A Conversation with John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band

A Conversation with John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band
 
I had the privilege of speaking with John Driskell Hopkins the day before he won a Grammy Award with Zac Brown Band for best country album of the year.  Hopkins released a side project with the bluegrass band, Balsam Range, and spoke to me about working with both bands. 

You can see my review for “Daylight” at: http://millertimemusicspot.blogspot.com/2013/02/john-driskell-hopkins-and-balsam-range.html as well as my review for Zac Brown Band’s Grammy Award winnning “Uncaged” at: http://millertimemusicspot.blogspot.com/2013/02/john-driskell-hopkins-and-balsam-range.html

Below is my conversation with 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.
 
 
 

Zac Brown Band’s Bucket List Moment at Madison Square Garden

Zac Brown Band
Madison Square Garden
November 17, 2012
w/ Blackberry Smoke & Levi Lowrey´╗┐
 

There are not many venues in the World that bring about an immediate sense of excitement.  Madison Square Garden is absolutely one of them.    On November 17, 2012, the Zac Brown Band displayed an amplified version of themselves as their performance was one of passion, talent, and excellence.  I can honestly say it was the best country music concert I have ever seen. 

After short sets from Blackberry Smoke and Levi Lowrey, two acts that Zac has signed to his Southern Ground Record label, the crowd’s energy began to grow each second.  The headliners were streamed live on Fuse TV and HD Camera’s were out in full force.  As the giant white screen that covered the stage displayed a ten second countdown, the screams, clapping, and cheering from the hyped up crowd was at a defeaning level.  The white sheet dropped and the Band ripped right into their #1 hit “Keep  Me in Mind”.

The setlist was perfectly planned out, with a rollercoaster feel of fast, upbeat songs to emotional ballads and masterful covers of epic songs.  A few songs in, during “Colder Weather”, Zac took off by himself to the middle of the catwalk and looked up at the crowd and around the sold out arena as he sang the powerful lyrics.  It was clear to all that Zac could not hold back his emotion as tears began to roll from down his eyes.  It was a powerful moment for a fan like me and it was clear that Zac understood the moment.

Most of the Band’s hits were played that night as “Toes”, “Free”, “The Wind” and “Kneep Deep” were instant sing-a-longs.  There were songs where each Band Member  showcased their jam-band skills.  “Who Knows” became a fifteen minute jam out and “Uncaged” was an all out Southern Rock Jam.  Zac indicated that he needed to make a new Bucket List because headlining the Garden was at the top of his current list.   

There was even an acoustic set where the Band sat on crates and barrels at the front of the catwalk as they played a new song called “One Day”‘ and covered “All Apologies” by Nirvana and “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith.  Combine that set with the cover of Metallica’s “Enter the Sandman” during the bombastic encore and I challenge you to find me another band, be it in country music or any other genre, with the range to be able to pull off each of those classics without a flaw.

At one point, Zac’s father surprised  him on stage during “Highway 20 Ride” as they shared an emotional hug.  There was a drum off between Chris Fryar and Daniel De Los Reyes.  Jimmy D’Martini ripped out fiddle solos that had people shaking their heads in amazement.  Clay Cook took over vocals on “Can’t You See”‘ and took over the catwalk on several amazing electric guitar rifts with the charisma that only he contains.  Coy Bowles and John Hopkins switched instruments from guitars, Cellos, mandolins, to steel guitars.  There was not a second where each Band member wasn’t a key part of the act, each equipped with immense skill and musical talent. 

Of course the night ended with the biggest hit of the Band’s career thus far, “Chicken Fried”.  The entire crowd exploded as the Band played the megahit with grace, passion and pride. The crowd danced and sang with sheer happiness.  Zac and the Band took a bow and thanked the crowd.  After the two plus hour set, I found myself more satisfied with a live concert performance than ever before. 

 

I saw ZBB for the first time, in February 2009, when they were a relatively unknown Band playing the small Bowery Ballroom in NYC. I was there a year later when they upgraded to Terminal 5, a ballroom sized venue in the City. Last summer, I was there at Metlife Stadium when they served as the opening act on Kenny Chesney’s Stadium tour. But Zac understood this moment, he understood what it meant to headline at Madison Square Garden.  During “Colder Weather” he showed the emotion and the entire Band responded with an epic performance sure to be talked about for years to come.  I’m sure everyone hopes they return to the Garden year after year.  I just don’t know how another show can ever compare to his one.  #ZBBMSG lived up to the hype and much more.

SETLIST:

  1. Keep Me In Mind
  2. As She’s Walking Away
  3. Uncaged
  4. The Wind
  5. Colder Weather
  6. Natural Disaster
  7. Toes
  8. Goodbye In Her Eyes
  9. Who Knows
  10. The Problem with Freedom (w/ Levi Lowrey)
  11. All  Apologies (Nirvana Cover)
  12. One Day
  13. Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith  Cover)
  14. Fiddle Intro into Free
  15. Free
  16. Into the Mystic (Van Morrison Cover)
  17. Whiskey’s Gone
  18. Can’t You See (Marshall Tucker Band Cover with Blackberry Smoke)
  19. Knee Deep
  20. Highway 20 Ride
  21. Devil Went Down To Georgia (Charlie Daniels Band Cover)
  22. Percussion/Drum Solo (with Massif)
  23. Jump Right In (Encore)
  24. Enter the Sandman (Encore – Metallica Cover)
  25. America The Beautiful (Encore)
  26. Chicken Fried (Encore)