My thesis for this one is going to be straight out of the Linda Richman playbook: The “wild-eyed Southern boys” of .38 Special were neither wild-eyed, nor Southern, nor boys. Nor were they 38, for that matter, but the contradictions above are what made them special. Discuss.
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Don Barnes and Donnie Van Zant knew each other from their neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida, and formed .38 Special in 1974, bringing in Jeff Carlisi as a guitarist and third principal songwriter. Wild-Eyed Southern Boys was the band’s fourth album, released in 1981 when Barnes, Van Zant, and Carlisi were all 29 years old. Not in their late thirties, maybe, but not “boys” either — they were seasoned music business veterans at that point, who’d seen a few changes along the way.
One of the biggest of those changes had to do with the band’s southern rock identity. Prima facie, it seems ridiculous to claim that .38 Special wasn’t Southern. For one thing, Donnie Van Zant is the little brother of Ronnie Van Zant, legendary lead singer of the iconic southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Basically, if you’re being asked a trivia question that starts “What southern rock band…”, you can probably just stop listening right there and have an 80% chance of being right with “Lynyrd Skynyrd.” So .38 Special has pretty much the ultimate southern rock pedigree, and every single member of the band is from Jacksonville, so in what way exactly aren’t they Southern?
The answer goes back to their previous album, Rockin’ Into The Night. The band’s first two albums on A&M Records were pretty much straight-ahead southern rock, and made pretty much zero impression on the charts. However, with the title track from Rockin’, the band had a minor hit, getting to #43 in the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s the thing about that song, though: it wasn’t written by .38 Special. It was instead written by the main songwriters from the band Survivor. In fact, the song was meant for Survivor’s debut album, but their producer rejected it as “too Southern,” so the scrap went to .38 Special and they made the most of it.
Well, A&M executive Jim Kalodner smelled potential, so he asked Survivor songwriter Jim Peterik to get together with .38 Special and see what happened. (By the way, isn’t it hard to imagine a record company today sticking with a band who had .38 Special’s kind of track record up to that point?) Now Peterik is a pop-rock guy from Chicago, a pretty far cry from Jacksonville, but a funny thing happened when he got together with Barnes and Carlisi at his kitchen table in La Grange, Illinois. Carlisi offered a lick (“It’s kind of a Cars rip-off,” he said), and Barnes offered a title based on some struggles he was having in his marriage. Then Peterik came up with verses, chorus, and a melody, and the result was “Hold On Loosely,” the band’s first big hit and its first great song.
The other great song from this album, and not coincidentally the other hit, was “Fantasy Girl.” Also not coincidentally, Peterik was a co-writer, this time with Carlisi alone. Both of this album’s hits were fueled by a guy who couldn’t have been less Southern, a guy whose greatest claim to fame would eventually be his co-writing credit on Survivor’s massive hit “Eye Of The Tiger,” and to a lesser extent writing The Ides Of March’s one-hit wonder, a Blood Sweat & Tears sound-alike called “Vehicle.” He could play the part well, though. In fact, the album’s title track was written by Peterik alone, not a Southern boy in sight. Turns out he originally wrote the tune for Molly Hatchet, but they rejected it.
Peterik kept contributing to the band past this album, in particular co-writing their 1982 Top 10 hit “Caught Up In You.” One of .38 Special’s later hits, “Teacher Teacher”, was written by Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams, a couple of Canadians who I believe are the mathematical opposite of Southern.
I’m not disputing the quality of the music, just pointing out that in order to realize their full potential as a band, .38 Special had to stop being quite so Southern. It took a record company executive to make that alchemy happen, to deliberately inject an arena rock flavor into what had up until then been literally Lynyrd Skynyrd’s far less awesome baby brother. Now, what quality of mood characterizes that kind of approach? Would you call it “wild-eyed”? I wouldn’t. The word that comes to mind is “calculated.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But what turns out to be true is that underneath the surface of their image, this is the album where .38 Special became essentially an AOR rock band with a Southern coating. Protestations of the title notwithstanding.