It’s not hard to figure out what’s great about the new John Driskell Hopkins album: the combination of tough-as-nails roots country with hard-picking bluegrass is simply irresistible! Hopkins is best known as the bassist in the Zac Brown Band, but he’d been toiling away for years as a singer-songwriter in Atlanta, GA before founding the band with Brown. Which makes it all the more surprising that this is his first album under his own name with his own songs. It must have been tempting to release his first solo album as, well, a solo artist, but by bringing on North Carolina bluegrass pickers Balsam Range to be his band, he’s taken his material to a new level.
Hopkins sure ain’t the first person to bring bluegrass roots together with country twang; it’s actually a pretty well trod path. But he’s learned the way to make this work: throw yourself headfirst into the collaboration and find great joy in the way it changes your music. You can hear it in a song like “I Will Lay Me Down,” as Hopkins’ raw vocals turn to sweet honey with the bluegrass picking beneath and the soft, high harmony of Zac Brown lifting him up. But no track rocks harder than “Runaway Train,” as Jerry Douglas blazes on the dobro and Hopkins howls over the top like an old-time tent revival.
What pushes this album past other examples of country singers adopting bluegrass trappings is the diverse capabilities of Balsam Range. They’ve never been a traditional bluegrass band, and the arrangements here are more like acoustic country arrangements than Appalachian bluegrass. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this sounds like one of the classic MTV Unplugged albums, which subverted the rock canon by killing all the electricity and forcing the performers to look inward for their power.
Bottom line here is that the combination of Hopkins country vocals and Balsam Range’s bluegrass picking is just a helluva lot of fun. The equation that produced this album is as straight-forward as the best cocktail: just mix two great things together and enjoy.