BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
Fans of the Zac Brown Band know John Driskell Hopkins as the towering figure with the Brillo-y beard shards whose voice makes Barry White sound like Frankie Valli.
He’s also the guy who takes center mic whenever ZBB launches into its meaty cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” a song Hopkins said he’s been singing since the early 2000s when he’d participate in live rock karaoke night on Metalsome Mondays at Atlanta’s 10 High Club.
But the gentle giant is singing softer tunes for the holidays.
Hopkins recently released “In the Spirit: A Celebration of the Holidays,” an album starring the Atlanta Pops Orchestra that also features cameos by the Indigo Girls (“Do You Hear What I Hear?”), Balsam Range (“What Child Is This?”) and Laura Bell Bundy (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”).
During a recent chat as he endured the drive-thru lane at a Starbucks in east Cobb, Hopkins sounded giddy as he recounted the live shows he’d recently played with the Atlanta Pops — “just fantastic!” — and equally excited about his Monday concert at Venkman’s, the Old Fourth Ward restaurant/music venue recently opened by Yacht Rock Revue’s Nick Niespodziani and Peter Olson and chef Nick Melvin .
While the Atlanta Pops won’t fit on that stage, Hopkins, who will play guitar and banjo — his latest passion — said he’ll have a “mini-Pops” setup, as well as a vocal assist from Leah Calvert, who also sings on the record.
“We’re going to do the whole record in one form or another. We’ll be up there with chairs and music stands. It will be a little more stripped down, but it will be perfect,” Hopkins said.
The idea to even attempt a Christmas album was one Hopkins had been mulling for years. After “kicking himself” every season for not pursuing a collection of seasonal sounds, Hopkins talked with Atlanta Pops musician and board member Kevin Leahy about coordinating an album with the orchestra last spring.
“I figured, I’m really good at this crooning, growling, theater thing — my degree is in theater — so I really need to do a Christmas album,” Hopkins said.
After getting the music charts drawn up by renowned Atlanta trombonist and arranger Wes Funderburk, Hopkins booked studio time at 800 East Studios in between ZBB dates in August and had the album mixed and mastered by October.
“It was completely different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Hopkins said. “Having 20 people in the room playing these instruments together just made this incredible.”
“They’re all traditional songs, but some are a little more out of the ordinary. These songs just mean something to me personally, the Christmases I’ve had here in Georgia,” Hopkins said. “I didn’t write anything (new) for the album, but if I did another one, I would now have an approach about how to do it. I didn’t want to jump into the same sleigh bell clichés. I’m more interested in the emotional.”
While the multi-instrumentalist is used to playing to tens of thousands of fans in stadiums and amphitheaters with the Zac Brown Band, he admits that performing in intimate venues is the more anxiety-inducing experience.
“There’s something about the small venues that sometimes seems more real than a big, big spot. You can’t reach out and touch everybody in an arena and stadium, so I’m more nervous when I’m at Eddie’s (Attic) and small places like that because you’re really kind of naked up there,” Hopkins said. “These venues we’ve been doing with the Pops, you can hear a pin drop. If my voice cracks, everybody knows it!”
The experience, though, has been so positive for Hopkins that he’s already planning shows for next holiday season, when he’s off the road with ZBB and can spend time with his family, including his trio of young daughters.
As he said with more than a hint of gratefulness, “I can have my cake and eat it, too.”
John Driskell Hopkins and His Holiday Mini-Orchestra
8 p.m. Dec. 21. $15-$35. Venkman’s, 740 Ralph McGill Blvd., Atlanta. 1-877-987-6487, www.ticketfly.com.
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