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Just muscle & melody
'Be Who You Are': For Don Barnes of 38 Special, success came when he learned how to hold on loosely
"If I was just going through the motions," says Don Barnes, "I would be bored to death right now."

Every hour, every day, some classic rock radio station somewhere is playing a 38 Special song - "Caught Up in You," "Hold on Loosely," "Back Where You Belong" or a half-dozen others - as if it were hot off the presses.

Like all the best stuff that forms the bedrock of that popular airwave format - like Zeppelin, Styx, the Who and Skynyrd - those tunes, from the 1980s, are acid-burned into the national consciousness. They're timeless.

38 Special is unique among rock bands of the golden era in that its two founders and lead singers, Don Barnes and Donnie Van Zant, are still in the ranks; so many of the great bands have been fractured by mortality, ego or worse. They're playing Saturday night at the Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival, a family-fun weekend, in Richmond Hill.

Van Zant, of course, is the younger brother of the late Ronnie Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd's visionary songwriter and lead singer.

Like Skynyrd, 38 Special came out of the rural suburbs of Jacksonville, Florida. The band's first two albums had little to no impact, fans and critics dismissing them as just another boogie & barbeque band in Skynyrd's successful wake.

Things changed after Ronnie Van Zant died in the 1977 crash of Skynyrd's chartered plane.

Things changed when Barnes heard the first Cars album in 1978.

Things changed when Barnes began to change his songwriting technique, inspired by something Ronnie had told him. On the third 38 Special album, 1980's Rockin' Into the Night, Barnes, Van Zant and their bandmates began to forge a distinctive sound, an anthemic blend of power pop and tough-guitar Southern rock.

The current incarnation of the band also includes bassist Larry Junstrom, who joined 38 Special in 1977.

(38 Special headlines Saturday; Friday night’s band is Orleans - “Dance With Me,” “Still the One” - which still features Larry Hoppen, the original vocalist on those classics.)

In the days before those big radio and MTV hits started happening, did you feel like Skynyrd's little brother?

Don Barnes: We kind of did, yeah. Ronnie was older than us and he was a big mentor. You're coming from poverty, and nobody believes in you, nobody knows who you are. And you're stoically standing up there saying ‘I can be somebody! I want to try to be!' And nobody believes that. You're constantly looking for somebody to help you.

So we were trying to be a bit of a clone of those other groups, and it was Ronnie that told us ‘Stop doing that. Be who you are. Capitalize on your influences, what you liked growing up - what was that?' Of course, we loved Skynyrd and all that stuff too, but I realized that I had gravitated towards power pop songs. All the way back to the Easybeats, "Friday on My Mind." I was always a big Beatles fan.

So I just started doing that. After the plane crash, I remembered those words that Ronnie said. I thought well, maybe I've been giving 80 percent up to this point - but now he's gone, and we're left with this legacy, and what are we gonna do? I thought, I'm gonna give 110 percent, just delve into every single avenue, every melody choice, everything I can find ...

Because we were still struggling. We still failed at that point, even at the time of the plane crash we still had nothing.

That was the thing that built up some more fortitude: Stand up, and be who you are.

You told me once that the Cars' early songs, which all began with that simple, chuck-chuck-chuck guitar figure - eighth notes - really turned you around.

Don Barnes: In Jacksonville, all these guys around were guitar players, and everybody was trying to out-do each other and trying to be the most genius guitar player. Of course, they were all influenced by Clapton and Hendrix, all the old greats.

Trying to be so clever just complicates a song. It's too much information for the listener's ear. The beauty is in the simplicity of something, and that was something we had to learn. Sometimes an artist is painting a painting, and one large brushstroke just says it all. Instead of the guy that's got the three-hair camel hair brush, making the tiniest of details ... when you look at a picture that's so complicated, it's too much to take in.

It's the beauty and simplicity of just muscle and melody - the good, simple rhythm, chords, and then put on a great melody.

Are you kind of surprised that you're still in 38 Special, still out there singing your old songs every night?

Don Barnes: First of all, you have to write a thousand songs before you even get 50 that you can publish. It's a work ethic thing. So any of those songs that did finally rise to the top, or had some kind of light shining on them, was through the process of a lot of struggle. I hear the original recording of "Rockin' Into the Night," and I can hear me over-compensating everything on that song, because we were starving. We were suffering. We had failed so many times. You have to learn so much failure at first, and pick yourself up and say "I still believe that I can get somewhere."

The fact that all these years later they still play those songs on the radio, that is really a testament to the risk-taking and the suffering and the basic fear of your future. All of that kind of fades away in the distance, but it's something that's very important to me, in my heart.

And I still sing ‘em like it was the first day, because I see the reaction of the people who've only heard that version. And that's what they want to hear. And if I was just going through the motions, I would be bored to death right now.

Let's say you're in Milwaukee or something, and you're singing "If I'd Been the One." Can you remember why you wrote it?

Don Barnes: Every time. I remember sitting at the dining room table scratching out the lyrics, trying to come up with just the right thing. That was a song about a girl I had a kind of long distance romance with - she was in Texas. It was doomed because, of course, I was traveling. She contacted me saying she wished she could have my blessing, because she was going to get married to a guy. At the time, it was just crushing to me. And I thought "Wow. Put yourself in my place. What if I'd have done that to you? Can you feel what this feels like?"

It still calls up those emotions, because it helps you project it out there. And I see people who it relates to, because everybody has loved and lost. You see high fives, you see tears in their eyes, and it really makes you want to sing it and play it great.

"Caught Up in You" is joyous. I love to do that, because I see people hugging each other and pointing to each other singing the words. And that's just the greatest job in the world, to bring joy to people.

Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival

Where: 521 Cedar Street, behind the City Hall complex in Richmond Hill

When: 5-11 p.m. Oct. 14; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Oct. 15; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 16

Adult admission: Oct. 14: $5; Oct. 15: $5 early, $15 after 4 p.m.; Oct. 16: $5

Child admission: $3 age 12 each day

Concerts: Oct. 14: Orleans; Oct. 15: 38 Special