© Southern Reel
July 31, 2015

A founding member of the Grammy-award winning Zac Brown Band, John Driskell Hopkins has spent more than his share of nights out on the road. In fact, even though he's currently on break from the group's summer Jekyll + Hyde tour, Hopkins is hitting the highway solo to work on his first Christmas album.

We caught up with the musician mid-trip as he drove through Asheville, North Carolina. Read on for his go-to playlist, a favorite music venue, and the small town with the best crowd he's ever seen.

How would you describe being on tour?

We’re very fortunate. We travel on a luxury submarine, and it’s as comfortable as anyone can possibly be in that situation. One of the toughest parts about the actual travel are getting used to your sleeping arrangements because we sleep through the night and on to the next venue. I’ve got special pillows, and a special mattress, and it's still a challenge to get good rest on the road. But the biggest obstacle is that we are away from our families for a lot of time out of the year, and it just makes it tough to stay connected. I’m so thankful for my iPhone that I can FaceTime and send pictures, and videos, and all the things that bands years ago couldn’t do. I can’t even fathom having to call from a truck stop or the hotel. We’ve got it easy. Those are the two main things, but the rest of our traveling is really great in a lot of ways because we get the opportunity to see so many parts of the country.

Do you have a favorite music venue?

I keep coming back to Red Rocks. I don’t know when our next chance to play there will be because we just played Coors Field, which is a lot bigger, but I still like Red Rocks the best. It’s one of the coolest spots in the country to watch and to perform music.

And then, the one I’m most looking forward to the most on this tour is Fenway. It’s not that Fenway is any better or worse than the other ballparks we’re playing, it’s that we’re doing three days there. Fenway is a legendary park for sure, but three days in a row in a place that majestic, that historic, is really going to be amazing. That’s my big highlight for this year.

Is there a city you’ve played that surprised you?

We just got back from The Gorge in Washington. It’s in a town called George, Washington, and it’s the opposite of Red Rocks in that it’s like a mini Grand Canyon. Instead of the peaks coming up, the peaks are dropping down below you. And for a town that’s so small and so seemingly remote, those people go ape. It was one of the first times I’d ever seen a crowd push through the barricades a little bit. They were on fire. And I really didn’t expect that from a small town in Washington state, but every time we’ve played there, the crowd has been one of the best we’ve ever seen.

What do you think like to listen to on the road?

If it’s a long trip, I’m likely to listen to a long playlist or an album in its entirety, so I can really dive in. I’m also likely to listen to a book on tape. If I’m not listening to a book or to an album, I’m likely listening to the bluegrass radio. I love bluegrass radio anyway, but for long trips, there’s a through-line there that’s really cool, especially the pulse of it really helps and feels like the highway sometime. It just fits. It’s great road-trippin’ music.

What are you travel must-haves?

I always travel with my Leatherman, if it’s not on my person it’s in my suitcase. It’s a multi-tool: a knife and a pliers, and a bottle opener. I use it all the time.

And then, I always have some Gaffer tape, and my banjo picks. They’re in a little case, and I keep them in my pocket at all times. You never know when you’re going to be attacked by a banjo. You have to be ready!

I think the banjo picks are the most interesting thing I have on my person. I’ve always got my phone, but everyone always has their phone. They come in so handy—you could be out somewhere, and someone will say let’s go to a music store, and you’ll find a neat banjo to play. I’ve got picks that I’m really fond of, so I always like to have them on me.

I also always travel with my own computer mouse. It’s a Logitech Marble. I can’t work on Pro Tools without it. If I have work to do that’s remote, I won’t hesitate to take it out. 

What made you want to do a Christmas album?

Every year at Christmas, I listen to the traditional songs, and it all comes back to the vocals, Andy Williams comes on and he’s crooning his face off, and I think it’s awesome. I have a tendency to be rough sometimes in my lead singing, but I’m also able to smooth it out and get some crooner sounds going. When that kind of opportunity presents itself, I really enjoy doing it, and Christmas music just seemed perfect.

The interesting thing about Christmas records is that you have to start them in the spring and the summer. You’re only three or four months out of Christmas before you have to start digging in to Christmas, so it’s a little weird for it to be 95 degrees outside and to be singing about a winter wonderland. But once you hear it and once you get in it, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is. It’s so nostalgic, and reminiscent of a wonderful time of the year.

The album is going to be recorded for the most part in Atlanta. It’s John Driskell Hopkins and The Atlanta Pops Orchestra, so it’s a 30-person orchestra behind me and an acoustic guitar or a banjo, it just depends on whatever that song calls for.

And then we have some great features planned, and one of those features is Balsam Range, who live in Asheville, North Carolina, so I’m going to them to get their tracks first, and then the orchestra will record to them.

I can’t wait. A couple weeks from now we’ll be hitting it.

Tell me a little bit about the playlist you sent over.

It’s curious that you asked me for a playlist in the first place because I have a podcast called Under the Influence with John Driskell Hopkins where I take my buddies and get their top songs and then we listen to them over their favorite cocktails. Everybody who comes in to my podcast says it’s really tough to pick 10 or 12 songs. Having to whittle it down from 100 or so to 10 or 12 is a real challenge.

When you get into my list the influences are wide and varied. The Indigo Girls have always been a big influence on me as a songwriter, their harmonies are the best in the world, in delivery and in choice of harmony.

Darrell Scott is one of my favorite writers too. And that song in particular is so amazing to me because it talks about all the things that we strive to be in our artistic lives and our family lives. How there’s always a cat bigger than tom, there’s always something that we didn’t quite reach the way we wanted to, and life goes one. It’s kind of an inspiring way of looking at a situation.

With Journey, we’re back at harmony. They’re one of the best harmony bands in history. And Steve Perry being one of my favorite vocalists of all time, I had to choose one of those.

Steve Martin was an interesting choice for me. I love his humor, and I love his sense of timing, and he was the guy who introduced me to the banjo on his Let’s Get Small record. We listened to it on the record player, and he has a whole bit in there about the banjo. He’s a fantastic artist and performer, actor, comedian, everything, and for him to have gotten back into his bluegrass career at a time when I was digging in to one of my own, was really cool.

With these songs, it keeps coming back to a lot of the same things. I’ve always clinged to a real sense of harmony and of ensemble. I’d much rather play with a couple people than by myself. The vocals are very important to me--more important than most other parts. Above all, for me, is a strong vocal. 

Check out Hop's playlist below, then head over to zacbrownband.com for tour info and album updates.

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