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38 Special: 'Soundtrack' of fans' lives

People were talking about southern rock band 38 Special the last time the group performed at Chingawassa Days in 2002, providing a high-energy show that was not easy to forget.

Time has passed, but this year’s show promises to showcase the same energy and intensity as before.

The group, which has sold almost 13 million albums, will perform Saturday evening in Central Park.

After more than 35 years together, the group knows how to perform. Still in high demand, they perform at least 75 times per year; they haven’t slowed down any since their last trip to Marion.

The band’s lineup hasn’t changed with lead singer Donnie VanZant, guitarist and vocalist Don Barnes, guitarist Danny Chauncey, bassist Larry Junstrom, keyboardist and vocalist Bobby Capps, and drummer Gary Moffatt.

Known for hits such as “Hold on Loosely,” “Caught Up in You,” “If I’d Been the One,” “Back Where You Belong,” “Rockin’ Into the Night,” and “Second Chance,” the band connects with fans who are able to identify with the songs about everyday love and life.

“So many people tell us that we wrote the soundtrack of their lives,” VanZant said in a 2002 interview with the Marion County Record. “People remember where they were when they heard a particular song by 38 Special.”

VanZant’s family is one of the most influential in rock history, His older brother, Ronnie, helped found Lynyrd Skynyrd, with the group practicing in their parents’ living room.

The group went on to stardom but tragedy struck in 1977 when Ronnie VanZant and other members of the legendary band were killed in a plane crash. The youngest VanZant brother, Johnny, then stepped in as lead singer for Lynyrd Skynyrd.

According to VanZant, he and Don Barnes started playing in various bands when they were 14 years old. They performed at school functions, and then moved to dirt-floor honky-tonks, playing until the sun came up. They soon became disillusioned with the music business.

VanZant applied for a couple of railroad jobs and was offered both jobs the same day. He went to see his older brother.

“Ronnie laughed in my face,” VanZant said. “He said I had music in my blood, whether I liked it or not, and I should give it one more shot. That’s when Don and I formed 38 Special.”

The band slowly built a following but it was hard work. At one point, they received only $2.50 per day for meals. The soundman kept a cooler full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which he sold for a quarter each.

Ronnie VanZant arranged for a meeting between 38 Special and Lynyrd Skynryd’s manager, who introduced them to Jerry Moss, chairman of A&M Records.

Moss signed the band to a two-album deal. But with southern rock groups flooding the market — and none of them matching up to Lynyrd Skynyrd — 38 Special sold few albums.

When Ronnie died in 1977, A&M quietly extended the contract with 38 Special to include one more album. Company officials just didn’t have the heart to drop the band after the tragedy.

It was a profitable decision for A&M. The album “Rockin’ Into the Night” found its niche, and the band began pumping out hit albums and singles from 1979 to 1989.

A 38 Special video was one of the first five played on the first day MTV began broadcasting. 38 Special videos — some were mini-movies, others showed the band playing — helped create the music video revolution.

The group scored all of the music for the movie “Super Troopers,” released in 2001. VanZant said it was a fascinating process, something he would like to pursue.

If there’s any doubt that the band is “the soundtrack of people’s lives,” VanZant said the band hears the same words from people at almost every concert.

“There have been a lot of children conceived to 38 Special, apparently,” he said with a laugh. “And that’s quite a compliment, if you think about it.”

Last modified June 3, 2010

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