John Driskell Hopkins has a kind soul and plays a mean guitar. The bass player for renowned country folk group Zac Brown Band played solo last Thursday, Feb. 21, at Club Downunder, for an intimate set and music workshop for Florida State University students. Hopkins told the crowd that while being part of a band gives him the opportunity to collaborate with other musicians, the joy of being an solo artist is being able to take songs that don’t fit with the band and make them his own.
|John Driskell Hopkins, bass player for country folk band Zac Brown Band, played solo last Thursday, Feb. 21, at Club Downunder, for an intimate set and music workshop. / Photo courtesy of Jenna Blakesee|
His trio opened with soulful, bluegrass tune “Runaway Train.” Hopkins on the baritone guitar ‘tuned a little hotter than most’ accompanied by bandmates on the violin and the cajon drums.
A 1993 FSU alum, Hopkins’ set at Club Downunder was a nostalgic homecoming for the musician. Heavily involved in theatre and the performing arts throughout high school, Hopkins majored in General Theatre upon his arrival to college.
“I became a songwriter because I wanted to live my own script,” Hopkins said.
When Hopkins came to FSU, he had every intention of focusing on his studies, and getting a degree without distraction. He knew he loved music but he wanted to keep his priorities straight, study hard and earn good grades. After moving up to Tallahassee, some fraternity brothers asked him to meet up for a few drinks—brothers he knew wanted to convince him to join their band.
“I told myself ‘don’t be in the band,” Hopkins said. “Don’t be in the band. Don’t be in the band. Don’t be in the band! And within minutes I was in the band.”
Hopkins became the lead singer of The Woodpeckers, and played every bar, fraternity house and sorority house in Tallahassee. At first, the band played covers of hits, but they gradually moved on to play songs from heavy rock bands like Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam. Hopkins stated that it was during these formative years that sparked his interest in writing music. Simultaneously ecstatic and at ease, Hopkins hit it off with fellow FSU grads and undergrads in the audience. Between each song, Hopkins took questions from the cluster of students at the foot of the stage. The crowd was comprised of many aspiring musicians, curious as to how Hopkins first got his foot in the door, and how they can garner their own success. “I didn’t want to do anything else,” Hopkins said. Hopkins recalled lugging his impossibly heavy equipment up the stairs of local bar AJ’s, sometimes to play for no one but a mostly empty room and his girlfriend. A self-proclaimed “do-it-yourself person,” Hopkins started recording music on his own.
“They were atrocious, but they got better,” Hopkins said. “You have to work. You have to work hard and never give up.”
After graduating, Hopkins spent years playing in bar bands, writing music and recording until 1998, when he finally met Zac Brown. A member from the CDU crowd hailed his attention, and asked what was the craziest thing he ever did while at FSU.
“In 1993, FSU was ranked the number one party school in Playboy magazine,” Hopkins said. “That was my fault.”
The wildest things he could remember taking part in were mostly just bouts of spontaneity; skipping class and driving to Jacksonville to see The Allman Brothers a few hours before the show. Venerated and vulnerable, the acclaimed singer, songwriter and guitarist shared both his strengths and weaknesses with his audience. Hopkins admitted that small sets, like the one at CDU, are sometimes more intimidating than huge, stadium shows because the close proximity with the crowd creates the hyper awareness that all eyes are on him. When a student asked Hopkins what he thought his greatest musical achievement was, Hopkins sat quietly, mulling over the question with difficulty. His violinist suggested the Grammys, but Hopkins quickly shot that down.
“To be able to do this day in and day out,” Hopkins said. “Making music that makes me feel good and makes people I love proud of me is my greatest musical achievement. “