A Conversation with John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band
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.