ALBUM REVIEW: John Driskell Hopkins – ‘Lonesome High’

LifeInASong_UK

For those of us who have obsessed over the output of Zac Brown Band since they began to dominate in the mid 2000’s, John Driskell Hopkins will be a familiar presence. Early converts will feel like they are on first name terms. Zac, Jimmy, Coy, Clay, Chris and John. The original six, or more accurately, the guys who were responsible for the inception of their first album for Atlantic Records, The Foundation.

John had been there before the fame and fortune. A meeting with Zac at an open mic evening in Georgia as far back as 1996 began the long association that persists to date. Only Jimmy De Martini was a member of the early version of ZBB, which began in 2003, and recorded their first album ‘Home Grown’ in 2006. However, John’s involvement was significant. He provided a studio for the recording, co-wrote ‘Toes’, their first number one single, and stepped in as bass guitarist on the early version of the song. This led to John becoming a permanent member of ZBB initially as a bass guitarist.

The backstory is pretty cool, particularly when it is put into the context of what ZBB has now become. Few would deny their position as the premier country/rock band of the last 15 years. Their success has been based upon the collective powerhouse of the individuals that create the magic. Zac is blessed with a top notch troupe of musicians and singers, which has remained a constant throughout the glory years.

However, the John Driskell Hopkins backstory has never entirely revolved around his involvement with Zac Brown Band. He formed his own rock band, Brighter Shade, in the mid-90’s and they recorded two studio albums. He’s also lent his talents to Bluegrass group Balsam Range, who dropped an album in 2012.

The challenge for a band member, particularly a band member of such an iconic line up, is to establish an audience for the product. ZBB’s fanbase is huge, but they identify with the collective. It’s a culture which the fans have bought into. Hopkins is an iconic part of that culture, but does this transcend into a need to hear what he individually can bring to the table?

There will be many who will sample the album solely to hear the similarities in style and delivery that they associate with the brand. There will also be others who will be checking to see if the guy with the bowler hat and extensive whiskers would choose to perform the somewhat eclectic output that has created an air of controversy to ZBB’s recent recordings.

‘Lonesome High’ has been a slow burner for the last couple of years. The band’s extensive touring schedule pre-Covid-19 held up progress, and the lockdown has also created its own unique issues for artists. The result, however, is a 12-track project that has more than its fair share of highlights.

The pre-conceptions can be firmly laid to rest. This is not an album with a rock theme, and whilst it can never improve upon what Zac Brown Band has done in the past, it contains tracks that would grace many of their past projects.

Take the four opening tracks as an example. To use a cricketing vernacular, your openers need to be the bedrock of the innings, and the album gets off to a flyer with ‘Good Morning Believers’ featuring Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls fame, who Hopkins describes as a “hero of mine”. They started the writing project two years ago and she describes Hopkins as a “kindred spirit”. It’s an anthem for optimism, and just the ticket for a world that seems steeped in despair and doom.

‘8 Tracks In Daddy’s Cadillac’ is a chip off the old ZBB block. Almost ‘I Play the Road’ part two, and featuring a guitar riff that will be part of your thought process for days. No surprise, incidentally, that a certain John Driskell Hopkins was listed as a co-writer With Zac and Wyatt Durrette on the aforementioned track from the You Get What You Give album in 2010.

The fiddles and banjos are prominent in ‘I Know Worries’, a track that will have your feet tapping and your craving for twang satisfied. He’s recruited his own 6-piece band that is blessed with top Georgia and Nashville pickers, and the rhythm and energy coupled with a an excellent melody maintains the instrumental excellence that typifies the album.

Which brings us to track four. ‘I Hate to See Good Whiskey Go to Waste’ is the first ballad and another addition to the ‘could have been recorded by Zac and the band’ list. It starts with a Hopkins acappella intro before it develops into a typical fiddle-laced classic. It’s entirely meant as a compliment when one imagines Jimmy playing that fiddle and Coy or Clay adding the gentle piano inserts at those appropriate times. Can we possibly hope that we see John given a spot at the next ZBB show to perform this song? It’s really that good.

The title track is another guitar-driven masterpiece with distinctive riffs, engineered by guest player Coy Bowles. We are loving the energy and the harmonies that highlight the sheer brilliance of the players.

This isn’t an album from a guy who is looking for a footing on the ladder. Hopkins has clout in the industry and has enlisted a roster of players who compliment his own musical talents. His draw won’t extend to the venues that he regularly graces with his usual bandmates, but the craftmanship is on a par. The backing is provided by drummer Mike Rizzi, violinist Leah Calvert, Keyboard player Brian Biskey, banjo/steel guitarist Sean McIntyre and electric guitarist Michael Westbrook.

‘Missing You All The Time’ is a tribute to his wife and 3 girls who he misses terribly whilst touring with ZBB. An insight into the life of a touring musician who appears to have all the rewards, but has to bear the heartache of not seeing his young children growing up.

‘Rebel Rebel’ is jarring in its use of a group of youngsters with the ‘rebel road’ chant before settling into a bluesy jam that is entirely untypical of the album’s vibe and theme, but nevertheless becomes something of a grower.

The plan is to tour with his band when the restrictions lift and his touring schedule with Zac permits. There are also plans to record another ZBB album towards the end of the year, so the opportunities for full exposure of the ‘Lonesome High’ solo project may be limited.

The ZBB bar is set very high, but in truth the franchise has taken some notable hits of late and we were always wondering if the guys in the band really saw ‘The Owl’ as their chosen musical destiny. The public perception, whether true or not, was that the guys in the band may have been staring at their feet during some of the creative process. ‘Lonesome High’ certainly gives us some pointers. John has remained true to his love of country and southern rock, with a little bluegrass and blues on the side.

We guess there was no commercial pressure for Hopkins to have released this album. He’s not looking to be the next radio star. He’s played the sell-out arena gigs both in the States and internationally. He’s put this out because he has stories to tell, and was inspired to bring together a bunch of guys to create a body of work that we can readily compare with his peers.

The likely audience will inevitably be a hoard of ZBB devotees. They won’t be disappointed.

Graham Wharton

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