Southern rock was soaring in 1975, the year that Donnie Van Zant, brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd leader Ronnie Van Zant, co-founded .38 Special with singer-guitarist Don Barnes.
Barnes and Van Zant had been in many Jacksonville, Fla., bands before .38 Special, the Southern rock band that, following years of struggle, showed its pop-song skills via such early ’80s Top 40 hits as “Hold On Loosely” and “Caught Up in You.”
Before the hits, Barnes and Van Zant were part of a rough Jacksonville music scene that included sailors’ bars and after-hours joints that stayed open until the morning light.
The latter, bring-your-own-booze bars, Barnes said, inspired the epic jams that Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band became famous for.
“That’s where all the long solos came from,” Barnes said from his home in Charlottesville, Va. “The Skynyrd thing, the Allmans’ jamming, it was all just to kill time from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. People would crawl out when the sun was bright in the sky, sleep all day and do it again.”
Still teenagers, Barnes and his peers could earn $150 a week in Jacksonville bars. But learning to play the pop hits of the day for drunken sailors proved a far more valuable lesson.
“We got a foundation that a lot of people didn’t get at an early age,” Barnes recalled. “We learned the structures of songs. The A section, the ramp up to the chorus, the bridge, the big payoff.”
Van Zant, Barnes and their .38 Special bandmates released their self-titled album debut in 1977. Special Delivery followed the next year.
“Our first album was pretty much a copy of the music that was going on at the time,” Barnes admitted. “Southern rock was exploding. But we didn’t realize that it had already been done by the best, Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers.
“When your first album comes out, you think you’re going to bust the world wide open,” Barnes said. “But then nobody cares. So you go lick your wounds, pick yourself up and start writing for another album. And you think, ‘OK, I really got it this time.’
“But it’s a tough road. You sacrifice everything. Marriages and holidays and birthdays and anniversaries. You’ve got to put it all out there to make it to No. 1 because, if you don’t make your thing No. 1, somebody’s gonna come along and make their thing No. 1. They’ll walk right over you.”
In the late ’70s, things were looking bleak for .38 Special. Neither of its two albums had been successful. The band’s record label was about to cut it loose.
“We actually went back to Jacksonville and were standing in the unemployment line for a while,” Barnes recalled. “That was embarrassing for us. But we just hadn’t fleshed out what we wanted to do, direction wise.”
Ronnie Van Zant gave his little brother, Donnie, and the rest of .38 Special some advice, Barnes recalled.
“Ronnie told us, ‘Don’t try to be a clone of somebody else.’
“So we shifted gears and changed formula a bit. We were fans of the British invasion and the groups that had the big hits on the radio. So we made songs that were more concise and created a style that’s identifiable to us, still to this day.”
The songs of .38 Special are now part of classic rock playlists, alongside Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Boston and, of course, the band’s Jacksonville peers, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“We wanted nuggets of gold, songs that could be played for decades,” Barnes said. “We tried to create a history for ourselves and songs that people instantly recognize.”
Although Donnie Van Zant’s inner ear nerve damage, caused by decades of performing alongside monster amps, prevents him, at least for the time being, from appearing with .38 Special, Barnes and other longtime members of the band continue to play more than 100 shows a year.
“We appreciate everybody making us a part of their lives for all these years,” Barnes said. “I can still go out there and crank the guitar up to 10 and try to be 19 years old again.”