Interview DON BARNES (38 SPECIAL) by John Molet
When the new .38 Special album (Drivetrain) arrived, we asked to the great lead guitarist and singer Don Barnes to give us an interview. It was more than a year ago and we had no answer, so we thought that our questions were lost somewhere and never come back on our Road to Jacksonville computer. We were very surprised the other day to get an answer… Don Barnes was not present, but his mail was in our mailbox… I must say my high consideration for this great man who is really busy on the road (see .38 tour schedule…) and got a family event, when we know that usually such great musicians are not really Internet fans. We are really pleased that Don took his precious time to come and answer us for our French website. Don Barnes offers us today his thoughts and his honest and sincere feelings, and we and the fans will sure enjoy such honesty. We just miss an European tour to be really happy, because we just had one show in France in 1981 than mister Barnes does remember 25 years later… It is never too late, Don !!
Hi Don, we are glad to be able to ask a few questions to one of the famous Southern Rock guitar players.
Sure, John. We're in the middle of a long tour through the U.S. right now, but I've got some time during the day before things start to heat up.
notice that the name of our Web Site, " Road to Jacksonville"
> has been picked up just because we appreciate a lot this kind of
> music....and in fact we are more fans than reporters !
Thanks. But it should probably be called "Road FROM Jacksonville." haha
to you, we are gonna have some news for all the french fans who
> love you ( Plus the French Canadians, Swiss, Germany, and B.)
Great! Hello to everyone!
1- First I would like to tell you that we just saw Lynyrd Skynyrd for the last date of their European Tour in Paris....( 29 June) and all the fans were just like : " What about 38 Special touring with Skynyrd, it should be great !! "........what do you think of this idea?
I know it would be a good time. We have a long relationship with the Skynyrd band. We've been directly and indirectly associated with them through the years. Donnie's brother Ronnie was a major influence on us. He was sort of our mentor and we adapted his mindset - that being original with a particular style and not a copy of something else was the only way to succeed. I think that a concert package with the new Skynyrd band would show plenty of variety. And because we come from the same city, it could showcase the diverse styles. Plus, it would just plain rock!
2- During a promo interview in Paris last April, We told Johnny Van Zant about this idea and he was thinking ( with Vector Management ), that it was an interesting idea...and Skynyrd should be back in France beginning of 2006.
We'll see if we can work on that. We're also with Vector Management and we've talked about it before but had conflicting schedules. If we could plan it far enough in advance, it would be a good time.
3- I remember your last French tour...that I missed, in 1981. Wow !! it's been a long time, don't you like our country ?
Yes, we had a great time touring through Europe...and fond memories of traveling the beautiful countryside of France. We loved the vineyards and the small villages. But we especially loved the wine. And the fans were very receptive to our music, so hopefully we'll be seeing you again sometime soon.
4- I'm a great fan of 38 and I have all the LPs, CDs, Videos and more than that. I would like to talk about the evolution of the band. What is the major difference between 38 of the 70's-80's and today? Do you have a different musical approach ?
Well, I'd have to say the approach is different. It's always the case that when a band starts out with their first record deal, there is a tendency to overthink parts in the studio. It comes from desperately trying to be accepted in the music world and get someone/ anyone to pay attention. You tend to "worry" everything too much. Those little worry demons can get you. And after so many years of struggle, you may get a crumb of success. Then that tends to make players want to prove themselves even more. The fear of going back to the struggling days can interfere with the flow of good writing. So, as the band progressed we started to take more risks and let things happen naturally instead of forcing them. That's the key to creating - giving songs room to develop more in a 'risky' way. It captures the original reckless intent, and that attitude will come across on record. We're definitely a more seasoned band now. We fully comprehend the power of the "groove" and are locked into it together onstage. It's important to understand the space between the beats...it creates an impact on the audience to make every note mean so much. Over time, we've learned to accept the adrenalin rush without letting it push us forward out of the groove. This has transferred over into our writing and studio work. I think we've also grown a great deal as songwriters and recording artists. We have our own state-of-the-art studio now and working with Danny Chauncey on the production aspect of things has been a real positive. He's a great writer/producer and always seems to offer a unique twist on something that Donnie or I would not have thought of. Our new album, Drivetrain, is a good example of great collaboration and a real partnership as producers and writers. We take a lot more risks these days.
Donnie VanZant has developed a sharper edge to his songwriting and his performance in the studio has seasoned as well. He's also been writing in different styles lately. He and his brother Johnny currently have a country album on the charts over here and it's doing really well. They're called "VanZant," and the CD is "Get Right With the Man." So, in a way we've all gained a new audience. It's a fact that country music has slowly evolved to become Southern Rock and we're seeing the increase at our shows every night.
As for the rest of the guys - Larry Junstrom, Gary Moffatt, and Bobby Capps - they're true warriors of the road and create a tight rhythm section that blows me away every night. But I'll tell you, John...the best thing about this group overall is that we have a good time together as friends. We've been through a lot, and it's made us a force to be reckoned with. We look over and see each other onstage every night, putting all we've got into the show. Nobody is coasting through. It's an intensity that draws us closer together as a brotherhood of the road. Our touring business has really exploded and we're proud to still be out there rocking with a lot of firepower, so we take it as a compliment to be called a "Classic Rock" or "Heritage" band. Our original goal was to have longevity in a career, so in light of all the good things happening these days, we stay positive about the future and the new music we bring to the fans.
5. Speaking of Donnie, how are his injuries? Is he hindered at all onstage?
Donnie's injuries were sort of a cumulative effect of running up ramps and risers onstage for years, even jumping off the stage to get out into the audience. He's the kind of guy who has always given everything he had for the show. So, these physical injuries started a long time ago. We eventually had him flying across the arena on wires so that he wouldn't continue to injure himself. We had a sports medicine guy taping up his knees like a pro football player, and a barrel of ice backstage every night to put his legs in - to reduce the swelling. He had arthroscopy surgery on both knees to repair tendons that had been torn for a long time, then had to go through physical therapy to get back in shape for more roadwork. It was just one of those things that had been put off for too long and needed to be taken care of. But Donnie is better than ever these days and he's kicking ass every night.
6. - Do you still keep in touch with past band members from years ago?
Well, it's been a long time, so we don't really see them much anymore. We're constantly touring and staying busy recording and I know they've got a lot of things going on, too. But this band was founded on a "brotherhood" kind of basis. We paid a lot of dues together and suffered through trying to make something of ourselves in this world. So we still have fond memories of the old days with those guys. And they can be proud that we're still out there every night, carrying the 38 Special banner and keeping the spirit of this band alive after so many years. As for the two drummers we had back then, Jack Grondin is an evangelist minister now, travelling the world. He and his wife have been missionaries in Haiti and India and are going on to Pakistan. He's been on world-wide Christian Networks many times giving his testimony on international TV. The funny thing is, Jack was the wildest one in the whole group! But I always felt that he was kind of searching for a personal significance in his life. These days, he's helping to build orphanages and youth centers, along with lobbying for medical aid for the people there. I tell him that he's doing so much better work than we are. He's giving so much of himself and his faith for impoverished children. We're really proud to see that he's happy and spreading such joy and know that he's found his calling. Steve Brookins has also remained a good friend over the years. I just talked to him last night. He has stayed in the touring business and invested his time and money into the transportation side of things. He eventually wants to own a fleet of buses and trucks for hire. We go back a long way together. We still see Steve once in a while when we cross paths out on the road. He's a good soul and a good friend. And I hear that Jeff Carlisi has been involved in a lot of different projects lately. He's playing in a tribute band with other artists - they play the hits from their former bands - as well as building custom-painted guitars for NASCAR. And currently, he's working with a summer camp for kids - kind of a "rock camp" where music professionals spend a week with them and put them together with other kids as a "band." He's a great talent and we wish him well in whatever path he chooses in life. He certainly deserves it.
7. - Do you consider 38 Special as a Southern Rock Band? and do you have a definition of Southern Rock?
38 Special absolutely carries the spirit that all Southern Rock bands possess. It's that fighter attitude that comes from being the "underdog" - a term used here in the U.S. that means "the least favored in a competition." And believe me, the music business has always been a competition. We're from a region of the country that didn't fit the mold of the Hollywood rock star image, so we all had to work harder for recognition. That "underdog" attitude created a fighting edge for groups coming from the South, which then transferred into the music itself. The toughness of the guitar approach and the attitude in the way it's presented reflects the struggle that it took to get there. I'd say that's the real Southern Rock definition right there. But we've always thought of ourselves as transcending categories...not just labelled in one genre of music. We're an American Rock band that plays strong, tight songs with a full range of emotions and content, and it would be limiting ourselves to say that we are only a 'Southern Rock' band. We're songwriters and players who happen to come from the South.
8-You are one of the famous six strings player in this style, when did you begin playing the guitar?
My father was the music director in a Baptist church when I was a kid. I guess my earliest influence would have been the church hymns and how they moved me. There's a lot of soul in church music and I was fortunate to have been exposed to that early in life. I took piano lessons and was taught the basics - how music worked in harmony and counterpoint. Then my older brother, Jim, got an acoustic guitar for Christmas and I was hooked. He taught me those first few chords and I was constantly picking up the guitar and fooling around with it. I guess I was 12 or so. Later, I found I was able to transpose what I had learned from the piano to the guitar and discovered how the voicings worked differently than intervals on a keyboard. When my brother eventually traded that old acoustic for an electric guitar and amplifier, forget about it! I HAD to play then! All of the popular hits were exploding at the time and I was totally captivated by the Beatles and the whole British Invasion. It was youthful rebellion and fun. It was intoxicating and I was at a perfect age to absorb it. Every kid in America around my age wanted to create that blast together with friends who had a bass guitar or drums. It was sort of a fun gang mentality that swept through like a tornado.
9. What were some of your biggest musical influences?
It would be difficult to place a lot of them. I heard all of the greats...Ray Charles, Elvis, Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, Beatles, Spencer Davis Group, The Animals, The Rascals, Yardbirds, Stones, The Ventures, Motown, Otis Redding - Soul music in its entirety, Aretha, etc. - I was like a sponge. Then I got into the early 'guitar hero' years with Clapton, Hendrix, Page, Leslie West, Billy Gibbons, Ritchie Blackmore, and so many others. I tried to emulate their styles just like any young boy would. To me, they just knew how to make the guitar 'speak.' I started to realize that rock riffs and structured guitar parts were the personality of the song itself and it was a great tool in fashioning a certain character for a song. Mick Ralphs of Bad Company was a master at that - not so much the solos, but clever guitar bits that carried the song and made it live on its own. But the main soloist for me in those early years was Clapton. He just had that fluidity in his touch. I had posters of him all over my walls. I tried to find guitars like the ones he played... to get that resonant sound. I used to slow the LP's down to learn his guitar licks and that actually worked fairly well. It was the only form of "instruction" we had back then. I also loved the real "stinger" players like Leslie West from the group Mountain and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. As a matter of fact, I play a Les Paul Jr. today because I had seen Leslie West play one when I was young. I was in awe of the monstrous sound that he got out of that little one pick-up guitar. It's just a thick, resonant slab of wood and gets the sound that I like. The two Jr.'s that I play now look pretty worn but they still sound good. That's all that matters to me. I was also greatly influenced by local guys in my neighbourhood who were to go on to be giants in the music world - living within blocks of me - the guys in Skynyrd. We all saw them every weekend at the teen clubs. They were a little older and we looked up to them. Back then, no one ever thought about actually trying to make a career in music. It was more of a fun outlet. But somehow, I think they knew they had a destiny. I went to school with most of them. I would ride a bicycle over to Allen Collins' house and hear the latest British import records he'd be playing along with. He'd always point out certain musical changes that moved him. That taught me how to listen closer to what was happening in the arrangement. He'd also teach me a few new blues licks that he'd learned. He was always passionate about his future in the band and was such an inspiration to me. The "Freebird" solo is Allen's beautiful, flawless diamond. Every time I hear it I think of him soaring away. He left us too soon, but will always be remembered for that historical contribution, as well as his gifted song writing. As the years passed, it was only the fiery, furious bands that held my interest - Cream, Zeppelin, Mountain, Hendrix, Bad Company...I loved Paul Rodgers' voice and Mick Ralphs' lyrical guitar figures...ZZ Top for their low-down Texas blues...and of course Skynyrd, with their three-guitar attack. Just so many rock bands that carried the true fire and aggression...anybody who cranked the guitars up and leaned into it. And I loved the soulful vocalists - Aretha, Ray Charles, Paul Rodgers, Otis Redding, Steve Winwood, Greg Allman, Ronnie VanZant - I played in so many 'cover bands' like every kid does when he's starting out. When I began to find my own singing voice, I realized I had unknowingly been influenced by other rock and pop singers back when I was a kid - Elvis, Little Richard, Dusty Springfield, Felix Cavaliere, Leslie Gore, Brenda Lee - the list could go on. I used to sing along with their records and I still try to put across that attitude that I heard back then. It's just an intangible spirit that I absorbed from so long ago.
10.- What inspired you to go for a harder, more kick-ass sound on Drivetrain?
We wanted to stay with the muscular side of 38 because it's what always moved us. We had done lighter records before and I felt that we were getting away from the power and fury that had been there from the beginning. Sometimes a band can get caught up in providing the record company with the next 'pop hit' and start to lose their edge. We had explored all avenues in our song writing and found that we kept coming back to how we continually approach our live shows. The attitude, that explosiveness that we put across for 90 minutes onstage is what we wanted to capture in a studio setting. It can be tough to do that sometimes. In the studio, you have to keep from getting caught up in the technical process. Digital recording can be tricky. If you're not careful, things can end up sounding a little clinical, kind of safe. So, it's really a spirit that you try to capture. We've always been fans of the explosive fury in big guitar songs and we wanted to show that, even after all these years, we still carry that strength.
11.- I read that the band wrote about 30 songs for the new disc and left off some of the lighter ones. Do you think some of these tunes will pop up on a future album or do you plan to keep pursuing your current hard-edged sound for a while?
It's hard to say what will happen to those other songs. Tom Soares, our website designer, and I had talked about having a "From the Vault" series on the site. Those songs are well-written but lighter in approach, so maybe they'll be heard online...or they may even find their way to another artist to record. The thing about song writing is that there are always sketchy ideas and out-takes that never see the light of day. It's a creative exercise that's been going on throughout our career. It's similar to a painter who sketches many versions of ideas before he paints the one to show the world. Through the years, we've written thousands of songs and maybe published a few hundred.
12. - What songs stand out for you on the new disc?
Several songs on the CD have been my favourites as we were recording them. They'd always give me a little jolt when we'd bring them out to work on. "Hurts Like Love" had that kind of jolt. "Bad Looks Good On You" was fun to play on - just a brutal blues groove that was a blast to jam along with. So many guitar players tell me that they love to play along with that one. One of my favourites is "Make Some Sense of It." That song just sounds joyous to me. I love the strong backbeat. "The Play" was really different but a good challenge. "Haley's Got a Harley" - we had a great time putting that one together. We were trying to see how greasy we could make a track and Donnie picked right up on that attitude. But I've got to say they're all favourites. There's a reason those songs made the cut.
13. - Briefly describe the band's musical relationship with Jim Peterik. Jim is the consummate songwriter and a good friend. He is so much a captive of the muse. He loves a good idea and will "write it to the wall," as they say. We've had a lot of good times writing songs, sharing a sip or two, and having some laughs. What more could you want out of something that's supposed to be work?
I've learned so much about the passion of writing by my association with Jim. He just can't help himself. Plus, he's a dedicated family man and all around good guy. So now that I've heaped so many praises on him, I should be expecting a check in the mail soon.
14. - Are you listening to any new artists these days?
Yeah, quite a few. I like 3 Doors Down for their aggressive guitar approach and the fact that they're keeping the melody strong, which is rare these days for rock bands. In my opinion, the natural musicality is lacking in a lot of new bands and their approach. I like the Killers... Audioslave...The New Pornographers have some really clever pop hooks. Maroon 5's got some good stuff. Gavin DeGraw's got a great sense of rhythm and voice. I thought Blink 182 had great chemistry with some humour thrown in. A few others - Nickleback really leans into it with those minor-to-major choruses. I like the new Green Day. The John Mayer Trio is great - cool bluesy guitar. He is an incredible guitarist. We have younger crew guys with so many CD's we get exposed to every day. I'm just now starting to appreciate Primus and their eclectic approach. We have satellite TV on the bus and constantly tune in to what's new out there. But it's always the big blues jams that we blast when we're getting ready for the show. There's something about fierce up tempo blues shuffles from the legends that always gets the party started.
15. -Your online bio describes "Jam On" as a political song inspired by seeing a photo of U2's Bono on the cover of Time?
Do you have any comment about the political climate in the US now? Well, the song was a little tongue-in-cheek from our position. I had read the Time article and how Bono was touting a peaceful solution by the power of music. We were basically saying that this is a screwed-up world and nobody has all the answers, but if you feel that music can somehow make a difference, we're behind you. And here's hoping that the latest Live 8 concerts will make a difference for poverty-stricken areas of the world, too. As far as the political climate in the US, I think we're seeing the divisiveness in this country between its citizens, and that is sad. Too much hate and false rhetoric flying between parties, and it tends to cloud perception. We should remain unified, looking at our problems together. This is the most divided nation I've seen since the 60's. With so much animosity out there, political second- guessing is rampant.
16. - I know that your coming to France is based on your sales rate, but don't you think that everything is warped these days because of the internet and those damn CD Burners ?
It's hard to say, John. I used to think that if someone was going to download one of our songs because they liked it, they'd become a fan and we'd have made another 'believer'- and they would possibly search further for more material. And since we have several compilations and anthologies also available at purchasing sites online, it would be easy to pick up ALL of the songs at one price. I thought of it as a different source for new fans discovering our music and possibly creating a bigger fan base overall. I do have some reservations about ALL of our material being available on the file-sharing sites, although I don't think that's the case right now. I think that the new sites that offer single songs for a small fee are the beginning of an industry starting to realize the advantage of online marketing. It's only fair to the songwriters themselves. The artists never get the best end of the record deal anyway, so they have to rely on their body of work. We all have to prepare for the future. There's also the problem of administrative staffs at record companies being reduced in size because of the simple fact that, mostly due to loss of revenue from file sharing, salaries can't be paid. That can't be good for the music business overall and is beginning to become apparent. Staffs at record companies rely on them for their livelihood. They aren't the executives profiting most. These people have families and are just employees of the company. So, I think it's a double-edged sword with this file-sharing problem. If digital music had been offered as a sample (reduced fidelity) online so that the music was available to hear, then the option to buy the upgraded fidelity (like videos) could have been a solution to the problem. But it's too late now. They're just going to have to accept that people are going to trade music online. It's not going to go away. And online purchasing sites are the record stores of the future, so they're going to have to work within this new medium. But the cutbacks can't all be blamed on file-sharers. The quality of the music itself has declined a lot over the years. Fans may like only one song these days, so they'll buy that one and skip the rest. In the next 10 years, I'm told that artists will release single songs every 3 months to online marketering sites. That tells me that an artist's full CD as it is now may become obsolete. It will be compilation CD's of purchased singles from different artists.
17. - It seems that it's very difficult for Classic-Rock bands to get their new material played on the radio these days. What are your feelings about the state of commercial radio now?
Most Top-40 radio is so bland and corporate these days that the avenues are pretty much closed to a lot of artists. And approx. 4,000 CD's are released EVERY MONTH from small indie labels to huge corporates. There are only 24 hours a day of radio programming and everybody is trying to get their 3 1/2 minutes for their song to be heard, so there's going to be problems. Not to mention that there has to be time allotted for advertising - the lifeblood of radio - which carves out more time in the day. Then you've got the Kelly/Justin/Clay Aikens of the teen pop world backed by the giant promotion machines...and their singles are being played several times a day, so that narrows it even more. So that's top-40 radio these days. And in my opinion, American Idol needs to just STOP diluting the market with amateur contest winners with records to sell. They don't write their songs, they don't play an instrument, and I don't see them being anyone's "idol". They all sound to me like they were put through the same publicity grinder and pre-packaged. Anyway, we realized that after 25 years, the only doors still open for us were at Rock radio, not even Classic-rock radio. Those Classic-rock stations are under strict compliance to play only the vintage songs from Classic-rock artists, but not the new stuff by them. And we're grateful that they still play our old material, but we've had some nice numbers at New Rock radio lately and are making inroads in capturing a new audience with the Drivetrain CD. But the main thing, John, is that after so many years and millions of records sold, we're still able to have a lot of FUN with this thing, and that's what it's all about. Radio has become a complicated mess. It's just sad to see so many excellent artists not getting the exposure they deserve. I'd say good luck to anybody trying to play the game these days. There's an old quote concerning this business, "You're only as great as people SAY you are"... meaning that someone could have the greatest collection of songs ever recorded, but if there isn't enough of a promotion team shouting their name in the streets, nobody's going to know about it. Again, that's why we have to consider ourselves really lucky to have won at this game. There's a heavy demand for 38 Special these days and our live show business has just exploded. We've sort of become a "brand" that people want to see. We hit over 100 cities every year and give them a powerful show. Plus, we have a great group of guys who share a mutual respect. We laugh together all the time and rock the crowds every night. What better life could you ask for?
18. - 38 Special have been at it for well over 25 years now. Any comments about the band's longevity and plans for the future?
They say the key to longevity is to know that it's a journey and not a means to a finish. We've had many successes, many twists and turns in our path and we've remained positive. Our original intention was to create a way of life for ourselves, reaching for realistic goals. That we've been able to achieve so much more is really a testament to our conviction. We were a group of guys from the neighborhood who stuck with it through the tough times because we felt we had something special. Now, so many years later, as we look at each other across the stage, we feel very fortunate that the fans are still enthusiastic about the music. It's a celebration of brotherhood and camaraderie that we've shared for many years, and we want to bring the audience along for the party and continue with that spirit of celebration into the future. It really is the best job in the world to go out there and make people happy every night. The songs we've written have become classics and have provided us and our families with a good life. We're truly thankful to the fans everywhere who have stayed with us. They're still interested in our new material because they've seen us grow. I look at our career in general as being very blessed and fortunate to have broken through with about 15 memorable songs that have propelled this band into the future. The greatest thing about having a "fan base" is that there are a lot of people everywhere who still love the band and have basically grown up with us. And with the massive resurgence of 80's music and Classic Rock, we've become one of the "premier live acts" in America. While radio has become a clustered mess of too many records to promote and too much traffic, we're more content now than ever. We're still in great demand by promoters and it's all because we deliver every night. Those new groups out there now with a song or two may have difficulty playing 100 cities a year 25 years from now, so I'd say we've been able to achieve the impossible. We've learned that in this business, the spotlight may shine on you for a while, but then the spotlight is going to shine on someone else when their time comes. So, you better have a plan for your future. All the Classic Rock bands out there touring every year and making a good living have basically won the game because they've built their future. We come from a true work ethic and we love what we do. With us, it's been a simple approach - tight, memorable songs that rock and make people feel joy they can't forget. That's been the fuel for many years.
19. - Anything else you want to add, particularly about Drivetrain?
Drivetrain is different for a reason. Change is not always comfortable to some people. But as artists, we want to keep changing because it's what keeps us interested. So, listen without prejudice. It's a fiery record. That's where we are now. It's got HEAT! And in regard to the history of the group...I have to tell you, John, our story is one of perseverance and dedication, and anyone who experiences our show can see that we worked hard to get there. When we leave it, it'll be because we've accomplished everything we wanted to do. But I don't see that happening any time soon.
OK, thank you so much. I want you to know that it should be a dream come true if we could see you live on stage.
Regards and Keep on Rockin Don. John Molet For " Road to Jacksonville " ( France )