John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range’s album Daylight howls and hurtles with unswerving velocity. The gravel-voiced songwriter and bassist for the Zac Brown Band spoke with CMT Edge about the seamless new album, his friendship with Brown and their rapid rise.
“My goal from the beginning was to be a part of music on a national level,” Hopkins says. “To be there is really inspiring. It’s nice to have a platform to write new songs and to have so many people that appreciate it. I’m super blessed and couldn’t be happier.”
Balsam Range only elevates the joy on Daylight. The airtight North Carolina-based bluegrass outfit transforms Hopkins’ deep-browed singer-songwriter fare into buoyant full-band jams.
CMT Edge: Did you write all these songs specifically for Daylight?
Hopkins: Some of the songs are older. I’ve been writing for a long time. I have a rock band called Brighter Shade that did a couple of these songs on earlier recordings. I think I included them here because they fit the other tunes and also because it was an opportunity to get the older favorites into new hands and new ears. Some songs are brand spanking new, though.
Explain the album title.
“Daylight” was a tune that I wrote in the late ’90s and was on an album Brighter Shade did called Divine Ignorance in 2001. It talks about trying to get to where I’m going professionally and in my personal life and wanting to break through all the frustrations I was facing at the time and get into the sunshine part of life where everybody’s happy with each other. I feel like I’m a lot farther along there, and this album helped me achieve part of what that feels like.
Tell the story behind writing “Runaway Train.”
That’s specifically about my experience in the Zac Brown Band and our rise to notoriety. Like a lot of bands, we’d been fighting it out in the trenches for years and years, and so it’s like a 20-year overnight success story. It really feels like a meteor to us. After you’ve been in so many bands and played so many dive bars, to have everything turn around in the course of a couple years feels like lightning bolts have been thrown at you.
Jerry Douglas really kills on that song.
Oh, yeah. We met him at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival years ago with the Zac Brown Band, and he’s just a cool guy. He’s a super dude and one of the best in the world, an amazing, gifted talent. I asked him if he’d play on the song, and he really set it off.
Describe your writing process.
I think a lot of them start with a lyrical idea. I’ve got a book full of two or three lines here and there, just a thing I wrote down and hope to come back to it and explore it. Sometimes you’ll have a two-line thing that becomes four, eight, 16, 32 lines, and you don’t know how, but it’s working that way. I often hear a melody with the lyric almost immediately. If I don’t have a guitar with me, I have to sing it into the phone to remember it.
What songwriters do you draw from most as a lyricist?
I’ve got so many favorites. One of my earliest favorites was the Indigo Girls. They’re very heady. They often have a really wonderful way of portraying a certain emotion or the visual aspect. I’ve always been drawn to harmony bands, too. As a songwriter, I think harmony really brings more power to the spots where you want to emphasize the feeling. Bands like Journey and Queen and the Little River Band were big influences on me as a kid. Darrell Scott’s one of my favorite lyricists.
Explain how you originally connected with Zac.
We met at an open mic night in Atlanta in the late ’90s. I was hosting the night every Tuesday for two years. Zac came in and played and did a great job. He was really young, 20 at the time. I was 27, I think. We stayed in touch, and a year or two later, he came into the studio and we did our first record, (2005’s) Home Grown. Shortly after that record, we started working on “Toes,” and he informed me that he needed a bass player. I came out and sat in for a couple of months. It started sounding and feeling so good, I never left.
Describe working with him.
He’s really brilliant on all fronts. He’s also ADD, so he starts thinking about three things at once, and then he leaves on a tangent and comes back. He’s got a lot of inspiring vision, and he recruits a lot of talented people to make that vision a reality. He’s a great dude, a generous guy and a good family man, and he’s a very accomplished writer and talented guitar player and fabulous singer. We’re kind of a brotherhood. We’re not hired on as musician guys to play. We’re a band.
That was insane! Playing the Troubadour with all those people there and walking by the couch and saying hi to Bonnie Raitt and the amount of talent in that room was staggering. The Troubadour itself was so amazing. We played there years ago just to say that we had played there. It’s that badass of a room. It was awesome, and that night was no exception. We didn’t get to see the whole thing, but I can imagine. We came in a few songs before and left two songs after, and everything we saw was outstanding. We were just thrilled to play with them!