John Driskell Hopkins
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
Hopkins has put together an excellent group of songs that fits somewhere in the acoustic country/indie/roots area.
Hopkins, a founding member of the Zac Brown Band (one of country music’s newer bands, making quite a splash on the country scene), makes no pretense of being a bluegrass singer. So, when making plans to record, Hopkins makes the obvious choice of Balsam Range (see their review) as his backup band.
Country rock meets bluegrass: it turned out to be a good match. Mix in some special guests and you have an appealing sound even if it may prove difficult to define a massive demographic for it.
Hopkins often has an eerie vocal resemblance to Mike Reid, a former pro football player turned Grammy winning songwriter (Ronnie Milsap’s “Stranger In My House”), pianist and singer whose solo career unfortunately went nowhere. (Reid co-wrote “I Can’t Make You Love Me” which was a hit for Bonnie Raitt.) “I Will Lay Me Down” (featuring Zac Brown) is an excellent example of the resemblance to Reid. But Hopkins can also turn out a growling, swamp-rock sound in songs like “Runaway Train,” featuring a bluesy resophonic kickoff by Jerry Douglas. He comes back with that same growl later in the CD, talking his way through “It’s Not Ok” while Balsam Range eats up the instrumental solos.
A song with a different persepctive on booze is “The Devil Lives In a Mason Jar” with guest performer and self-described turkey hypnotist, Richard Foulk.
The devil lives in a mason jar
His face is clear but his soul is dark …
The devil makes you ten feet tall
Swimming around in the ethanol
The song doesn’t leave much doubt about the perils of moonshine and has a mesmerizing beat that holds your attention. Hopkins can charm you with ballads, too, like “How Could I,” featuring his co-writer Levi Lowery on fiddle and vocals. This is a touching love song and such a change of pace from “Runaway Train.”
“Shady Bald Breakdown” is the CD’s instrumental and it’s a good ‘un. Balsam Range tears the strings off in this fast-paced blues number.
This CD is as much ballads as rocking country and the inclusion of Balsam Range’s (and guests’) acoustic backgrounds go well with the ballads. Tony Trischka is a guest on the title song, a reflective song about life. “Be My Girl” is a love song as is “Bye Baby Goodbye” (with guests Joey & Rory) except the latter is full of pain because he’s leaving on tour again (akin to IIIrd Tyme Out’s “Erase The Miles”).
Another change of pace is “DJ.” It’s philosophical about life with an engaging rhythm, jazzy with a touch of reggae. Hopkins is obviously comfortable with a wide range of styles and is able to carry off the changes. With “The Grass Don’t Get No Greener” he switches to a western swing sound, at least for awhile. I’ll just say the song has a surprising switch or two. Then there’s “She Don’t Love Me Today,” humorous and very much bluegrass with a ringing banjo throughout.
If you drew line graphs plotting the changes each song brings to a CD – tempo, subject, mood … – some CDs would flatline and the majority would show moderate spikes up and down. Daylight’s graph would look like the EKG of a person on speed, and every song is a good one. I hope Hopkins is already planning his next CD.