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By Joe Matera
Having first formed in 1974, and with three albums already under their belt, 38 Special, comprised of Don Barnes on vocals and guitar, Donnie Van Zant on vocals, Jeff Carlisi on guitar, Larry Junstrom on bass, Steve Brookins on drums and Jack Grondin also on drums, were facing increasing pressure in 1981 to deliver the commercial breakthrough needed for the group to continue or face the possibility of being dropped by their record label A & M Records.
With their first two outings, 1977’s self-titled debut and 1978’s Special Delivery having failed to deliver the commercial dividends for the label, the group’s third outing, Rockin’ Into The Night, showed promise and the first signs of what would come, with the title track garnering the group their first charting hit reaching No. 43 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. This bought the group some time with their label who still believed the band would rise to the occasion which they did do with their fourth album, 1981’s Wild-Eyed Southern Boys.
“After the moderate success of our third album, the pressure dissipated” affirms Jeff Carlisi today. “The only pressure that we had was on ourselves to follow up the radio success of “Rockin’ Into the Night”. We were also gaining more confidence in ourselves as recording artists and felt more creative in the studio. A&M was the greatest record label, and we were blessed to be signed by them. For Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, it was all about the music. They certainly had more than enough chances to drop the band, especially after our first two record’s poor sales performance. But they stuck by us and believed in us. Fortunately, Wild-Eyed delivered the goods for all of us”.
Wild-Eyed Southern Boys began a run of hit albums and singles for the group which would continue throughout the '80s. In the wake of “Rockin’ Into The Night” chart’s success and with the song having been written by three members of Survivor — Jim Peterik, Gary Smith and Frankie Sullivan — it was decided to bring Peterik back into the fold as songwriter during the writing process with him co-writing two tracks, “Hold On Loosely” with Don Barnes and Jeff Carlisi and “Fantasy Girl” with Jeff Carlisi and a sole writing credit for the title track.
“Wild-Eyed Southern Boys” was one of my favorite songs that I wrote for 38 Special,” recalls Peterik today. “I demoed it at Gary Loizzo Pumpkin Studios in Oak Lawn, Illinois with Dennis Johnson on bass and Gary Smith on drums. I sang it. It was a hell of a demo. I then sent it off to Mark Spector, 38 Special’s manager. He loved the song and so did the band. They went into the studio and cut the hell out of it and the rest is rock history.”
“Jim and a couple of his cohorts in Survivor had penned the song 'Rockin’ Into the Night' and due to their producer not wanting them to include it on their album, we were given the opportunity to record it,” concurs Carlisi. “It became a radio hit for 38 Special and as a result, it was suggested that we fly up to Chicago and spend some time throwing around some ideas with Jim.
“In the meantime, changing trends in music were starting to creep into our sound. Specifically, The Cars. Their simple eighth-note rhythms really influenced us. Notice the feel similarity between 'Hold On Loosely' and The Cars’ 'Just What I Needed.' That being said, the first song that Don Barnes and myself wrote with Jim was 'Hold On Loosely.' That set the stage for a collaboration that lasted through our fifth album, Special Forces.”
Recording sessions for the album began in the late fall of 1980 and were completed in the early winter of that same year. “The recording process was much the same as our previous album” recalls Carlisi. “We had already worked with [producer] Rodney Mills at Studio One and the rapport we had established was only enhanced by a better understanding of how we worked, collectively and individually. I suppose we also had a feeling that maybe this time we had something very special.”
Released in late January of 1981, Wild-Eyed Southern Boys climbed all the way up the Billboard album chart to peak at No. 18 in May, while the lead single, "Hold On Loosely" earned the group their first Top 40 when it peaked at No. 27 also that same month.
In April as “Hold On Loosely” was gathering momentum on the charts, the group performed a show at Rainbow Music Hall in Denver, Colorado. “An unknown company by the name of MTV was there to film our performance” remembers Carlisi. “The resulting video was the 13th song ever played on MTV when it premiered on August 1, 1981.”
Two more singles were issued from the album, “Fantasy Girl” which peaked at No. 52 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys,” which didn’t chart, though it did reach No. 35 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock radio chart.
Wild-Eyed Southern Boys was pivotal in turning the fortunes of 38 Special around and as such holds a special place in the group’s illustrious career. “I’m very proud of it and it still stands the test of time” says Carlisi. “It will always be my favorite 38 Special effort because it was the true turning point, not to mention the band’s first gold album. When I hear it on the radio I’m amazed at the sound of the record. That’s a true testament to the skills of Rodney Mills.”
“I think the Wild-Eyed Southern Boys album pretty much proved to the world that 38 Special was not just a one hit wonder” concurs Peterik.
Last year to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary, Snakefarm Records reissued the album on 140-gram colored vinyl, featuring sleeve notes, original artwork and re-mastered specifically for the format. “I had no input whatsoever on the Snakefarm releases nor did the band as far as I know,” affirms Carlisi. “However, I was really pleased with the result! I must say that it was a brilliant idea to update the liner notes from the original album and bring them chronologically and historically up to date.”
Wild-Eyed Southern Boys Track Listing:
Hold On Loosely
First Time Around
Wild-Eyed Southern Boys
Back Alley Sally
Hittin' and Runnin'
Honky Tonk Dancer
Throw Out the Line
Bring It On