A few days ago, the tragic news came out that the world had lost Barry Bailey after a long fight with MS. It’s hard to explain how losing someone you’ve only met a few times hits home. The best I can offer is that when they were part of something ingrained into your soul, the loss feels deep and personal. With Bailey’s passing leaving Dean Daugherty as the only remaining member from the band’s “Golden Era,” and he doesn’t play regularly any longer, it seemed to mark the end of an incredible journey for a most talented group of musicians.
The loss prompted a walk down memory lane for me and countless other fans of Bailey and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. From Brother Cane, Thin Lizzy, Black Star Riders, and more, Damon Johnson said of Bailey, “A towering guitar player, an indescribable influence on my music & absolutely one of the greatest to ever do it.” Rock photographer Michael Mastro had been around the best of the best in rock n’ roll, shooting Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Queen, the Winter Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, and more. He got to know the guys in ARS in the mid-80s when he toured with the band as a part of their crew. He recalls telling Barry and the late guitarist J.R. Cobb about his experience with the band, “I was honored every minute I worked with them.” He adds, “It was memorable. They just blew me away.” Mastro stayed in touch with Bailey, and his passing hit hard.
Many long-term fans had watched them pay their dues over the years, from the first albums that few had ever heard of to finally break through to stardom, then see their star fade as popular musical tastes turned away from Southern Rock. It was well after their peak that I experienced something that showed me their character and love for the music they shared with us.
As they were working their way up, ARS played small clubs in Atlanta and around the Southeast. They supported albums that were good but commercially unsuccessful. They opened for better-known bands that they often blew away. Slowly they built a following. Eventually, they would work their way up to the stages at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom, the Great Southeast Music Hall, and the Fox Theater. They would soon headline their own festivals and play others in front of 100,000 plus screaming fans. They even played at the White House. They were on top of the world with gold and platinum records and throngs of media coverage. They were a well-oiled machine, every show exceptional. Watching their rise to stardom elicited pride in the Southern fans who embraced the band as our own, and now we were sharing that greatness with the world.
Their star began to fade as tastes turned from Southern music. There were some lineup changes, albums that were good but did not sell like those from the peak days, and appearances in smaller and smaller venues. I lost track of them for a few years until I heard a radio commercial that they were coming to Louisville.
The year was 1991, and ARS was set to play a small bar in the Louisville, KY., Flaherty’s. My friend Jim Considine and I couldn’t believe we would see ARS in a place that small. As we waited for the date to arrive, I reflected on the band’s history my friends and I loved.
We arrived just as the bar opened for service, well ahead of showtime. What anticipation to see these guys play those favorite songs again. It was also a bit sad to recall the glory days, with them headlining over opening acts that were now bigger stars.
The band rolled into the parking lot, but no luxury tour coach was delivering them to the venue, just a passenger van that looked like a rental. A U-Haul following behind held the gear. No press or throngs of adoring fans greeted the arrival. The stage wasn’t an opulent production like they had enjoyed on some of their tours, but the bed of a flatbed truck. There was no Tara’s Theme serenading the crowd as they took the stage, no opening act, just “step up and play.”