Onstage, John Driskell Hopkins cuts an imposing figure.
With an ash-speckled beard that often extends to his chest, a towering top hat and some type of fretted instrument in his hands, Hopkins is the most recognizable member of the Zac Brown Band outside of its namesake.
Offstage, in his Converse sneakers and patchy, still-growing-for-the-summer-tour beard, Hopkins is a mere 6-foot-1, and essentially a walking bear hug.
“If I’m at Publix, people go, ‘watch that guy,’” Hopkins said with a smile on a brisk, sunny January afternoon. “If I’m at a Zac Brown Band show, they go, ‘Oh, it’s Hop!’”
The Gainesville native has been with the Zac Brown Band since 2005, playing bass until 2014. That year, Matt Mangano was enlisted as the band’s full-time bassist, allowing Hopkins to utilize his voice as his primary instrument, though he fills in on guitar, banjo, ukulele and other stringed instruments when needed.
Check out our new accessAtlanta podcast and hear what else Hopkins had to say about his solo work and upcoming Zac Brown Band tour:
It’s a busy gig, playing in one of the most successful outfits in country music. But Hopkins, 46, is thankful that the band’s massive summer touring schedule – they headline their first stadium show in Atlanta on June 30 at SunTrust Park – allows not only for ample downtime with his wife, Jennifer, and their three young daughters, Faith, Hope and Grace, the rest of the year, but also frees him for solo projects.
He’s already recorded a pair of Christmas albums, in 2015 with the Atlanta Pops and 2017 with the Joe Gransden Big Band, and will work on a third, R&B/funk-themed one in between summer shows.
Currently, though, Hopkins’ attention is attuned to Brighter Shade Studios, his new 2,500-square-foot private Atlanta recording space where he and The John Driskell Hopkins Band are working on Hopkins’ solo album, “Lonesome High,” due by the end of the year.
He borrowed some ideas from the Zac Brown Band’s Southern Ground studio in Nashville for the studio, which might be why the floors are now five layers thick and the duct work crawling across the ceiling is painted a dusty brown, giving the main room a rustic vibe.
A long bar constructed from Sapele guitar wood (from Taylor Guitars) and a Ms. Pac Man/Galaga upright arcade game divides the spacious room from another area where Hopkins’ soundboard, outfitted with Pro Tools, is stationed, along with an enclosed vocal booth.
On this day, Atlanta banjo master Greg Earnest is ensconced in the booth, picking at his strings as Hopkins rounds up a couple other musician pals, keyboardist Brian Bisky
cqand drummer Mike Rizzi — both members of The Sweet Tea Project with Collective Soul’s Ed Roland — to track a new song.
“This is my rock band/bluegrass band/jam band — it’s like my version of the Zac Brown Band,” Hopkins said. “What you’ll hear out of this is my songs with this group’s take on it.”
As Hopkins’ recorded vocals boom from the speakers, he moves a mouse to adjust the sound while Bisky, Earnest and Rizzi play along (bassist Shawn McIntyre, from Hopkins’ mid-‘90s band, also called Brighter Shade, isn’t here, but plays on the album).
The song, “Missing You All, All the Time,” is lyrically self-explanatory (it includes a clever nod to his three daughters’ names) and musically lush. Bisky handles the pretty piano melody over Hopkins’ acoustic guitar, while Earnest’s banjo adds another layer of texture and Rizzi thumps out a steady beat.
“Every time we mess with it, we’re going to learn something else,” Bisky said with a grin.
Hopkins, meanwhile, is just happy to have a recording space that was built to his every specification.
“I never had the freedom to do this before,” he said.
In a few months, Hopkins will temporarily depart his studio sanctuary to head back on the road with the Zac Brown Band for the “Down the Rabbit Hole Tour,” which kicks off in early June.
Playing Atlanta’s SunTrust Park is a “big thrill” for Hopkins — ZBB shared a bill with Kenny Chesney for a Georgia Dome concert in 2013 — and unlike many musicians, he relishes performing in baseball stadiums.
“They’re unique because the experience from the stage, it’s not just a bigger space, it’s gorgeous,” he said. “You can almost see the crowd better. You can see the top tier in the back row and it really changes the way you approach the crowd. It’s made for people to sit and enjoy the baseball game, so to enjoy a concert, it’s sort of a natural feeling.”
Hopkins is aware Atlanta music fans haven’t had optimal sound experiences at recent stadium shows, but promises they’ll be pleased and surprised with what they’ll hear from ZBB.
“The football stadiums sound terrible. The baseball stadiums sound good. Our stadium shows sound fantastic. We have one of the most innovative sound systems in the world. I’ve never heard one person complain about our sound,” he said.
Hopkins is proud the Zac Brown Band and his solo projects are able to spotlight Atlanta musicians. He’d like to team with local hard rock wizards, the Grammy-winning Mastodon, for a future Christmas album.
“It’s all available here,” he said. “Many people think you have to go to Nashville to find orchestras or country session players and it’s just not true. We’ve got an amazing array of talent in this city and state.”
It’s a city where he plans to stay, raise his kids and now, tinker in his new electronic playpen.
“Atlanta is home,” he said. “I keep telling my wife, when we move out of this house, we’re moving into a Winnebago.”
Zac Brown Band
With OneRepublic. 6:30 p.m. June 30. $51-$126.50. SunTrust Park, 55 Battery Ave. SE., Atlanta. 1-800-745-300, ticketmaster.com, braves.com/zacbrownband.