One-on-One with John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band
John Driskell Hopkins, a founding member of the Zac Brown Band, takes a nostalgic trip back to 1993, down Tennessee Street in Tallahassee, where he got his musical start.
Anyone who has seen the Zac Brown Band perform will recognize the towering bandmate with the long flowing chops, jamming on a guitar and belting out vocals. John Driskell Hopkins, or Hop, as friends call him, grew up in Gainesville, Georgia. But in 1993 his love of theater pulled him farther south to Florida State University. Hopkins excelled on the stage—as a musician. He and his band The Woodpeckers played to boozy crowds in frat houses and bars along Tallahassee’s infamous Tennessee Strip, forging what would become a multiplatinum music career.
Hopkins, 46, now living in Atlanta with his wife and three daughters, produces albums, writes songs, and plays guitar, banjo and ukulele with the Grammy-winning Zac Brown Band, which he helped found. Hopkins has said he likes to “hear the rosin on a string,” and his penchant for a classic country tone resonates in his music. He masterfully blurs the lines between rock, country, bluegrass and pop with a modern Southern sound and lyrics straight from his own life story.
In an interview with Flamingo, Hopkins opens up about his musical influences, the blight of “bro country,” life in the Zac Brown Band, and his memories of good ole FSU.
How did you meet Zac Brown?
JDH: I actually met Zac recording his first record [in Atlanta]. It was in my studio back in 2000, around the same time The Woodpeckers were having their college resurgence. We started playing a bunch of fraternities and stuff in the early 2000s just to go out and have fun and make some money. I was producing records for local and regional bands from, like, ’96 to 2005. I joined Zac’s band in ’05 because I already knew all his songs [from producing the album] and we were friends. That took off three years later.
How did producing an album for Zac work back then?
JDH: We had to learn a lot along the way, but if you came to my studio, that meant that I was plugging in all the microphones and turning all the knobs and using the computer and making suggestions. And at the end you walked away with a finished, mixed CD, and then you were on your own.
But Zac was different?
JDH: When we started playing, we just kind of became a magical combination, and the gigs that we got just got better and better.
Is it still fun to create music together or does it feel more like work?
JDH: You know, any job that anybody has, even if they love it, can have days where it feels like it’s a grind. But we get a lot of joy out of what we do, and we’re very lucky to have that.
Are there any songs right now that you love playing?
JDH: Sometimes it’s a song that we didn’t even write. Right now, it’s been a lot of fun to play “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers. And I think one of [ZBB’s] new songs that’s getting me the most right now is “Two Places at One Time.”
It resonates with all of us about having to travel so much and be away for a long period of time, and then to come back.
It’s about finding that balance between being on the road and being at home.
Has the loss of Gregg Allman and Chris Cornell earlier this year caused you to reflect on your mortality or the legacy that you’re building with your music?
JDH: Absolutely. There seem to be a lot of people that we’ve lost in recent years. You definitely start thinking about how fleeting it all can be and to get your checkup and eat your vegetables and take care of yourself. You just never know. People like that, [their deaths] make an impact on you, emotionally and artistically—on what you can do to push the envelope.
You’re a family man. How many kids do you have?
JDH: Yeah, I’ve got an eight-year-old and two fives. All girls.
Daddy’s girls, I’m sure. Are they into music?
JDH: I want them to be happy in the pursuits they may have, but it’s important for me not to pressure them into music.
It’s a career that you can’t dictate. You can’t just say, “Oh, well I’m going to go and be a very successful musician because I feel like it.” You have to get lucky outside of the actual hard work.
What were some of the strokes of luck for you and the Zac Brown Band?
JDH: Well, you know, we could’ve done a lot of things along the way that didn’t work. And we were lucky that the things we did do worked. We’re also lucky that we’ve had some opportunities that have just fallen into our laps and that we were prepared for. Luck is just being prepared for the moments that jump out at you and being able to handle them.
Were those lucky breaks big performances?
JDH: You can point to a couple things.
First of all, being on the radio is a big deal. It really helps in terms of your crowd, and your shows start to exponentially double. But, then, you have to be able to back that up—so when people come to the show, they don’t go, “Oh, they only do that one song, and then everything else about them sucks.”
Then, if you get lucky enough to be on a television program, like the CMAs … We did “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” [on the CMAs]. We did a Charlie Daniels song rather than one of our songs because we knew that everybody would go, “Holy shit, did you see that?” Being bold and being prepared are the only things that I could teach my kids if they wanted to go into music.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
That performance set the tone for the kind of music the Zac Brown Band creates. What do you think about the bro country, pop movement taking over country radio?
JDH: Oh, I mean, it’s not my cup of tea. I don’t know how long it will last. People eventually seem to respond more to real songwriting instead of the party of the week.
You aren’t working on a song about painted-on jeans and Dixie cups?
JDH: I don’t care what you do with the track, I’m still not going to want to hear about every stereotypical camping scenario that you can come up with that ends in some nonexistent honky-tonk. It’s complete bullshit to me, and I don’t think I’ll ever appreciate it as an effort of songwriting. But, you know, I’m kind of a snob. So I’m admittedly hard to please when it comes to the songwriting.
Do you think there’s going to be a return to the classic bluegrass, folk and blues influences in mainstream country music?
JDH: Probably not. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that’s really slick and tuned up, and that’s fine. I just want the songs to be honest. I don’t like rock songs about rocking. I don’t like country songs about being country. And I don’t like grass songs about grassing. No matter what it is, I want it to be about you, or about me, or about something that changed my life that wasn’t superficial. But there’s also going to be a bunch of people writing pop stuff that a lot of people are going to really enjoy, and there’s a place for that; it’s just not on my radio.
Let me ask you about an artist who I know has been an influence: Jimmy Buffett. How can you explain someone who creates an entire genre of music?
JDH: He’s awesome. I don’t think that anyone will do it the same way he did it, but you just never know who the next Buffett or the next Bob Marley is going
to be, who takes over a whole movement of music.
We had moments where there was kind of a symbolic passing of the torch from Jimmy to Zac, just because we write some beach songs. Stylistically, I don’t think there’s ever going to be another actual Jimmy Buffett. Anybody that sets out to duplicate an older artist, you know, especially one as legendary as Jimmy, is destined to fail. So, I think we can borrow from all of our influences and our heroes along the way, and I think that makes us who we are.
The way you harmonize reminds me of the Indigo Girls.
JDH: I don’t know a bigger Indigo Girls fan than me.
I’m not going to go up against you for biggest fan.
JDH: No, I have arguments with people about it.
What’s your favorite Indigo Girls song?
JDH: “Love’s Recovery.” But the one song that’s probably my latest favorite is “The Wood Song.” You know that one?
“But the wood is tired and the wood is old
And we’ll make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go.”
You gotta hear it. Look it up when you’re done with this. It’ll blow your mind. They’re my heroes.
That’s awesome! What other bands do you admire?
JDH: One of my favorite bands growing up was U2, and I just got to see them in Louisville. It was their Joshua Tree Tour, and it was insane. I’m going to cling to those things that I grew up with, but I also get excited about new artists. I’m really into Aoife O’Donovan, and I really like Chris Thile and his Punch Brothers stuff. And I like a lot of the new, super-hip bluegrass things that are out now. I love my guys from Balsam Range. You keep getting influenced by the things you’re listening to, and I always try to listen to really top-quality stuff. It keeps me excited about making new music for myself.
HIGHWAY 10 RIDE
You’re a big fan of the 30A Songwriters Festival in the Panhandle. What drew you to it?
JDH: Probably the Indigo Girls. I just thought, wow, this is the coolest songwriters festival I’ve ever seen or heard of, and I want to be a part of it. I was able to get involved several years ago, and I’ve gone every year that I could.
Do you ever get back to Tallahassee?
JDH: Well, my wife is from Tallahassee. Her mother lives there, and we go down to visit her at least once a year and try to see FSU play.
Are you a rabid ’Noles fan?
JDH: I don’t follow the season too closely. If it’s not the Seminoles, it’s the Bulldogs, and they’re not in the same conference, so they almost never play each other. I cheer for both.
What were your favorite venues to play with The Woodpeckers in your FSU days?
JDH: I played Yianni’s every week. That was before Yianni’s sold out and stopped doing live music every week. But we built that joint, and it was our favorite place to play. And anybody who was anybody played Bullwinkle’s. And we started playing Potbelly’s, too. Over the years Potbelly’s was more a place where you could do original stuff, so my band Brighter Shade would come back and do Potbelly’s and sometimes Floyd’s. I’m not really familiar with the scene now, but when we go home, when we go back to Tallahassee, we try to go to Bullwinkle’s and Potbelly’s and see Dan and friends. We want to go and hang out for a while, but Tallahassee is generally a time for us to be with our girls and see grandma.
Do you ever play a set at Potbelly’s?
I bet that would give people a thrill.
JDH: They might think, well, who’s the old guy?
You’ve got a memorable look these days, with the chops and the hat.
JDH: There’s a Twitter picture out there from the last time we played at the Civic Center, about two years ago, where I’m holding a spear. They gave us a spear, and during one of my solo moments, I held it above my head. You might be able to find that picture somewhere. It’s a good one.
Any favorite memories of Tallahassee, from back in the day?
JDH: Being on stage and meeting my wife there. Those are the memories that I can look back on and cherish. It’s just a great town, and a great place to go to school. The arts program was fantastic. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to be an arts student and still go to a big Southern school.
This fall, you and the rest of the Zac Brown Band play all over Florida.
JDH: Yep, we’re gonna end up in Tampa. And then my family’s going on a Disney cruise.