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Wednesday, 16 January 2013 00:00

All friends were strangers at one time

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art frJohn Driskell Hopkins was driving in his truck when it struck him.

It was a song. Radiating from his satellite radio, it sounded like a fond memory he once knew. The voices and melody were familiar, but he hadn’t ever heard it before, and had no idea who wrote it. He looked at the radio. A band name appeared in the digital display: Balsam Range.

“It was the song ‘Blue Mountain’,” he said. “It was really fabulous and beautiful. I noticed right away something was different about them.”

Hopkins was immediately impressed with the intricate harmonies and musicianship broadcast from the renowned Haywood County bluegrass ensemble.

“They don’t have a cookie-cutter sound, not like typical sound in most bluegrass setups,” he said. “They have a lot of musical influences from all over. It was different, and I was really attracted to that.”

No stranger to the music industry himself, Hopkins is a founding member and bassist for the Zac Brown Band, a renowned multi-platinum country group who has garnered numerous awards and sold-out arenas around the world. In his downtime between tours, Hopkins is a jack-of-all-trades musician, one who will pick up and learn any instrument he comes across.

Besides his specialized bass playing, he also is an accomplished singer-songwriter. When Hopkins recently found himself with several melodies of his own sitting on the shelf, he decided it was time to go into the recording studio and he knew exactly what group he wanted to back him.

He called the fiddler with Balsam Range, Buddy Melton.

“I asked them if they wanted to listen to some songs and put together a record. So, I came up here to Canton, played some gigs with them, then scheduled some recording time,” Hopkins said.

Melton and the rest of Balsam Range (which includes Darren Nicholson on mandolin, Marc Pruett on banjo, Caleb Smith on guitar and Tim Surrett on bass/dobro) soon found themselves in the midst of modern country music royalty.

“We were excited that someone from one of our favorite groups, a high-profile band, had heard us and liked our music,” Nicholson said.

Most of the album was recorded last February at Crossroads Studio in Arden, where Balsam Range records regularly. Vocals were captured at The Crow’s Next in Atlanta (Hopkins home studio), while final mixing was done at Southern Ground Studios in Nashville — a facility owned by Zac Brown. The final product, coming to fruition this past September, also included appearances by Zac Brown, Levi Lowrey, Joey + Rory, Jerry Douglas and Tony Trischka.

Not only was it high-profile, Balsam Range grew musically from the experience as well.

“Everyone in this band had their head opened up about different ways of recording things,” Nicholson said. “John does a lot of big production recording and had a lot of crazy ideas that worked wonderfully, ideas that we would have probably never thought to try or had the nerve to.”

And as the recording unfolded, the learning process became a two-way street.

“They’re just so much better than me in everyway,” Hopkins chuckled. “It’s just amazing. They’re so humble and easy to get along with.”

“John loved the marriage of our organic roots side and these other mainstream ideas,” Nicholson added. “We blended these styles together for something unique. We’re really proud of how it turned out.”

Hopkins’ songs took on a new life with Balsam Range accompanying compared to rock-n-roll undertones of his own Zac Brown Band, said Caleb Smith, Balsam Range guitarist.

But that music connection between hometown and mainstream didn’t stop there. A talented guitar maker, Smith was asked by Hopkins to custom build two acoustic guitars, one for him and one as a surprise present for Zac Brown. Both guitars were dreadnought sized, made of highly figured Brazilian rosewood for the back and sides, with Adirondack spruce tops built to specs from mid-1930s Martin guitars. Smith was invited to present the gift at a recent Dave Matthews Band concert in Atlanta, where Zac Brown Band was opening.

“He played the guitar for about 20 minutes with a big smile on his face, so I took that as a good sign,” Smith said.

The musical cross-pollination between Balsam Range and Hopkins was embraced by the audiences of a recent sold-out performance at the Colonial Theatre in Canton this month.

Backstage at the theatre, the group ran through a couple of selections, fine-tuning an already stellar live act. There are hearty laughs ricocheting around the room. Conversation is lively. The crowd in the building is jubilant. Loud cheers echo down the hallway. It’s show time.

“We don’t ever want to stop collaborating or being around John. He’s like a brother or a sixth man after spending so much time recording, touring and being in his home,” Nicholson said. “This friendship and these windows to collaborate will probably go on for years to come.”

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