It’s pretty much impossible to discuss John Driskell Hopkins without discussing Zac Brown, and there are a number of reasons for that. Brown, though still young, is one of those people who has more energy than any single person rightfully should—he’s a Grammy winner, he’s run a restaurant, tours incessantly, is a father of four. He’s also the founder of the label Southern Ground, which he runs as a stable of talent. Those signed to the label, which includes Hopkins, are virtually indistinguishable from the Zac Brown band. They tour together, and Brown’s shows can feel more like a label sampler than a concert. Everyone gets a chance at the mic, and keeping them all straight can be a job. I saw their show at Merlefest last year, and it felt like an extended advertisement for Southern Ground records.
In any case, while he has done other things, it’s the Zac Brown Band that we know Hopkins from. He is a very strong instrumentalist, singer, writer, and performer. And, like the other artists that Brown has assembled for Southern Ground, he’s hard to pin down as far as genre goes. This album begins with a Texan holler (and he really is from Texas) on “Runaway Train,” which makes an abrupt beginning. Thankfully, he sits down on the next track, and pretty much remains seated for the rest of the album.
That second track, “I Will Lay Me Down,” is also the formal introduction of Balsam Range, the band that Hopkins uses as his band for the majority of the material here. Balsam Range will be more familiar to you than Hopkins, and I suspect they will be the attraction to this album, and rightfully so. All of their last three releases are so strong, with Last Train to Kitty Hawk being a standout. They are very clean, thoughtful players, and all of that is on show here, beginning with from Darren Nicholson’s beautiful mandolin intro to “I Will Lay Me Down.”
If you feel alienated by the first track, you’ll be hooked at the second. There is some real bluegrass here, such as “Shady Bald Breakdown,” “It’s Not OK,” and “She Don’t Love Me Today.” The mandolin of Darren Nicholson is a treat throughout; the fiddle of Buddy Melton is charming on the beautiful ballad “How Could I?”
Across the disk there’s a lot variety, and in places the album ranges to a contemporary country feel on “Bye Baby Goodbye” (a duet with Joey Martin Feek of Joey and Rory) and some very nice western swing segments on the bluegrass song “The Grass Don’t Get no Greener.” There are guest appearances from Tony Trischka, Jerry Douglas and, inevitably, Zac Brown and Levi Lowry from Southern Ground.
It’s a mix that works, by and large, and serves to bring the personality of Hopkins to the fore, which is wonderful. He’s funny, confident, and capable, so there is a lot to like. If Hopkins is relatively unknown now, that clearly won’t last long. (Still, you may want to ease into it a bit and skip the first track on the first listen … )