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Interview with Don Barnes

.38 Special Still Rockin'
.38 Special (Vocals/Guitarist)

Don Barnes

Interviewed by Brian Rademacher
Date: April 2008

Office Site:
Official My Space site:

Don Barnes : Hey Brian, it's Don Barnes. How ya doing today? I checked your site out; it’s pretty diverse. I like it. You got a good thing going there. It’s funny how a small thing turns out to be a huge thing. People underestimate how many other people are in this world and a site like yours can help 38 Specialartists to be known. It is the same with our site. It is designed and maintained by our good friend Tom who lives in Massachusetts. He also does LYNYRD SKYNYRD's official site among many others.

Brian Rademacher: Thanks man, we work hard. Ready to go?

Don Barnes : Sure, let’s get to it.

Brian Rademacher: This whole interview was a suggestion from my boss at my day job, Sergio Alves. We were talking one night and he mentioned to me that the band that he really liked was .38 SPECIAL (it's mine too), so I contacted you and you graciously agreed to the interview.

Don Barnes : Good deal, man. In our early days, New Jersey was one of our hot spots. You remember Passaic, New Jersey Capitol theatre; we rumbled those walls many times with Charlie Daniels and SKYNYRD, We’re still out there kickin' it, thirty-four years later. (Laughing) Donnie and I played in like fifteen bands before .38 SPECIAL.

Brian Rademacher: Tell me a little about Don Barnes' childhood years.

Don Barnes : I was a pretty shy kid. My dad was a music director in the Baptist church where I was exposed to a lot of music. My aunt on my father’s side was the pianist in the church. It was kind of my background growing up in the south, the big Bible Belt down here. As things progressed, my older brother got a box guitar when I was about eleven. He learned a few songs and taught me, and I picked it up and it didn’t leave my hands. My brother still tells everyone he taught me everything I know, you know how brothers are. Down in Jacksonville, Florida there were three naval bases and my brother traded the guitar to a sailor for an electric guitar. There were a lot of venues for kids to play in Jacksonville. That’s why a lot of bands were coming out of Jacksonville.

Brian Rademacher: Did you have anything posted on your walls in your room?

Don Barnes : My whole bedroom was full of Eric Clapton posters, he was a god. You would learn guitar by slowing the record down and try to learn the guitar solos, this was '68 when CREAM & Hendrix were big There was no taping back then so it was easy to slow a record down. I recently was reading Clapton’s book (the autobiography), which is a great book. I was reading the book when my perception of him at the time was a god from the heavens and played like nobody I'd ever heard. I was at the point in the book where he came to America when he was on substance abuse and drinking too much, then went back to England and entered rehab on a farm in Scotland. He says, "There I was shoveling horse manure and feeding the pigs." Then he says. "I rather liked it." This was after CREAM and “Crossroad”, “Sunshine”, and all the things kids worshipped and there he is shoveling horse manure, saying "I rather like it." (Laughing) Puts things into perspective there.

Brian Rademacher: Were you into sports?

Don Barnes : Yeah! A lot of baseball, some football… My brother was the star on the track team. Most musicians focus on one thing: they're OCD. Like these virtuosos; they lived it every day. That's not entirely healthy, I don’t think. But it makes you good at one thing.

Brian Rademacher: What was the first concert you attended?

Don Barnes : I think it was THE ROLLING STONES here at the Coliseum in Jacksonville back in 1964. 38 SpecialThe big one that stands out for me is Hendrix, he opened for THE MONKEES. They put him on the bill with these girls screaming for THE MONKEES, which is not a good bill, and you have this frightful looking black man come out and destroy the place. My sister went to see THE MONKEES and she said some "Jimi" guy stuck his head out of the curtain. (Laughing) About a year later, I went to see him at the same coliseum in Jacksonville. It had been big news that he had opened for THE MONKEES the year before and was booed by the kiddies that night. But by this time he had exploded into the biggest phenomenon on the planet. And when he came out on stage, he kind of sarcastically said, "Yeah, it’s nice to be back here in Chicago," and the place roared. **Then he said, "And if you're going to boo again this time, at least boo on key!" I saw LED ZEPPELIN for $6.00 pre Ticketmaster service charges. We have been really fortunate with some hit songs and we have a big fan base.

Brian Rademacher: How about the first album you owned?

Don Barnes : It would have to be THE ROLLING STONES or THE BEACH BOYS.

Brian Rademacher: When you first met Donnie Van Zant, what was your impression?

Don Barnes : The first time, I was a kid and I got caught breaking into a band trailer. I road my bike over to the train yard; my father was a railroad engineer there. I was about thirteen years old. We were all poor and I got the trailer open and a hand reached onto my shoulder asking what I was doing... that was Donnie's trailer. I was caught red-handed. Years went by and Donnie was in a rival band and after a while we connected with the Van Zant family. We lived on the same street in Jacksonville. Donnie's dad Lacy (who just passed away recently) was a big mentor, and so was Ronnie. We went through the tragedy in '77 with SKYNYRD’s plane crash and Ronnie. I flew out there with Lacy and Donnie stayed home with his mother. It made us all stronger to drive forward with that tragedy.

Brian Rademacher: Was .38 SPECIAL the original name for the band?

Don Barnes : Before .38 SPECIAL it was ALICE MARR. That name was in the encyclopedia. It was a mythical ghost ship that was manned by sailors who had died from the plague. What an upbeat name. (Laughing) We couldn’t practice in a garage because we would get the cops called on us, so we found this abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere. So we found who owned this shack and we rented it. They would always say, "Why do they want to rent that beat-up shack out in the middle of nowhere?” The first practice space we rented was in the back of a barbershop, we were loading in, and he didn’t know what we were doing. We would practice at night, not going into the barbershop. He would come in the morning and see all these bottles of broken tonic that vibrated off the shelf on the floor. (Laughing) They kick us out. We found this old auto parts shop north of Jacksonville; we were out there three months. We had to re-enforce the walls with two by fours and chains and things.

We couldn’t stay out there with our equipment, which we left there because we had day jobs. So we drilled a hole through the cinder blocks and through the door, which was about a foot thick, like a bolt door and we put a tractor trailer chain through it and locked it up. We were irresponsible kids, though... so at one point we lost the key, and we had to climb up the drainpipe and go in through a hinged window on the top of the building. So this is what we had to do for a few months. So these were the lean years, when we had a car to get to practice we would all pile in (bald tires and all) and we would all chip in twenty-five cents to get gas to get there. That’s paying your dues.

So we were out there one night practicing and I guess the cops decided to have a raid on this building. So we were playing this song, it was loud and when we stopped, we heard these cops beating on the door and blowing horns. There were about fifteen cop cars with lights going and everything, and all we could hear through the door was, "Come out with your hands up!" They couldn’t get in because it was locked. We were yelling to the cops that we would come out, but we have to come out from the top because we lost the key to the lock. We heard one cop say, "I have a .38 SPECIAL; I’ll just shoot the lock off like the old west days.” After that we were going to play an old dirty club and we didn’t have a name for the band so we said, "Let’s just use .38 SPECIAL for now," and never changed it.

Brian Rademacher: Tell me about the rehearsals back then.

Don Barnes : Yeah, we did old TRAPEZE and others; we would play songs from bands and pick a song that was obscure. This way they would assume it was our original. We sprinkled some of our own originals too.

Brian Rademacher: When you signed with A&M records, what demos did you give them?

Don Barnes : Funny you should ask. My brother just called from Memphis; he was at Sun Studios and he was telling me how everything is still the same. Elvis’ original mic is there and everything. He didn’t remember that our very first demo was done at Sun Studios. We were amazed to be there; Knox Phillips was the engineer there (the son of Sam Phillips). Anyway, the demo we sent was pretty pathetic. (Laughing) At that time, being pretty confident guitar players, we tried to overdo things and tried to be too clever. Simplicity as an artist is sometimes the beauty of things, so we backed up after that. Some of the songs were called “Country Man” and “Carolina Bound”, but they never saw the light of day...another was called “Foolish Women”.

Brian Rademacher: Did you think you were getting signed because of Donnie Van Zant being Ronnie’s brother?

Don Barnes : It was an advantage to have one leak there. Ronnie was working with the Paragon Agency out of Macon, Georgia where Terry Rhoads was the agent. So Ronnie asked Terry to book our band but he told him, "I don’t want them to have the easy road, they have to do it the way we did it. They have to starve. Put them in the worst places, the farthest away places so they pay their dues." We slept in the back of a dirty van and took the hard road; we always thought, "Why did he do this to us?" But he knew struggling and starving will create more of a bond; if you have it too easy you can walk away. It is like a team mentality. Many times we said, "What the hell are we doing here and why did he do this to us?" Ronnie’s band back then was called ONE PER CENT and they would always win the battle of the bands, this goes all the way back to when I road my bike to Allan Collins house. When they became LYNYRD SKYNYRD coming from a small town, not New York, not Hollywood, you knew it could be done. You think "I could be as good as he is." Ronnie got us a manager and we were looking at A&M, and Arista (with Clive Davis). Again, the demo wasn’t impressive and they sent us back and said, "When you have something better, come back." 38 SpecialThat whole thing... living off peanut butter and jelly.

Brian Rademacher: You worked with Jim Peterik from SURVIVOR on some tracks including the song “Hold On Loosely”...

Don Barnes : Yeah, that song was written about my divorce in the early Eighties. I had something negative and wrote about some positive advice for people. “Rockin’ Into the Night” was written for SURVIVOR and Jim felt it wouldn’t fit their band so we used it. “Hold On Loosely” opened the door a little with AOR radio for us. When you go through the songs, different members had different opinions on what song they liked best. But we did what’s in our heart. We went to KLOS radio in Los Angeles, went to their office, and the guy put the disc on the turntable. The first few chords he stopped and said, "Oh yeah, we’ll play that."

Brian Rademacher: After that, did the songs come naturally?

Don Barnes : We always had that unique style. We took advice from Ronnie Van Zant who said, "Don’t try to be a clone of anybody; be yourself." That was our problem in the beginning: always trying to be a southern rock band like the best: THE ALLMAN BROTHERS, LYNYRD SKYNYRD and everything. So we took his advice. All these songs came from true stories. Like “Caught Up In You” was about a girl that I was dating and I couldn’t get my work done: "I’m so caught up in you." A light bulb came on in my head and I thought, "That’s a great song title."

Brian Rademacher: “Second Chance” came out in 1989 off “Rock and Roll Strategy”. That was the biggest hit after you left the band, and you worked on a solo album called ”Ride The Storm” in 1989. Tell me the story.

Don Barnes : I left the band for about four years; I felt I had no personal life and had to get away for a while. That was sung by Max Carl, a brilliant vocalist who is singing with GRAND FUNK RAILROAD now, and they do that song. I did “Ride the Storm” for A&M Records for two and a half years and unfortunately, me and a whole lot of artists were on A&M when the company was sold to Universal for like $600 million dollars. It’s the kiss of death because when a company is sold they want a whole new staff and have no interest in your product at that point. A lot of those projects got shelved. It’s out there on the 'Net, these companies want to hold it, and after all these years I’m giving it away free. (Laughing)

Brian Rademacher: You are doing 100 shows a year; how many shows did you play during 1983?

Don Barnes : Easy, in '83 we were doing about 200 shows. Back then when you're younger you go out for months at a time, now we go out for ten days and go home for a few and go back out again. Living out of a suitcase isn’t all what’s it’s cracked up to be.

Brian Rademacher: In 2004 “Drivetrain” came out and “Trooper With an Attitude “was the intro for the Broken Lizard movie Super Troopers. Was the song originally written for that?

Don Barnes : Yeah, we did some instrumental stuff and the intro. I wrote the song in about fifteen minutes. People don’t like being stopped by the cops, walking the line with the flashing lights, sitting there in a cold sweat. It’s easy… it writes itself.

Brian Rademacher: You are playing out these days with Charlie Daniels, how is it now versus in the past?

Don Barnes : Well, we are more mature; back in the Eighties we were tearing up the hotels and do stupid things like that. Charlie is a true man of class. It’s a good time and a lot of fun. I remember back in the seventies Charlie’s band was in the hotel and we would be spraying fire extinguishers under Charlie’s door. (Laughing) Charlie would come running and say; "We really don’t like to do that anymore." It was like your dad caught you. (Laughing)

Brian Rademacher: Tell what the feeling is like to be able to bring smiles to the kids in the Children’s Hospital?

Don Barnes : That was such an uplifting emotional day. That day started when we did the national anthem at the Tampa Bay Devil Rays stadium. After that, we got in this van and we were taken to the Children’s Hospital. There we were to try to cheer up some of the kids by singing a song. A lot of the kids were getting better; they were going to come out. When you give like that, you get so much back. Your own personal life doesn’t compare to the really serious problems like that. You feel just blessed that you can do something to make a kid happy for a time. We do a lot of charity things for kids. We were doing a record near St. Jude’s Hospital and we would get in the elevator in the Holiday Inn where we were staying and the kids with their parents would get in there with you, with the baldhead getting ready for treatment. Oh man, our hearts went out to them.Don Barnes When we left Memphis, we ordered a truck full of toys to give them, very emotional.

Brian Rademacher: What does Don Barnes do in his spare time at home?

Don Barnes : I have a five-year-old son who takes up my time. I have a boat, I ski and do things like that in my spare time.

Brian Rademacher: When can we expect a new all-original .38 SPECIAL release?

Don Barnes : Well, we have some songs that were for the “Drivetrain” record but we didn’t use them because they were more pop-oriented. The “Drivetrain” record was done for rock radio, so we didn’t use those songs but we really liked them. We are going to put some of those together. We also have an acoustic album coming out with “Hold On Loosely” and other classics. You know how bands do unplugged shows; they come on there and just play the song exactly the same way acoustically. We took a different approach and we dropped the keys, we changed some things around. Some of the harder songs we changed to a ballad and it came out really good.

Brian Rademacher: Does it amaze you that after all these years, you can play “Hold on Loosely” live and you have the whole audience singing along with you?

Don Barnes : Oh man, every night we see tears in people's eyes, high fives, people singing along to every word. You see ten or twenty thousand people singing along. It’s an emotional pull on the heart. It’s a good feeling. It made it all worth it, seeing these golden nuggets you create become something.

Brian Rademacher: What’s the rest of the year look like to you?

Don Barnes : Everyone has some kind of fest coming out. We’ll be busy up until about Halloween. Around Christmas time, we want to be with the camcorder and the family too. (Laughing) That’s what it's all about.

Brian Rademacher: Hey Don, it’s been fun for me talking to you and I wish you the best. Do you want to say anything to the fans?

Don Barnes : I just want to thank the fans for keeping the music alive. We appreciate supporting .38 SPECIAL to stay alive and kickin'! Rock on!


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