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.38 Special says the stage keeps them young

The members of the Southern rock group .38 Special finds their fountain of youth on stage.

Don Barnes, a co-founder of the rock band in Jacksonville, Fla., with Donnie Van Zant, said in a phone call last month from a tour bus in International Falls, Minn., why they play 100 concerts a year.

“We’re still out there trying to be 19 years old again,” Barnes said.

The group known for such hits as “Hold On Loosely,” “If I had Been the One,” “Back Where You Belong” and “Second Chance” from the 1980s will headline next Thursday at House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach.

A guitarist and vocalist, Barnes said HOB “has always been a great place for us,” and that .38 Special cranks its guitars and sound “to make people happy and bring that good kind of feeling” for a night out, often down memory lane.

“They clap and sing along, and high-five each other,” he said, “sometimes with tears in their eyes and remembering times with friends from a long time ago.”

Barnes said logging more than a quarter-century in the business, the group feels honored to see “the cross-section of ages” rocking in the seats, including 12-year-old boys.

“Donnie and I kind of see ourselves in those young guys,” Barnes said. “We were those young guys seeing Led Zeppelin for six bucks.”

Marriage in music

With the two men having kept the band going since 1975, Barnes said getting along remains the best thing standing the test of time.

“Being in a band is like being married to five other guys,” he said. “It’s coming from the same neighborhood and being cut from the same cloth. It was our goal in the first place to have longevity.”

Barnes said he has told Van Zant – whose late brother, Ronnie Van Zant, headed Lynyrd Skynyrd – that “people can see it from the stage that we still enjoy it. … They kind of pick up that vibe. It’s a positive thing.”

“Brining a party and energizing a party” for audiences, Barnes said, “they’re exhausted as much as we are after an hour and a half.”

Besides rounding up highlights from their own catalog, .38 Special likes being creative through sprinkling in a medley of “secondary movie songs,” just for some variety.

Barnes also brought up how much more fragmented commercial radio has become since the 1980s, when pop stations might play .38 Special, Van Halen, the Pointer Sisters and Kenny Loggins all in a row. Building its base “one city at a time” back then, though, .38 Special appreciated coming back to the same places, Barnes said, “always building on that same atmosphere,” which carries over today in many city and outdoor festivals.

“It’s a clean show, with a good feeling,” he said, “and fans feel elated from it.”

Convinced that “we don’t really get old,” Barnes said, “Playing rock keeps that youthful thinking.”

The group stays thankful that fans turn out year after year, and Barnes said the band mates “understand the lights shine on you for a while, and then the lights shine on someone else.”

Time-outs for tunes

Songs also fit molds in other ways. Whereas someone might hear “Caught Up in You” as bumper music between innings at a professional baseball game, Barnes said he hears those observations “all the time.”

“Hold On Loosely” remains a staple during breaks at football games, Barnes said, just like “Rockin’ into the Night.” He called that “a chanting anthem” with which .38 Special opens its shows.

Living in Atlanta with a second home in Virginia, Barnes said traveling across the continent, he sees how different songs touch fans in different ways. Seeing that, the band wants to play each song “with just as much passion as when we recorded it.”

“We feed off of all that,” Barnes said. “It pumps you up, and the adrenaline flows.”

He said recording the “Live from Texas” CD last year from various venues across the Lone Star State, the group wanted to give fans an outlet “to take the party home with them.”

The cover of the album, taken from the back of the crowd in an amphitheater, helps makes the point for the listener.

“You hear the crowd behind you and around you,” Barnes said. “We wanted to drew that element in. It’s pumped up, the crowd’s roaring, and the band is cooking.”

The band also continues work on a new studio album, slated for release this fall, a project to rework its classic songs with acoustic versions and changed meters.

“ ‘If I Had Been the One’ is a ballad now,” Barnes said, “and ‘Caught Up in You’ has a world music feel to it. We took our own license to change things.”