Who could have predicted that the music world would have to shift in a digital direction, in a hurry, like it did in 2020? For those musicians who were able to dig in and hold on, many found a way to use the opportunity to create new music and develop new avenues of sharing.
John Driskell Hopkins, a founding member of the Zac Brown Band, has done like so many others, taken advantage of the down time to finish a new record of songs that he’s been working on for some time. The result is his new, Lonesome High, album. This is an album that features the previously released singles, “Lonesome High” featuring Coy Bowles, “Missing You All, All The Time,” and “I Hate To See Good Whiskey Go To Waste,” alongside nine other cuts that illustrate just how deep Hopkins’ songwriting skills really run.
Even though it will likely get hung under the “country” banner, it’s really a wonderful blend of folk and southern rock vibes that exude a country feel. While the country music scene loses touch more and more with its roots, Hopkins takes his own path, staying true to himself, and not feeling the need to conform to any preset commercial standard. These are deeply personal songs to John, for various reasons, and they are subjects close to his heart, crafted within the space of his southern home.
I recently got a chance to chat with John from his home studio just a day ahead of his leaving for Nashville to begin work on a much anticipated new Zac Brown Band album.
The New Streaming Era
I asked John about his thoughts and approach to the live streaming aspect of music delivery. “Hopefully I’m not doing this in vain for one,” he said. “And hopefully, we can get back to some live music. I feel like people have really gotten into the streaming thing, and that it’s not going to go anywhere. But people are going to still want to do live concerts for sure. But you know; you get a bottle; you’ve got a great sound system at your house; you invite some friends over; and watch the show at home. Also, there are certain components, like I have in my studio that can be controlled in a way that a live show can’t.”
Speaking of home studios, John also decided to take advantage of his home studio with the time away from the road. “I’ve owned a studio for 20 years (BrighterShade.com),” he told me. “But this is the last one I plan to build. This one I built in my attic. It’s just beautiful. When you think of an attic, you don’t think of this, but we have a really steep roof, so it made for a 20 foot peak in the center. Most people just throw old televisions and boxes, and old chairs and things up there. We had lots of space to play with up here and decided to utilize it.”
Not His First
Hopkins is no stranger to working on other projects of course. He’s released a couple Christmas albums over the years, and in 2014 he put together a Bluegrass album with the much awarded band, Balsam Range. But this Lonesome High is not a bluegrass album. “Bluegrass has that lonesome high sound, but I wanted to flip that and figure out what that meant to be lonesome and high without adding drugs to the crate,” Hopkins said.
John creatively coined the phrase, Arena Folk, to describe what this record is about. “It’s kind of like when you’re holding an acoustic guitar and screaming at the same time. It feels like you should be in an arena rock show but you’re still kind of bashing away at acoustic chords. That’s a good way to describe it,” he laughed.
“We actually had the vast majority of the record finished before the pandemic. But it was like, ‘now I can’t get anybody over to finish the last overdubs.’ We were almost there. So by the time we got comfortable getting together a little bit here and there, we had the record almost done by the summer but the pandemic never let up. Then we got to the Fall and decided to release one of the songs, and it got swallowed by Christmas. Our timing is improving a little bit now. We’re just doing the best we can to get the music out there. I’ve been working on this for three years.”
Some of the songs John wrote new specifically for this record, and some have been in his bag for years. “Songs like, “Human,” I’ve had for 20 years,” he said. “Zac Brown Band used to play “Human” when I first joined the band. And some of the other ones were almost immediately written and finished for the record. Like the song, “Rebel Road.” It had a riff that some friends of mine and I were tossing around as we started the tune. And then it took a total transformation in the months before the finish of the record. So they’ve all been scattered across that time period between the Balsam Range record and this.”
Hopkins and his band hope to share these songs live whenever they get a chance, although acknowledging that the Zac Brown Band takes precedence over any other gigs. “Zack Brown Band always comes first,” he said. “It is a challenge to try to perform with my band, because when we’re on the road and we’re super busy, and time is really tough to come by, you’re not trying to fill up all your downtime with more stuff. So I think the balance will be trying to find the shows that make the most sense.”