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38 Special makes happy return to rock ‘n’ roll southern roots
By Gary Graff
Saturday January 7, 1989
Turn on the radio and you will hear the members of 38 Special boasting about their “Rock ‘n’ Roll Strategy,” which they say is “a system that’s guaranteed.” Maybe so, but a year and a half ago, it seemed like a dubious scheme. That’s when the group decided to part company with singerguitarist-songwriter Don Barnes, the man responsible for a five-year string of hit singles that included Hold on Loosely, Caught Up in You and If I’d Been the One.
Drummer Steve Brookins also dropped out at the time, but for non-musical reasons: He wanted to devote his energies to golf-course architecture. Artistic differences Barnes’ split, however, was strictly over artistic differences. According to guitarist Jeff Carlisi, the other members felt Barnes’ writing — a mainstream, pop-oriented approach — had robbed the group of its character. “We were losing some of that edge, some of that rock ‘n’ roll, southern spirit,” Carlisi, 36, said. “The spark and energy we had on records like Wild-Eyed Southern Boys was disappearing. We wanted to get back to that.”
The battle over the southern sound had long been a civil war within 38 Special’s ranks. Formed in 1975 in Jacksonville, Fla., the group was born out of the same musical community as the Allman Brothers, the Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd; singer Donnie Van Zant, in fact, is the younger brother of the late Skynyrd vocalist Ronnie Van Zant. The heritage was a blessing and a curse, however, and 38 Special’s tag as “just another southern rock band” was too much for its members liking.
“The audience was getting bored, and so were we,” Barnes said in 1986. So he began experimenting with the sound, taking away the twangy guitars, cowboy hats and whisky, adding pop elements like the Cars’ clickety guitar rhythms and crafting catchy, radio-friendly melodies.
Carlisi said the rest of the band agreed with the approach at the time. “We were proud of the heritage,” he said, “but for the sake of trying to get the press off our backs, we were trying to avoid it, which turned out to be a bad thing to do; we sounded less like 38 Special and more like a band trying to sound like 38 Special. “People were asking us, ‘Why’d you cut your hair? Why’d you take off your cowboy hats? Will you make up your mind about what you want to be?’ ” Deciding to get back on the southern approach, however, meant getting rid of Barnes, which was like tearing up a winning lottery ticket. “But we thought that, if you make a good record, that’s all that matters,” Carlisi said. “Look at the Doobie Brothers. A lot of people
said, ‘Gee, without Tom Johnston, what are they going to do?’ Suddenly they got Michael McDonald and got bigger than ever.”
Carlisi said 38 Special had an easy enough time finding new members.
Max Carl, former vocalist and keyboardist with the acclaimed Bay Area band Jack Mack & the Heart Attack, was a musical and personal match. “It clicked immediately,” said Carl, 38, who was renovating houses in Los Angeles when 38 Special called. “We all had the same kind of sense of humor and cut our teeth on the same kind of music. When we sat down to play, it was all blues shuffles; that’s my wheelhouse, so I figured this couldn’t be too bad.” New guitarist Danny Chauncey also came with sterling credits — he was a member of Billy Satellite and co-wrote Eddie Money’s hit I Wanna Go Back. And he had one other
“He stepped off the plane and said, ‘Do you like to play golf?’” Carlisi said. “I told him we all loved the game, and he said ‘Good. Can I be in the band?’” The new 38 Special is already seeing positive results of its Rock and Roll Strategy, the title of its latest album. Rock radio, which all but abandoned the band two years ago, has embraced the title track and Little Sheba, a Carl-written track about female mud-wrestling. Carlisi, meanwhile, is betting that a year of road work will restore 38 Special’s good name with an audience he fears has grown disenchanted.
38 SPECIAL DISCOGRAPHY:
1977 38 Special
1978 Special Delivery
1980 Rockin’ Into the Night
1981 Wild-Eyed Southern Boys
1982 Special Forces
1984 Tour de Force
1986 Strength in Numbers
1988 Rock & Roll Strategy
1991 Bone Against Steel
1999 Live at Sturgis
2001 A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night
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