TURLOCK — The number of accomplished musicians that have emerged from Jacksonville, Fla. is far too large to be a coincidence.
You start with Ray Charles and proceed through Pat Boone, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot and Limp Bizkit.
Is there something in the water?
Don Barnes, who fronts another great Jacksonville band, 38 Special, thinks so.
"Jacksonville used to be a Navy town with four bases," Barnes said. "The sailors would get off the ships for weekend leave looking for places to hear music, drink and chase women.
"So all of us were playing those sailors' club when we were 15. You could make $150 a week doing that, which was really good money in those days, and it allowed us to make all our mistakes in front of an audience. We all had our bands and we all learned the craft of what makes a hit song."
In the case of 38 Special, the hits at least those that charted in Billboard's Top 30 number 15 and fans can expect to hear them all when the band appears at the Stanislaus County Fair on Monday.
Barnes, 60, is the lone remaining original member from a band that first played together in 1974. Co-founder Donnie Van Zant still writes and records with 38 Special, but no longer tours with the band due to a severe inner ear ailment. Van Zant's older brother Ronnie fronted Lynyrd Skynyrd before being killed in the band's 1977 plane crash and his younger brother Johnny now fronts the iconic Southern rock band.
But calling Barnes the lone holdover from the original 38 Special lineup is misleading. The current members have been together for 16 years.
"It's a better band today than it was 25 years ago," Barnes said. "You get better the more you play and the more you understand the power of the groove, which allows you to let the space between the beat happen.
"It also allows you to play relaxed, which lets the music's power come out, which in turn gets the crowd excited. It can be intimidating when you get 20,000 people out there, so I'm doing my best to relax and wait for the beat to come."
It took a few years for 38 Special to find that niche. Barnes said the initial temptation was for 38 Special to follow in the path blazed by the Allman Brothers (from Daytona) and Lynyrd Skynyrd the unmistakable double-guitar lead and long, jammed-out songs.
While achieving regional success using that formula, 38 Special didn't explode nationally until it embraced a more pop-influenced sound, breaking on the national scene in 1981 with "Hold On Loosely," which was the seventh song played on the first day of MTV.
The band followed quickly with "Caught Up In You," and "If I'd Been the One," starting a steady flow of hits that allowed 38 Special to break free of the pure Southern rock sound.
"We needed to use our own influences and not sound like the other bands that were out there," Barnes said. "We all grew up with the British Invasion and those kind of pop songs.
"Guitarists tend to overwrite everything, so we found that if we just stripped things down the songs developed their own muscle melody. So the snarl of guitars and strong melodies became our identifiable sound."
Fair crowds and theater crowd bring their own identity to the show, Barnes said. When 38 Special plays a theater, the vast majority of the fans know all the songs and know what to expect.
But in shows such as the one coming to the Stanislaus County Fair, many of the spectators will be in the arena simply because seeing that night's musical act is part of the fair experience.
"What we get all the time in those cases is the look of 'Oh, I know that song that was you guys?' " Barnes said.
"What I really enjoy is peeking out from behind the curtain and seeing someone a little older sitting about five rows back from the PA. It's going to be loud, folks. Those people might leave five minutes in, but more likely they'll stay, they'll stand and be pointing at me. They're my age and if they can see me as youthful and energetic it can be inspiring."
If fans are to be surprised by a 38 Special show, it is in that amount of energy that can be generated by a band after almost 40 years together.
"We actually play the music and people are surprised by that," said Barnes, adding that you won't get a 40-minute jammed-out version of anything they play. "We make it clean and what we play sounds like the record. We understand that it's what people want."
Barnes also wants Stanislaus County to know that 38 Special appreciates the effort it takes to get to the show, and in turn the band will make certain the effort is rewarded.
"A rock show is an escape," Barnes said. "People want to be able to forget their problems, and the show is cathartic. Believe me, it is for us, too. We see the reaction, the high-fives.
"We understand that it takes a lot for people to get to a show, so want them to walk out and say they're glad they came. We promise that if they come, we'll make sure they have a large time."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek
WHAT: 38 Special
WHERE: Stanislaus County Fair, Budweiser Variety Free Stage
WHEN: Monday, July 15, 8:30 p.m.
TICKETS: Admission to concert included in price of fair ticket