.38 Special’s Donnie Van Zant on the origins of southern rock and the drive of Jacksonville bands



By Steve Newton

.38 Special’s July 5 gig at the Kerrisdale Arena has been cancelled due to poor ticket sales, and according to lead singer Donnie Van Zant “it’s a real shame”.

The show would have been the band’s second Vancouver appearance. Their latest album, Special Forces, is #27 on the Straight‘s Top 50 Hit List, and their single, “Caught Up in You”, is receiving heavy airplay on stations like CFOX, CFMI, CFUN, and CKLG.

.38 Special was formed out of Jacksonville, Florida, the ‘birthplace’ of southern rock. The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot, and the Outlaws are just some of the other bands that have risen to prominence after coming together in the city.

Like a lot of bands from their area, .38 Special set out to make it in the rowdy bars of the South, playing in bars where, to quote Van Zant, “If there’s no girl pretty enough to start a fight over, you start a fight anyway.”

Three years of bar dates paid off when a tape recorded at Skynyrd’s demo studio attracted the attention of manager Peter Rudge, who soon had the unsigned band opening for Peter Frampton, Kiss, and Johnny Winter.

“We went from playing for 10 people to playing for 10,000,” recalls Van Zant.

Five albums and two hit singles later, the band now finds itself very popular in the United States but for some reason unable to draw concert-goers in Vancouver. I talked to Van Zant recently about the origins of southern rock, its popularity in Canada, and his band’s relation to it.


Were the Allman Brothers the originators of southern rock?

Yes, they were, they sure were. I can remember back when I was about 14 years old, they played a place in Jacksonville, Florida called the Collingwood Club. That’s where it all started from, right there.

How has southern rock developed over the years. Has it gotten heavier?

Well they started it, you know, and I think…well I hate putting people in categories because they’re from a certain part of the country. Skynyrd I think brought it all the way up to what it is today, whatever that is. And then you’ve got your Molly Hatchets and your Outlaws and all that kinda stuff. I don’t think that .38 Special is in that category, because if you listen to our music, like “Hold on Loosely” and “Caught Up in You” off the Special Forces album, it’s more like English rock than southern rock to me.

Southern rock to me is more like the Charlie Daniels thing, which has got a country flavour to it but has a rock beat. And we’re totally not that, so I would consider us being a straight American rock and roll band. But I think it really all started with the Allman Brothers.

Your latest hit single, “Caught Up in You”, and last year’s “Hold on Loosely” are good songs, but they don’t have the ‘down south’ sound that most of your songs have. Were they written with more ‘middle-of-the-road’ intentions?

No. I tell you what. We had the opportunity to write with different people, for one thing. We started on the Wild Eyed Southern Boys, when Don and Jeff got to write with a man named Jim Peterick, which added a little bit of different blood to what we were doing. And I got to write with a man named Larry Steele from Jacksonville. So maybe that’s got something to do with it–I’m sure it does. But we’re happy as we can be, it’s been a great formula for us.

A lot of excellent bands have come out of Jacksonville, like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, etc. What is it about Jacksonville that makes it such a good spawning ground for southern rock?

I think it’s cause there’s not too much to do there, and from Jacksonville there’s just sort of that fighting image to want to prove to everybody that you can make it and be successful. I think that’s what’s behind it all–just really wanting to go out there and prove that the whole nation can like you, even being from Jacksonville, Florida–that you don’t have to be from Los Angeles or from New York City.

How did your band get its name? I understand you had some sort of run-in with the law?

Yeah, we had a problem in Jacksonville finding a place to rehearse at. The thing was, we found a place and it would be so loud that we’d disturb the neighbours and they’d get warrants out for our arrest. So we had to move to the outskirts of Jacksonville, around the borderline of Georgia and Florida. And we found this place that looked just like The Alamo–so we called it The Alamo! And we were out there rehearsing one night and we heard these sirens going on and cars squealing, so we put the instruments down.

But before we could get to the front door the police were out there and knocked the door open. All of them had their guns drawn, and one of them just made the remark that “We’ll take y’all to jail with these .38s”. And more or less that’s how we got it.

Your brother Ronnie was a great singer, and his band Lynyrd Skynyrd one of a kind. Did having a brother of Ronnie’s magnitude put extra pressure on you to prove yourself?

I will agree with you, he was the best there was. They were the best there was at the time of the crash and all that. But no, because the way we were brought up, we were individuals. You’d do the best you could do in whatever you did. Whether it was painting houses or mopping floors. As long as you did the best you could do, that’s all anyone could expect from you. So I’ve never ever felt the pressure from that.

What do you think of the Rossington-Collins Band? Do you think they’re keeping the old Skynyrd spirit alive?

No sir, I sure don’t, to be truthful with you. When Ronnie died in that crash I think they lost their leader there. And you have to have a leader, that’s for sure. You have to have somebody that can put that fire around you, and I think that’s what he did. But I’m sure I’m gonna have some disagreements on that.

Which other groups or artists do the members of .38 Special like to listen to in their spare time?

I tell you, we like a lot of groups. I like a group called Poco. I love them a lot. I grew up on stuff like that. I like the Eagles and I like country music. I like some of your new-wave stuff like the Cars. And a matter of fact I like a group called Rush that I’m sure you’re familiar with. They’re good friends of ours.

Have you been up to Canada before?

We haven’t been to Canada in a while. The last time we played there was at a place called the Commodore, and we had a fantastic time there. That’s the reason I’m really surprised that this show in Vancouver was canceled. Whatever the reason for it, it’s a real shame.


To hear the full audio of interviews I’ve done with members of southern-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Black Crowes, and the Drive-By Truckers, subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on over 300 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

John Cougar, 1983
Cy Curnin of the Fixx, 1984
James Young from Styx, 1986
Steve Morse of Deep Purple, 1998
Lenny Kravitz, 1998
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1998
Tinsley Ellis, 1992
Matt Minglewood, 1985
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Bill Davis of Dash Rip Rock, 1992
Sue Foley, 1992
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Terry Adams of NRBQ, 1997
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Buddy Cage of New Riders of the Purple Sage, 2006
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Tom Morello, 2011
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David Lee Roth, 2003
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John Popper of Blues Traveler, 1991
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Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1993
Ellen McIlwaine, 2001
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Gary Holt of Exodus, 1985
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Scott Ian of Anthrax, 2012
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Tommy Shannon of SRV & Double Trouble, 1998
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Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
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Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
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Matthew Sweet, 1995
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Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
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Robben Ford, 1993
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Jason Isbell, 2007
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John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
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Stevie Salas, 1990
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
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John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
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Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
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David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
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Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
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Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
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Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
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