The last time the Zac Brown Band visited the Triad, their breakthrough album The Foundation had just gone gold on the way to three-times platinum. They were playing the 1,200 cap, fly-by-night space called Music City, while most were sorting out whether they were more of a country radio gimmick or chicken-fried jam band. Three and a half years later, the hindsight answer is more simple: they were just burgeoning superstars, on the verge of the kind of success that allows its members to pursue individual ambitions at their leisure. Bassist John Driskell Hopkins has done just that, hooking up with renowned Asheville pickers Balsam Range for his solo debut Daylight. It’s the perfect vehicle for not only his deep, gravelly pipes, but also reworkings of well-known Zac Brown Band tunes and deep cuts from Hopkins past. YES! Weekly caught up with Hopkins on the verge of the Zac Brown Band’s introduction to the Greensboro Coliseum.
Y!W: It looks like so far this year, you’re jumping between large arenas, smaller amphitheaters and co-billed dates. Does it still feel like you’re taking risks by doing these high capacity rooms?
JDH: We kind of did that on purpose in the beginning. Zac’s whole point in the beginning was that, “Yeah we’re playing a 6,000-seater and we’re only going to draw 4,000, but we don’t care because we want the show to be as big as it can be.” It really worked out great because it wasn’t long before we started selling them out.
Y!W: It’s always interesting to look in the song credits of a ZBB album because of the names that jump out. How did the band grow these associations?
JDH: We’ve been sitting in with each other forever. It was natural for me before I even started in Zac’s band that I would come and sit in with him and likewise, he would come and play with my band. Getting to do it on a bigger level with guys that are our heroes… I mean, we just wear out that Amos Lee stuff. Just to have him come and sing on a tune, and not to mention the whole Alan Jackson thing. That was such a big step.
Y!W: It feels like your rhythmic duties have gotten a lot more demanding since Daniel de los Reyes was added to the lineup on percussion, while your vocal duties have diminished. Has there been tradeoff there?
JDH: It’s learning how to walk and chew gum at the same time. When I became able to sing and play bass at the same time, it was a big weapon for me, but I had to do it in pieces. When you have to learn lines like the lines on the song “Uncaged,” and sing along with that, that’s been one of the trickiest things I’ve done. We worked up a version of “Runaway Train” that was damn near Motley Crue-ish heavy and I was playing with a pick. That proved really tough to sing. It kinda changes the tune so much that it didn’t really fit our set, but I have started singing “Enter Sandman” in our set.
Y!W: The Balsam Range collaboration has certainly given you the chance to work on walking and chewing gum.
JDH: That’s acoustic guitar situation, and I’ve been able to saw one of those in half for years, so I just get up there and scream my face off and they allow me to do that. We’ve come up with some interesting endings to those songs that we always work on right before we go on stage. They’re a whole different library of information.
Y!W: Were you recording Daylight at the same time that the Zac Brown Band was recording Uncaged in Asheville?
JDH: No, I had started to goof off with Balsam Range on the weekend when I had available time during those sessions, and it was in February that I started recording with Balsam Range, which Uncaged was December and January. I didn’t waste any time and I did start some of the writing during then, but you can’t really do all that at once. My focus is on Zac Brown Band, I’m just happy to have the blessing to use those songs in another format.
Y!W: Was Buddy Melton able to contribute after his accident? JDH: He’s tip-top. He’s indestructible. He had that terrible head injury and came right back the day after he got out of the hospital and sang on Paper Town, which is Balsam Range’s fourth album and then he was working on mine right after that.
Y!W: Is there any link between the name of your old rock band Brighter Shade and the title Daylight?
JDH: There’s a Brighter Shade album call Divine Ignorance that features “Daylight” on it as well, and the song was written back then in the late ‘90s when I was searching for a certain satisfaction in my musical life. That’s what Daylight is about, it’s a search for that. Having named it Daylight I’ve found that. My musical life is outstanding and my family life is outstanding, and I felt like it was more like a statement that I had been able to break through the things that have held me back from being who I want to be.
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