can learn from this, pick ourselves up." But we had three albums that basically went right over the cliff, before the album with “Hold on Loosely.” Most people think that's our first album. No, that was our fourth.
I guess I wasn't aware that there hadn't been some other hits before then.
It would have been nice if it had happened that way. We’d seen other groups, and it was like — overnight, first album sold a million copies. But ours was a long, arduous journey, and about 10 years of suffering before we finally got something going on. You don't want to look back. Moving forward, everything worked out.
You’re on a nationwide tour now — what do you chalk that kind of long-term success up to, now that you’ve got it?
I think the songs have had such great melodies, first of all. We call it "muscle and melody" — you've got some snarl of guitars on your face and a good melody, a good story. I always felt like if it ain’t broke, don't fix it, you know. I think there's a lot of elements of truth to those songs. They're golden nuggets to us, obviously; we lived through every experience, every release in these songs. So then when people hear them, they relate their own feelings to them.
Like, “Hold on Loosely” was about a relationship, that kind of gone sour, that I was in. I said, what is it about people, they can't seem to tolerate their differences, and they try to change each other and mold them into what they want. ... And that song has been an anthemic song for us over the years. People have come up and said how much it meant to them. And it wasn't our goal to change anyone, but it was just to have an element of truth. If you give an element of truth, truth can't be denied. People have said that song saved (their) marriage.
We learned a lot through the years, made all our mistakes in public. It's interesting to learn the craft of songwriting, because you write 500 songs and you might publish 100, and maybe out of those, you might get 10 hit songs if you're lucky. So it's not something that I highly recommend to anyone. Tell these young boys, who’ve got a little band they want to get a record deal — only if you absolutely have to do it. If there's anything else with some stability in you, you're like, good with your hands or school or carpentry or whatever. ... It's tough to get any traction at all.
Jacksonville, Fla., was a Navy city, and all of those groups — Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Outlaw, Molly Hatchet, everybody came from that area. And it wasn't from a fashionable, New York or L.A., stylish kind of place. You're kind of an underdog, and you're having to make the world listen to you. You tend to take on that underdog spirit by being strong and aggressive, I guess, with the guitars.
When we were young boys, 15 years old, we played sailors' clubs. There were four naval bases there. So you could play the cover songs of the day. I’m talking about Duane Allman, Ronnie Van Zant. … We were entertaining sailors — they were 22, so we thought they were old guys. But we did learn all these elements of the radio hits and all the structures, and you start learning at 15, 16 years old, where the payoff is. … You start seeing where the big cherry comes on top of that big chorus.
But then you start getting a little cocky and you start thinking, well, I've actually kind of gone to school on this, maybe I can go write my own songs. And that's when you’re gonna starve for the next 10 years. Because no one's ever heard of you and they don't care whether you live or die. You get out there and have to prove yourself, and again, you write songs … and nothing happens with them and you just have to keep building yourself. And I'm sure you, as a writer, you know that you learn as you go. You can develop and you evolve. So I guess we owe all our careers to the Navy.
So how do you stay excited out there on the road, when you’ve got such a long discography and have been playing some songs for 30, 40 years?
Well, first of all, it's the greatest job in the world to bring joy to people. And we see thousands out there, high-fiving each other, singing along. Sometimes a few tears in their eyes. Some song might remind them of someone that they miss. And so that affects us. That's the instant reaction from those songs, and it's great to have, like, an arsenal. You've really blown them away with one song, and I know what's coming up next — I know the whole list of songs. You're just out there to slay them every night, and by the end, it’s 95 minutes, you've unfolded that history.
Back to your question. Doing it repeatedly, it makes you want to play those songs with the same passion and conviction as the first time you recorded. You're out to make it as great as it can possibly be for the people — they came, they paid the money, I want to make sure that they walk away saying, "That was every bit worth it," and they tell someone else.
Again, they were living songs, there were lived experiences with us. ... And so those songs, I never tire of them out there. They’re golden nuggets, you know, as long as I live. Somebody says, “Well, what do you have to offer?” I can reach in my pocket, and I've got these golden nuggets. They are a marker for all the journeys in my life.