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Q&A: 38 Special

Southern rockers 38 Special are still “Rockin’ into the Night” with their red-blooded and blue-collared songs that blend melody and harmony with just enough grit to take you “Back to Paradise.”

G.K. Hizer
March 28, 2018

In the early-‘80s, you couldn’t escape 38 Special. The band that bridged the gap between classic Southern rock and straightforward commercial rock took over the airways and barely looked over its shoulder while earning its reputation as group of road warriors, all while amassing an arsenal of hits.

In 2018, 38 Special is still tearing up the concert trail. One of the founding members of the band, lead singer Don Barnes caught up with Preview 918 and discussed all things 38 Special.

The current 38 Special lineup, with the exclusion of Donnie Van Zant and bassist Larry Junstrom, has been relatively constant for over 20 years. As the only remaining original member, what’s the spirit that ties it all together?

We’ve always kind of been changing, but at this point, even most of the “new” guys have been in the band for almost 25 years. Larry finally had to step away after 50 years of playing bass, because he was such a heavy and aggressive player, he developed carpal tunnel and had to stop. We got a great guy to take his place in Barry Dunaway who has played with Yngwie Malmsteen, Dokken and Ted Nugent. He stepped right in and has been solid.

Most people may not remember that we used to have two drummers. Jack [Grondin] is now an evangelist and minister and travels the world telling his story and spreading the gospel. He even helped build an orphanage in the Philippines. We still keep in touch and he’s doing great. Steve [Brookins] is in the transport business, and he’s doing well for himself too.

We all had to find our paths in life and they decided where they wanted to be and that’s great — being on the road and living out of a suitcase can be hard and it’s not for everyone. For the most part, we all still keep in touch, though, and we’re all happy for each other.

Donnie [Van Zant] developed inner ear nerve damage and the doctors told him if he didn’t stop, he’d go completely deaf. This is a noisy business. It’s not just the time onstage, it’s really all of the time. If you’re not onstage, it’s the sound of the semis or the bus, there are always generators running, and then the noise from setting up stages and stuff. We miss having him on the road, but his health is important, and I get that. We still talk and he still sends song ideas, so it’s not like he’ll ever not be a part of the family. Dusty [Hill], from ZZ Top is dealing with the same situation. He just uses in-ear monitors turned down really low and keeps his head wrapped, so people don’t really notice.

As far as what makes it still 38 Special, I think it’s the sound. I was fortunate enough to have the voice that was on most of our hits and I can still recreate that sound. As a band, we recreate that and nothing is missing. We go to painstaking efforts to keep the sound clear. We do everything we can to keep everything isolated: guitars, drums, vocals, so it doesn’t bleed together. People are amazed at how clear the sound is — and when it all sounds just like they remember, everyone goes home happy.

In 1984, you had a single on the Teachers soundtrack that was written by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. How did that song, “Teacher, Teacher,” come about and what did you add to it to put your own spin on it?

We shared the same label, A&M, as our record company and A&M films had the movie about to come about. As I understand it, Bryan had a record [Reckless] about to come out that they were really going to push and he thought the single might interfere with the momentum for the record. We were pretty much the label’s go-to band at that point. We did several soundtrack songs.

I remember we were out on tour at the time, but they said they needed it right away because the movie was about to come out, so we stopped what we were doing, learned the song and recorded the whole thing in one day. I added some slap back echo to the vocals. We’d just come from the arena and I liked the energy it gave it.

In 1986, on the "Strength in Numbers" tour, you had Honeymoon Suite opening for you in the summer, then Bon Jovi (before Slippery When Wet came out) on the fall leg of the tour. How much do you think the industry has changed in its openness to pairing seemingly different bands and artists?

I remember that tour. The guys in Bon Jovi had had a couple of hits, but they were still right on the cusp of breaking loose. They were still young and hungry.

You know, for us, it was always about gathering a larger fan base. We even toured with Iron Maiden. We really liked playing for people who were not normally our fans. Mostly, we were trying to cross-expose both our band and the fans. We had a pretty wide fan base and we played with other bands who had the same, so the goal was to use each others fan bases to gain new fans.

I do remember coming around the corner one afternoon, and Jon was on the phone. Back then, there weren’t all of the cell phones and everything, so he was on a pay phone. Anyway, I came around the corner and saw him hang up the phone and pump his fist. I asked what was up. He said his album had just reached No. 1. So that was a really pivotal moment and I was the only other one there. We were the last headliner they ever opened for.

Q: Clearly, 38 Special is deeply tied to its Southern rock lineage. How did the plane crash and Ronnie Van Zant’s passing affect Donnie and the band as a whole?

It was devastating for all of us. Those guys were more than just our heroes, they were hometown heroes. They had a rehearsal space right next to ours and just hearing them rehearse was inspiring and made us work that much harder.

Ronnie was a big mentor for us. He told us to not be clones of everyone else, use our own influences and do what made our hearts sing. We took that to heart.

They were great to us, but they were still very competitive with us. We’d be opening for them and they’d come backstage and ask us how we were feeling. We’d say something like “good.” They’d tell us good, because they were  going to kick our butts. They were the toughest of the toughest.

When that happened, we were all shocked and left reeling. How could this happen to our local heroes? Why them? Why that plane?

We were at rehearsal when it happened and two guys came to let us know. One guy pulled Donnie out to tell him and I asked the other what was going on. We’d been on that plane. It was like a tour bus with couches and stuff. We were in shock and just couldn’t comprehend. When Donnie left to be with his family, I went with him. It was just the end of the world for the family.

It was one of those moments that change your life. It was pivotal for me and for everyone else. I actually flew out to California with his father to identify the body, while Donnie stayed at home with his mother.

I told Donnie that Ronnie was probably a bigger influence on me than he was on him, even if he didn’t see it, because he wasn’t my brother. He even signed for a guitar amp for me. Early on, I had an amp that blew up when we were playing and he met me at the guitar shop and signed for me so I could buy a new one. This was a guy that helped me a lot and taught me a lot.

Donnie was crushed, because it was his brother, but we were all crushed and lost, because we’d lost our heroes.

38 Special
The Joint: Tulsa | Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa
777 W. Cherokee St. | Catoosa
April 19: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend