Wild-Eyed Southern Boys
by Julio Diaz
I have a bit of a confession to make that just might destroy my credibility as a hip, with-it music critic and card-carrying cultural elitist. I like Southern Rock. I’m a fool for Black Oak Arkansas and dig the big guitars of Blackfoot. Wet Willie keeps me smiling and The Charlie Daniels Band always evokes a strong need to whip out the ol’ air guitar. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, The Rossington-Collins Band, The Outlaws, Ram Jam, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Atlanta Rhythm Section…I love ’em all. Hell, I even got a soft spot for Molly Hatchet. And Lynyrd Skynyrd’s the best damn rock and roll band America ever produced, and I rassle any man or woman who tries to claim otherwise or scoff Ronnie Van Zant just made music for “ignorant rednecks.” Skynyrd was punk before mohawks and the boys melded country and rock way before Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were out of diapers.
Now, with that admission out of the way, I never could get into .38 Special, even if all the elements were there. Bassist Larry Junstrom spent time in an early incarnation of Skynyrd, and Jeff Carlisi was one mother of a guitarist. And, for cryin’ out loud, the lead singer was Donnie Van Zant, Ronnie’s freakin’ little brother! Still, I just never could get into the band. They were too slick, the songs were too over-produced, and sadly, Donnie never had either the vocal grit or the knack for common-man poetry that made his older brother such a phenomenal musician and original. When stacked up to, say, “Can’t You See” or “Jim Dandy” and especially “Workin’ For MCA” or “Gimmie Three Steps,” Special tunes like “Caught Up In You” and “Hold On Loosely” came across more like redneck versions of Def Leppard or Journey than gritty, honky-tonk rock like Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, or BOA. Well, that’s as maybe, but apparently that was the whole point. .38 Special was never meant to be a true Southern Rock band; instead they were shooting for the big arena rock sound we generally ascribe to mid-’80s bands with tight britches and teased hair. The band’s songs – complete with tight melodies, driving rhythms, and echo-y production – were geared towards that crowd, and for the longest time, it worked. Hip-O’s new two-disc Anthology shows not the evolution of a band from the Jacksonville, Florida, roadhouses, but instead a band that was at home in the stadiums and arenas that were the norm for the ’80s. The very detailed liner notes written by Gainesville journalist Bill DeYoung – an old editor of mine, surprisingly enough – tell the tale, but the music itself shows the true story.
Still and all, Anthology is a bit too much to bite off for all but the most hardcore .38 Special fan. The 34 songs include hits like “Hold On Loosely” and “Rockin’ Into the Night,” as well as sometimes questionable covers like Elvis’ “Money Honey” and The Doors’ “Twentieth Century Fox.” There are bits and pieces of gold in all this – “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys” is drek, but it’s guilty-pleasure drek for this particular wild-eyed Southern boy, and “Rough-Housin'” is rowdy fun. Beyond that, though, most of Anthology is too much of the same thing. All the songs have the same basic sound and lyrical content – either trying to get the girl or bad boys out on the town – and Carlisi, one of rock guitar’s unsung heroes, is given far to few chances to shine like on scorchers such as “Long Distance Affair.”
The second disc, which picks up in the mid-’80s, when this sort of stuff was on the decline, is almost unnecessary. Whatever muse Special had was rapidly leaving them, as evidenced by the almost unlistenable cuts from 1991’s tepid Bone Against Steel, and Donnie and the lads are reduced to covering pop schmaltz from cats like Bryan Adams (“Teacher, Teacher”). I’ve seen .38 Special – hey, I said I liked Southern Rock, so sue me – and they do put on a burnin’ live show, but you couldn’t tell it from Anthology, which includes only one live song, an admitted butt-kicking version of “Take ‘Em Out” from the recent Live At Sturgis disc. More live songs or some early, pre-stardom cuts would’ve been welcomed. On the plus side, though, Anthology makes a case for .38 Special being one of arena rock/pop metal’s better bands, as opposed to being the bastard step-child of Southern Rock. The songs are no where near as fluffy as Def Leppard or Poison, and while slicker than frog shit, still have a sense of classic redneck grit one would expect from a bunch of street kids from the ugly side of Jacksonville. The question remains, though: just who is Anthology for? Two discs is way, way too much for the casual listener, and the hardcore Southern Rock fan will find way too much fluff between the fun songs. While I do know plenty of Southern Rock stalwarts like myself, I don’t know too many who’re hardcore Special fanatics. I imagine they’re out there, and I guess Anthology is for them. Everyone else would be served be either one of the couple single-disc compilations on the market, or more accurately, one of the plethora of Southern Rock comps that includes “Caught Up In You” or “Hold On Loosely.”
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