The Meaning Behind “Hold on Loosely” by 38 Special and How a Rocker from Another Top Band Helped Create It

The band 38 Special carried the traditions of Southern rock into the ’80s and streamlined the formula into a series of radio-ready hits. “Hold on Loosely,” released in 1981, gave the band their first Top 40 hit, and set the template for the future success the band scored throughout the decade.

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What was the song about? What member of a different arena rock band helped to create it? And how did the three songwriters behind it combine their ideas to make this powerful track? Let’s find out all there is to know, and then some, about “Hold on Loosely.”

“Special” Forces

The Southern rock heyday of the early to mid-’70s largely petered out as the decade came to a close, as tragedy and personal problems decimated standard-bearers like The Allman Brothers and Lynryd Skynyrd. 38 Special, who hailed from Florida, seemed to be coming into the genre at the wrong time (their first album was released in 1977), even though band member Donnie Van Zant, brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant, lent them instant credibility.

To their credit, 38 Special sensed the musical winds of change and started moving to more of a standard arena rock sound, albeit one with a Southern rock boogie element. In 1979, they released a song called “Rockin’ into the Night” that gained them their most mainstream exposure. Still, their next release would have to go even further if they were to have a viable future.

“Rockin’ into the Night” had been composed by three members of the band Survivor, who were much more squarely in the arena rock lane and didn’t seem on the surface to have a lot in common with 38 Special. Producer John Kalodner, who had signed both bands to recording deals, decided there was some chemistry there, and decided to have Survivor’s Jim Peterik write with the songwriting brain trust of 38 Special.

A Three-Man Weave

38 Special’s Don Barnes (guitarist and singer) and Jeff Carlisi (lead guitarist) traveled to La Grange, Illinois, to Peterik’s home and sat down at the kitchen table. But they didn’t come empty-handed—Carlisi had a riff full of punchy eight-notes that was inspired by the Cars’ song “Just What I Needed.”

Barnes brought the phrase “Hold on Loosely,” which he thought would make a great title. In an interview with Songfacts, Peterik explained how that framework caused him to recall his former romantic fumbles:

“My wife of 32 years now, this is what broke us apart when we were teenagers—I was getting too close. I was getting too serious for her. She didn’t say, ‘Hold on Loosely,’ but that’s what was in her heart. So when Don said ‘Hold on Loosely,’ I immediately knew what he was talking about.”

The collaboration proved mighty successful, as the song became 38 Special’s first Top 40 hit. Peterik would go on to co-write several more hits with the band. In fact, just a year after “Hold on Loosely,” that trio of songwriters would work together again, along with Peterik’s fellow Survivor member Frankie Sullivan, on the Top 10 smash “Caught Up in You.”

What is the Meaning of “Hold on Loosely”?

“Hold on Loosely” sagely suggests that insecurity leads to clinginess in relationships, and clinginess can lead to the severing of those relationships. The killer opening couplet sets the tone: You see it all around you / Good loving gone bad. And why does that happen? The narrator remembers the advice of an old girlfriend: If you cling too tightly to her / You’re gonna lose control.

The second verse explains how easily you can fall into this trap, all the while thinking you’re doing the right thing: To overprotect her / To love her too much. Instead, it’s all about knowing when to back off: Your baby needs someone to believe in / And a whole lot of space to breathe in.

“Hold on Loosely” proved there was indeed life for Southern rock in the ’80s after all, as long as musicians could delve into the format while also adhering to the clean production lines that were all the rage at the time. And 38 Special had it down pat, with this song just the tip of their Platinum-selling iceberg.

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Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Blackbird Productions

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