.38 Special, which closes out Coca-Cola Speed Street on Saturday, is no stranger to NASCAR – the veteran classic-rock band has played race events, including Speed Street, before.
Singer and founding member Don Barnes spoke to The Observer last week from his home in Atlanta about the history of its relationship with NASCAR, his distinct voice, and continuing without co-founder Donnie Van Zant.
Q. You’ve done a lot of NASCAR events, haven’t you?
A. We’ve played a lot of tracks. We were the first back when NASCAR was first putting entertainment on the tracks after the race. Traffic jams leaving the race are crazy. They’d wheel us in there on three tractor-trailer trucks – two of them would have a giant PA and the other a stage – and we’d entertain 100,000 of them while the track was clearing out. We did Loudon (N.H.), Bristol (Tenn.), Homestead (Fla.). I don’t think we’ve played the Charlotte track.
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Q. Donnie Van Zant officially retired from the band. How has that changed the dynamic?
A. We’ve revamped the whole set. It’s more of a muscular show with the hits. Donnie had the more bluesy side. I had more of a voice for radio. It’s a real ride. We’ve always been about that presentation. We put a medley together of our secondary songs from movies or whatever. Songs like “Back to Paradise” from “Revenge of the Nerds II.”
Q. That is one thing that stands out: You have a unique voice that’s easy to sing along with, as if it was made for radio. Were you aware of that strength early on?
A. I’m very thankful that it had some kind of unique sound to it. It’s identifiable. (Listeners) know it’s a .38 Special song. Like Don Henley – you know it’s him. That’s just solid gold for me. It just happened by accident. Donnie (Van Zant) and I played in 15 other bands before .38 Special. We were always trading lyrics and songs and singing in high school chorus. I learned to sing correctly, from the diaphragm. It helps doing 100 cities a year – still hitting the high notes and not blowing too much air out of the pipe there. There’s a million watts of power in the PA system, and I’m up on the microphone not singing any louder than I’m talking. We keep it regulated or controlled and let everybody else get excited.
Q. Is that something you had to learn?
A. When we were young, we thought playing 90 miles an hour and turning everything up as loud as it would go was impressive. We realized you lose something. We tweaked the songs, (learned to) wait for the next beat, let it breathe.
Q. Country rock has really come to a place where Southern rock once was. That’s given you a new opportunity to play to country fans.
A. We have been the token rock band in the country festival. The difference is that we came from the rock influences – (Eric) Clapton, (Jimi) Hendrix, Mountain, Bad Company and ZZ Top. Those guys come from the twangy country side of it, and they’re trying to be the rock band. The lines are blurred over the years. Southern rock has become the country music today. Even Garth Brooks in his autobiography said we were an influence on him. (We were using) lasers, Donnie in flying rigs, the circus atmosphere. We opened for Kiss back in the ’70s. We were unknown, and it was the year they made $400 million. We were the opening act, and people were waiting for the explosions of Kiss. We picked up all of those things over the years. Make yourself 50 feet tall. You’re driving that train. Be bigger. Be bombastic.