John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range – “Daylight”: Track by Track Dissection (plus an interview with John Driskell Hopkins)

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. 

4. Nothing

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. 

12. DJ

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. 

 *A Conversation with John Driskell Hopkins*
Q: How did you get together with Balsam Range?
A: Well, I am a fan.  I listen to them on radio and I listen to a lot of Bluegrass radio where ever I go.  Whenever I need my fix, I have my collection with me because I love Bluegrass music.  They (Balsam Range) are on the radio, they have four albums plus had song of the year back on their last record.  These guys are amazing, not only are they accomplished in the genre, but when you listen to them you realize there is something different about these guys.  Their song choices are very heartfelt and they’ve got a more modern feel but they way they get after music is very traditional at the same time.  They are just amazing and there is something different about Balsam Range that sets them apart to me.  I found their website and e-mailed them asking if they were interested in making the record. 
Q: How long did you all work on the record together?
A: It was in the middle of 2011 that we met and got together.  Over the next year we played some gigs together and talked about how we would pursue the record.  Of course I was a bit busy with you fans, but eight months later in February of 2012 we got in the studio.  We made the record back in North Carolina and finished it all over the southeast in Florida, and over here at my house and mixed it in Nashville.  We got done in August and the hard release was in October for our shows.  We then did a radio release in January.
Q: The one thing that stood out to me was your style on DJ and Shady Bald Breakdown.  How do you describe that style?
A: It something I learned from my early college days from some artists you have heard over the years, as well as in historical jazz music.  It is singing without words, freestyling.  It is like solo’ing, really.  My instrumental chops are strongest in my throat. I’ve always tried to embrace that.
Q: I have seen you do everything from “Baby Got Back” to “Enter the Sandman” at live shows.  Is there any type of genre you won’t try?
A: No! With us there are no rules. 
Q: What type of music to you grow up listening to?  What would you say your roots are in?
A: Well I have always listened to pop radio and have been affected by country in my decisioning.  We also grew up on Church music and spent a lot of time in the mountains.  We were exposed to lots of different styles.  And radio became a big part of my musical experience.  I loved Journey and big vocal harmonies like that.  When I got older I got into U2 and R.E.M. and later Pearl Jam, as well as Marty Robbins.  I love rich sounding artists.  It’s been a long list of artists.  I’ve been attracted to good music, no matter what it is.  I never went country and stayed country, or went rock and stayed rock. 
Q: I guess that why you and Zac blend so well.  As in your last ZBB album you had Island Song and Overnight, two non-traditional country songs. 
A: All of us in that band are alike in that respect.  We all appreciate and write different styles and want to play different styles.  Bluegrass to me is a wonderful marriage of country and folk and I’ve always been an acoustic guitar player.  Then I learned the bass guitar and that’s what I mainly play in the Zac Brown Band and I think that was a good choice for me which fits great.
Q: How many instruments can you play?
A: Well, I can play a few.  I am proficient on the bass and that’s it.  My guitar playing is decent.  I’m learning how to play the banjo.  I love them all.  I know a few chords on the madolin.  As far as when I sit down to sing a song with the intrument, yeah, give me a few minutes and I can put it together.  It’s just what musicians do.  As far as the guys in Balsam Range, they are far more proficient on their instruments than I.  But as my dad always said, surround yourself with people that are better than you and that is a way of proving yourself. 
Q: The banjo player, Marc Pruett, really stands out on the album. 
A: The world famous, Grammy Award winning, Marc Pruett.  He is the real deal and all the guys in Balsam Range are like that.  Being able to hang with them has been a real joy for me.
Q: They are playing the Opry next month, correct?
A: Yes, we are.  I will be with them.
Q: Any chance you can tell me what songs you will be playing at the Opry?
A: Well, I am pretty sure we will sing “I Will Lay Me Down”.  Not sure about the other as we were given two songs.  It will either be “She Don’t Love Me Today” or “Runaway Train”, just not sure yet.  “I Will Lay Me Down” is our strongest tune and we want to play that for sure.  The other choices are will we knock it off the rails or take it straight down the pike.  Either choice is going to be great for me, but I haven’t decided yet. 
Q: Any chance we see Balsam Range on the road with ZBB in the future?
A: I’d love to.  Whenever they are around I’d love to have them in.  It puts a lot of us on stage together but its cool with me and cool with Zac.  We had a good time with them all the other night.  But with schedules it is hard coordinate.  It’s quite the commitment and I have to be sensitive to them.
Q: We would love to have you in the greater New York City/Tri-State area.  When I saw you with ZBB at Madison Square Garden the atmosphere was electric.  What were your feelings that night?
A: That was a big night for us.  Getting to play Madison Square Garden is maybe the biggest venue ever.  You know, its like the golden ring.  I’d love to bring Balsam Range up there with us at some point.
Q: I saw you guys will be at the Grammy Awards this weekend and you are nominated.
A: Yes and Zac will be on stage doing a Levon Helm tribute with some other artists.  Whatever you have read is as much as I know there. 
Q: Thank you for your time and continued success with all your music projects.
A:  Thanks man, and I hope this album will be well received for a long time.