Track by Track Dissection
John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range – “Daylight”
John Driskell Hopkins, founding member of the Grammy Award Winning Zac Brown Band, got together with Bluegrass specialists, Balsam Range to create “Daylight”. It is mainly a bluegrass album which incorporates shades of country, folk, rock, and roots music. Balsam Range, an award winning band in their own right, consists of Caleb Smith, Marc Pruett, Buddy Melton, Tim Surrett, and Darren Nicholson.
I found the album to be a beautiful listening experience with unique blends of harmony and a display of true skillmanship, intrumentally. What follows is a track by track review of what I heard and felt when listening to each of the songs. I was also able to speak with John over the phone about this project and our conversation is listed after the review. I urge all with able ears to get a copy of Daylight. The exceptional vocal abilities of John really shine as his deep, profound voice pump passion to each and every track.
1. Runaway Train (Featuring Jerry Douglas)
The album starts out with John’s voice mimicking a train and some simple guitar picking. What follows is bombastic first song which takes listeners inside the mind of man who seems to be completely out of control in his life. “Runaway Train” is a rollicking ride of emotions sung with passion and, at times, controlled anger. Musically, the guitars use a bit of slap throughout which add to the dramatic tone of the song.
2. I Will Lay Me Down (Featuring Zac Brown)
This, as a big Zac Brown Band fan, was a true highlight. The melody of the track is absolutely beautiful with all instruments connecting, tied together with a skilled rift. John sings of not having a problem passing away happy, as long as he has lived a complete life. Zac Brown adds his star vocals, harmonizing with John, as well as a solo verse. The storyline, the instruments, and the harmonizes produce a masterfully executed track. It was also refreshing to see two members of the Grammy Award Winning Zac Brown Band step outside of their normal country music setting and take on a true Bluegrass song.
3. Daylight (Featuring Tony Trischka)
The title track takes on a more country vibe as it has a charming feel to a simple love song. John sings about a man who knows he must find a way to see through all of life’s problems to see how to truly find love. The guitar work on the song really shines with several competing rifts and melodies meshed together to produce a beautiful tune.
The banjo is the star of this song as my ear constantly heard the instrument stand out above all others. The song seems to be about a man who is very relieved that his woman has broken up with him. What starts off somewhat solemn becomes a happy tune of a thankful man. While the banjo is prominent, you can hear the immense skill of Balsam Range as all instruments again combine to a comforting combination.
5. Bye Baby Goodbye (Featuring Joey + Rory)
John’s vocals are never better on the album as he is able to show how he can impressively hit both low and high octaves. Country duo, Joey + Rory, add their skills to the song as a guest feature. Joey and John trade bars within the song and, at times, harmonize together, singing words of a mutual break-up. The song is more about the vocals than the instruments, which is rare on the “Daylight” album, yet effective nonetheless.
6. She Don’t Love Me Today
A light-hearted and humorous tune which has a fast tempo throughout. The song’s basic message is how a man and woman can love each other unconditionally, but, at times, can be at each other’s throats. John sings of how much he loves his woman, but how has done something stupid and is paying for it at home. The banjo, played by Marc Pruett, is again very prominent throughout this witty song.
7. Be My Girl
A slow, soulful song which is more country than Bluegrass. John’s delivery really makes the track work, specifically how he holds the last note of “girl” in the chorus. It’s a beautiful set up where a man is describing what he has envisioned if she would agree to be with him. The Band uses complex and extremely skilled sheet-music throughout this entire album, yet they keep it relatively simple on this track, and it worked perfectly.
8. The Devil Lives in a Mason Jar
This is another track where John and the boys get to flex their muscles and sing with ripe passion. As the song plays it builds with a sense of anger and mystery. The message of the song of how, when this man drinks alcohol, he becomes a different, more devilish person. John has a unique way of sounding possessed when he wants to and this song showcases that.
9. How Could I? (Featuring Levi Lowrey)
This song takes more of a folk song than any other. Levi Lowrey is a song-writer who seems to create songs with a dark and poignsnt feel to them. The man in the song is disgusted with himself for taking certain things for granted. The harmonization of Levi with John was simple, yet effective.
10. It’s Not Ok
This is a remake of the song off of the Triple Platinum Zac Brown Band album “The Foundation”. Daylight’s version is much more bluegrassy and a fresh take on a fan favorite song. I have seen John take lead vocals on this tune various times at a ZBB show. I found it entertaining that Balsam Range took it upon themselves to pay homage to the original while putting their own stamp on it. Pruett’s banjo is the biggest difference between the original and this version.
11. The Grass Don’t Get No Greener
This track had me on my toes at all times. It starts off with an almost show-tune type of feel, but John comes in with some thunderous vocals, followed with various other members of Balsam Range singing for the first time all album. The tempo is unbelievably fast at some points, and slow and controlled at others. Quite the musical kitchen sink.
This is a song I can play over and over again. The voice freestyling displayed by John is so unique in today’s music. The voice modulations mirrored the instruments as the band frolics through the song with mastery. I dare you to listen to this song and not have phrase “diggity-da-boom” running through your head the rest of the day.
13. Shady Bald Breakdown
An instrumental track (besides some freestyling by John towards the end) which shows how immensly talented Caleb Smith, Marc Pruett, Buddy Melton, Tim Surrett, Darren Nicholson, and John Driskell Hopkins are. Fast paced, intense, and exquisite are all terms that came to my mind while listening to this song. It is a perfect ending to superb album, as no words are needed to depict the mastery behind this collaborative project.