Gary James' Interview With Donnie Van Zant Of
If you said Donnie Van Zant is part of Rock Royalty, you'd be right. His brother, Ronnie, was the lead singer and founder of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Donnie is the lead singer for 38 Special.
38 Special has sold over 20 million records and is best known for the hits "Caught Up In You", "Hold On Loosely" and "If I'd Been The One". We talked with Donnie Van Zant about his life.
Q - Well, it's only taken thirty years to get to talk to you.
A - Is that right? You must not have known the right people. (laughs)
Q - Blame it on the record company publicists. The internet has made a world of difference!
A - Oh, tell me about it. (laughs)
Q - It's a little bit easier to connect now.
A - Right. Well, we're doing it now, brother.
Q - I actually saw your group in concert thirty years ago. You opened for somebody, but I can't remember who.
A - We played with everybody, over thirty-five years now.
Q - I read some years back that your father was going to write a book about his sons titled Ronnie, Donnie and Johnny. That sounds like a good book. Did he ever get around to writing that book?
A - You know, he actually stuck that book out. It was called Papa V Southern Rock. He actually just put it out his self. He didn't get a publishing company. He did pretty well with it his self just by word of mouth. There's some still around. They're hard to come by. My Dad actually passed away in 2004. All the book selling from there pretty well stopped.
Q - Was your father a musician?
A - You know what, man? He always sang around the house. Him and my mother both. Actually I think the musical part came from my mother's side, if you want to know the truth. She had some uncles that could play. But everything was sort of centered around Country music when I was coming up.
Q - If you would have walked into the Van Zant household when you were growing up, would you have heard your brother's bands rehearsing?
A - You know, Lynyrd Skynyrd, when I was a small kid. I think it's probably the reason I got into music, because of Ronnie. At that particular time, I think the band was called One Percent, this is even before Skynyrd was together. They'd rehearse right there in my mother and father's living room. Here I am just a young kid, watching him do that. Butch haircut. Butch wax on my hair. (laughs) Watching him, going "he's having a lot of fun. Maybe I can do this too." I think what got me into music was wanting to be like my older brother Ronnie.
Q - I don't suppose they ever taped their rehearsals, did they?
A - You know what? They didn't, man. We barely had enough money to survive back then, much less tape recorders and stuff like that.
Q - 38 Special has just come off a cruise.
A - Sure did.
Q - That has to be a different gig for a band. How does that work? Do you play once a night for three nights or five nights or however long the cruise lasts?
A - It varies. It's totally different from regular shows. You might play sixty minutes or you might play an hour and a half. Then they got other stuff they want you to do too, like answering questions sessions. This year we actually did Bingo. It sounds sort of silly, but it was actually a lot of fun. You do a variety of different things on cruises. That whole thing, the "Simple Man" cruise... those are die-hard fans you gotta understand. They know more about your music than you do. (laughs) It's actually able to get with them and have a real intimate conversation with them that you normally wouldn't be able to do at a regular show.
Q - I don't know what kind of questions they're asking you, but does it ever get annoying? Are they asking you about the color of different record labels?
A - It's really even different than that. They want to know what you do when you're off the road, what your hobbies are. Stuff like that. It's not just your regular questions. I think the cruise line their self tried to make it as interesting as they can. Obviously if you just let it loose, then I'm sure we would get some questions we wouldn't want to answer. (laughs)
Q - How is that prevented? Are the questions submitted in advance?
A - They do submit them. I think whoever is in charge of that is the one who picks 'em out and asks the band.
Q - Do you actually get to enjoy yourself on the cruise?
A - Yeah, man. You would think a Lynyrd Skynyrd / 38 Special / Simple Man cruise would be pretty rowdy. You get drunk for about three days and enjoy music. I don't think they've ever had one bit of trouble what-so-ever. Like I said, these are die-hard fans of the music and really enjoy the music. They actually give you your space. It's not as bad as you would think. I enjoyed it as awful lot. Skynyrd has done it five years now and we've been on every one of 'em. This is supposed to be the last one they do for awhile. These fans now have become like friends. Now it's more like a family re-union. People know each other. It's pretty cool to see that. You add the music into that and it's a neat cruise. A lot of these people will save all year long just to do this. This is their vacation. These are hard working people. You appreciate that and try to be accommodating in any way you can.
Q - 38 Special wrote and performed the music for Searchlight Films Super Trooper.
A - Yeah.
Q - That was a first in the history of Rock, wasn't it? No band had ever done that before?
A - It was the first for us, that's for sure. (laughs)
Q - I've never heard of another group doing something like that.
A - Now that you've put it that way, neither have I. It's usually a song or two. But it was pretty interesting doing that. We all just started out throwing our two cents worth in there. They actually send you the script itself. You'd see the different parts of it and what they were trying to do. Obviously it was a little different and sometimes it could be a little difficult to try and come up with parts that would fit what the movie's doing. We did pretty good at it. We were really happy with it.
Q - Sending you the script is one thing, but weren't they also sending you the "rushes"?
A - That's exactly it. We got to see all that. Then Don Barnes actually wrote the title cut for it. It's called "Trooper With An Attitude". So that turned out great. It was really an experience that we didn't know if we could do it or we couldn't, but we wanted to give it a shot. It was something we had never done. We just wanted to see if we could do it. We did it and it turned out good. It's a real cult film. A lot of people come up to you and tell you all about it. We actually do "Trooper With An Attitude" in our live show today.
Q - Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock 'n' Roll said that 38 Special was one of many Southern Rock groups to take it's cue from The Allman Brothers Band. I don't hear the influence of The Allman Brothers in your music. Were you in fact inspired by The Allman Brothers musically or career wise?
A - We were big fans of The Allman Brothers, let's put it that way. Obviously we were fans before The Allman Brothers. There was a group called The Hour Glass with Gregg (Allman) and Duane (Allman). We used to listen to all that. In fact, we used to copy their songs when we were younger. So, we were always fans of Gregg and Duane. Then obviously The Allman Brothers too. I thought they were great musicians and I'm really good friends with Dickey Betts. I understand what you're trying to say. If anything, maybe the first two records 38 Special did would have maybe a little bit of influence on that. I think Skynyrd was a lot bigger influence on 38 Special than The Allman Brothers, that's for sure.
Q - You were recording for A&M Records. Now you're recording for Sanctuary Records.
A - We just started our own label. It's called 38 Special Records. We're getting ready to put a new record out. It's called "Live From Texas". We've always enjoyed playing the state of Texas. We own our own studio in Atlanta, Georgia. We brought it on the road with us and recorded about four or five shows in different parts of Texas. We're very excited about it. It's really cool. It's a 'live' record, but we got some other surprised on there too.
Q - With your own label you don't have to go through any middlemen and you get to keep the profits.
A - (laughs)
Q - I would guess the promotion and distribution are the hard parts.
A - Distribution is the hardest part of that. We actually haven't even gotten into that part yet. We're shopping for distribution right now. But we do have some people in mind and they're good people. I'm sure something will come about it real soon.
Q - You're now in a position where you can sign other artists to your label.
A - It's endless what you can do now, yes. We could sign up new artists on our label now, if we want to do that. I think 38 is more into experimenting with new things. If we fail at it, that's fine. At least we tried. But we've always wanted to do that. We wanted to have our own record company and go out and do it ourselves. It's gonna be a lot more work I'm sure. But again, we're looking forward to it. It's a big, open field out there right now and we're getting ready to jump into it and see what happens.
Q - Given your name recognition and your background, you could almost do a radio show on the Sirius Network.
A - It's weird you say that. We've actually been approached to do something like that. Me and Don Barnes. It's more or less hosting. Southern music and just music in general. Hopefully that's going to come about. It was just brought up about a month ago, so I'm sure it takes awhile to work bugs out and all that. But we're definitely open for that too. We're like a kid in a candy store. We'll try anything once. (laughs) We'll see what happens.
Q - Some of the musicians I've been talking to lately are really down on the road. They say that lifestyle will kill you. You're better off with a wife, a dog, sitting in front of the fireplace in your home. You'll live longer.
A - Can I tell you real quick? That sounds pretty boring to me. (laughs) I'll be truthful with you. You have to put it all in perspective. I love the home life. Don't get me wrong. I hate to even say the word "stop", but that's how people put it. I have eleven grandchildren. The daughter I had from a first marriage is getting ready to have a baby. I enjoy my time home. I try to spend a lot of quality time with the family, but to be truthful with you, after about three or four weeks off, and that's usually around Christmas time when we do take time off, I get the real itch to come on back out here. I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know if I'm going to be very good at retirement, I'll tell you that. (laughs)
Q - No one at home is going to ask for your autograph or tell you how great you are.
A - After thirty-five years, the travelling part of it, the airports, the way it is today, it's tough. It's not easy. I don't really care for it that much. But walking up them steps to that stage and walking out on that stage is still the ultimate high for you. And having people sing your songs. It's the best job you could possibly have.
Q - You travel by bus or plane?
A - We do both. We fly and we do the tour bus. I prefer the bus.
Q - You don't have your own plane?
A - No. I don't want no part of that. We prefer the bus. Obviously you can get more rest on that. You gotta put a lot of trust in your bus driver. It's very important. Your life is in their hands. We've got a guy we've had for eight years. He's a good one. So, you can go to sleep and not have to worry about it too much.
Q - You perform all over the world now?
A - Yeah. We do it all. We haven't been to Europe in quite some time. Skynyrd been goin' over there a lot lately, especially the last three years or so. So, there's talk about us hooking up with them and going over there. I hope it does happen. I look forward to doing it. We've done it four or five times in the past. It was a lot of fun. We're in a position now where we don't actually have to do things, but we like it. We love it. It is our life and it's been our life for a long time. I hope we can do it a lot more years.