A move to 2019 was complicated by an excessively busy year for the Zac Brown Band, prompting a shuffle to 2020.
We all know how that turned out.
But finally, John Driskell Hopkins’ “Lonesome High,” arrives Feb. 19, a collection of 12 original songs that zigzag from folk to bluegrass to country to pop-rock.
It isn’t the first solo release from the Swiss Army knife of ZBB (he plays guitar, banjo and ukulele in the band, and his background vocals are a hallmark of their sound). His three Christmas albums have showcased his love of orchestration and harmonies — particularly his collaborations with the Atlanta Pops — and Hopkins’ penchant for melodic eclecticism is evident throughout the album.
“I’m here to prove that banjos do not a country album make,” Hopkins said with a smile.
Indeed, with songs ranging from the raw vocal intensity of “I Hate to See Good Whiskey Go to Waste” to the bluesy jam of “Rebel Road” to the closing “Throw Me From the Mountain,” with its engaging vocal tics and growls, Driskell tags a smorgasbord of genres.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Onstage, he cuts an imposing figure with his cloud of a beard (currently trimmed) and grand hats (currently smaller). But in person, wearing khakis and scuffed brown boots, Hopkins is soft-spoken, the kindness in his eyes even more evident above the blue bandanna covering his face for COVID-19 safety.
He’s a girl dad to Grace, 12, and twins Faith and Hope, 8, and many of the songs on “Lonesome High” — written when touring was a natural element of a musician’s job — reflect the isolation of road life and a palpable longing to be with his kids and wife, Jennifer.
Hopkins, who grew up in Gainesville, where his parents still live, laughs at the irony of songs such as “Missing You All, All the Time” and the title track — written with ZBB bandmate Coy Bowles — now that he’s been home since ZBB canceled their 2020 stadium tour in March. (“We may or may not be back on the road by fall,” he says of the near future for the band, though they do plan to start work on a new album soon.)
But, as many parents discovered during the pandemic, trying to be productive at home while tending to children presents challenges.
“(At the beginning of the pandemic) at first I thought, ‘I’ll finish my record next week, it’s going to be so easy, and I’ll get up to the studio every day.’ And then everything stopped. We were worried about going to the grocery store, and I couldn’t get the inspiration to come up and work, and my kids needed me and the schools shut down and spring break came and went, and summertime was approaching. It was just pandemonium in the world and a very slow pace here,” he said.
Recorded at his Brighter Shade studio — a state-of-the-art private facility that can be used for other projects — “Lonesome High” features a cast of veteran musicians: drummer Mike Rizzi; violinist Leah Calvert; keyboardist Brian Bisky; banjo and steel guitarist Greg Earnest; bassist Sean McIntyre; and electric guitarist Michael Westbrook all also support Hopkins on background vocals. (He sings lead and plays acoustic guitar.)
Rizzi, who considers Hopkins “one of my best friends in the world,” thinks the finished album is an ideal representation of the most important aspect of Hopkins’ life — a devoted family man.
“It’s almost like, ‘Hop: The Musical,’” the genial Rizzi said with a laugh. “It’s just a well-balanced record. And he hasn’t changed. That’s the beauty of having a guy like that in one of the biggest country-rock bands around. There hasn’t been a voice like Hop’s since Johnny Cash. I really feel that way. To have his candor, his honesty and the way he sings with his knowledge of harmonies and melodies — he’s a weapon in any band.”
One of the most mellifluous songs on “Lonesome High” is the opening track, “Good Morning, Believers.” Along with its flecks of banjo, jittery high hat and a boom of a chorus, it also features Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls sharing vocals with Hopkins.
The pair started writing the song about two years ago, and for Hopkins, it was a particularly meaningful alliance.
“The Indigo Girls are one of my all-time favorite bands and one of my biggest influences harmonically and lyrically and the way they approach music,” Hopkins said. “I’ve always aspired to be as good as they, and Emily was gracious enough to write and record with me.”
A mutual admiration society exists between Hopkins and Saliers, who said she loved the optimism of the song — as well as working with Hopkins.
“I think we’re just kindred spirits in many ways,” she said. “The song is a lot about perspective and being positive, and it’s a spiritual coming together in terms of believing in the good that can happen in coming together...I hadn’t realized John was an engineer before, so he has the chops and that really helps with an ear for writing a song as well. He’s a really good guy and someone I would do anything with.”
Hopkins taps “…Believers” as his favorite on the album and said there is an orchestral arrangement of the song with “a bigger sound” for a deluxe version of “Lonesome High.”
Despite the uncertainty in the live music industry for at least the next several months, Hopkins has numerous projects to keep him occupied, joking that he could write his version of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
A livestream concert from the studio to showcase the new album is on the docket. So is work on another Christmas album, this time with Yacht Rock Revue, which will consist of traditional songs done YRR style with Hopkins’ vocals. Hopkins also hopes to release a video for “Good Morning, Believers,” as soon as he can figure out how to safely include Saliers. And then there is more songwriting, leaning toward joy rather than melancholy this time.
“I’ve got some victories on this record and some lonesome moments,” he said. “But I’d like to continue to find the brightness in the shade.”
Melissa Ruggieri has covered music and entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2010 and created the Atlanta Music Scene blog. She's kept vampire hours for more than two decades and remembers when MTV was awesome.