- John Driskell Hopkins & Balsam Range
John Driskell Hopkins has been a fixture of the Atlanta music scene since the mid-nineties; first, as guitarist/vocalist with the roots-rock band Brighter Shade, and then as a bassist and founding member of the Zac Brown Band. Upon discovering the North Carolina bluegrass quintet Balsam Range, The lifelong fan of gospel, folk and bluegrass music instantly knew its stylistic approach would bring an air of authenticity to his songs and first solo album.
Daylight isn’t as giddy as the mainstream county pop he records with The Zac Brown Band, yet it isn’t strictly a traditional bluegrass record either. Front and center here is Hopkins’ deep, rich and sensual baritone. His singing is warm and melodious in tone, inviting one to pay closer attention. And the CD features many special guests, including Brown, Dobro legend Jerry Douglas, banjo mainstay Tony Trischka and husband and wife duo Joey + Rory.
The Rambunctious rhythm of the opening train song, “Runaway Train,” featuring some damn fine rustic fingerpicking from Douglas and a lumbering bass tone, is exactly the wild ride you’d think based on the title, kicking off the CD with a holler. It’s followed by the sacred and folksy duet with Brown, “I Will Lay Me Down,” a gospel-oriented tune with strings and lulling, three part vocal harmonies. Brown’s mid range country twang is a nice counter melody to Hopkins’ deep tones. Fans of Brighter Shade will recognize the title track as having been a Hopkins original for years. The lovely, acoustic folk song benefits from tender, lilting banjo fills courtesy of Trischka, and sweet and soulful vocal harmonies. Lyrically, it’s a lovely tune about breaking through the darkness of dour times and troubled waters.
He hasn’t completely abandoned the country music of his day job. “Bye, Baby Goodbye” is a lovely acoustic duet with Joey of country duo Joey + Rory, a heartfelt ballad about saying goodbye to a family as one heads out on the road for another tour. And “Be My Girl” is a mellow country ballad and love song. That’s about it though for the really mellow here.
“DJ” is by far the strongest cut on the release. Hopkins begins scatting over a lush acoustic strum, backed by plaintive fiddle and a foreboding tone. It’s a dark and harrowing ditty about people in dire cirumstances; “... a man in a dumpster/I swear I saw him breathing” and “… an immigrant believer/whose faith is now retreating.” The despair of others’ suffering has left “… a hole in my soul.” It’s an evocative and catchy tune at the same time, thanks to a blend of dexterous mandolin picking and mournful fiddle.
Daylight truly shines when Balsam Range is given opportunity to stand out with bluegrass instrumentation. “She Don’t Love Me” and It’s Not Ok” are both fast in tempo, upbeat dust ups. “The Devil Lives In A Mason Jar” is a back porch blues lament to the old heartland moonshine, pieces of peaches and all. And closer “Shady Bald Breakdown” is another dust up, a traditional bluegrass instrumental breakdown.
Whether or not you are or are not a fan of Zac Brown Band shouldn’t keep one from listening to Daylight from Hopkins and Balsam Range. He’s a fine vocalist, musician and songwriter and Balsam Range a deft and worthy backing band. Daylight is deserving of brighter shade.