With its 1980s heyday a quarter-century in the past and its livelihood now being generated by tireless roadwork, 38 Special is one of those groups you’re certain to find on the concert circuit in the warm-weather months, playing about every crossroads in every corner of the Lower 48.
And despite the fact he was fresh from a grueling cross-country trek from Seattle to Asheville, N.C., last week, 38 Special frontman Don Barnes said in a conference call it’s actually nice work if you can get it.
“We play 100 cities a year,” the 61-year-old said. “We’ve been doing it for 37 years. It’s a good job to bring joy to people.”
In the days when they were racking up best-selling albums like “Special Forces” and “Strength in Numbers,” they were bringing their singular brand of Southern rock to arenas, where audiences would hear radio and MTV staples like “Hold On Loosely” and “Caught Up In You.” Now, like many of their fellow classic rockers, they reliably ply their wares at theaters, on cruise ships and in casinos, and will be checking in at the Meadows Casino in North Strabane Township Saturday, still playing “Hold On Loosely” and “Caught Up In You.”
“The live show has taken precedence,” said Barnes. Though the band is working on new material, with an eye toward an eventual new album, there hasn’t been a new 38 Special disc since 2004’s “Drivetrain.” It’s easy to understand why – even the most esteemed of rock veterans, like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty or Bob Dylan, never land new material on the airwaves, even if it sells in decent numbers.
“Radio is fractured,” he continued. “It’s really tough to get traction on radio. The classic rock radio stations will play all your music from the classic rock era, but they won’t play any new music by classic rock artists. And that’s a frustrating situation to be in.”
Way back when, live work moved units, but now “everything is the opposite,” Barnes continued. “The live show is what everyone wants to see.”
Barnes is the sole remaining member of 38 Special who was there at its formation in 1974 in Jacksonville, Fla. The group sprang from the same fertile musical soil that also produced the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band. The group’s first disc, a self-titled album, arrived in 1977, but they finally tasted real success in 1981, with “Hold On Loosely” and a more arena-friendly style.
Barnes was left in the position of being the sole veteran following the departure last year of Donnie Van Zant, 38 Special’s guitarist, and the brother of Ronnie Van Zant, the original lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd who died in a 1977 plane crash. Van Zant stepped aside because of hearing loss, one of the occupational hazards of cranking it up to 11 for decades.
“The funny thing about this is, years ago, he would always want us to aim these six-foot tall amplifiers at him, so I guess it kind of took its toll on him,” Barnes said. “I told him Ronnie would be proud he made it this far.”
And though 38 Special isn’t necessarily headed to No. 1 with a bullet on the Billboard charts anymore, Barnes is philosophical about it.
“The light’s going to shine on you for a while,” he said. “Then the light is going to shine on somebody else.”