Howdy, folks. John Driskell Hopkins here. I was born in San Antonio, Texas on May 3, 1971 at Lackland AFB and I was raised in Gainesville, GA. (Go Big Red)
I have been singing since I could talk. Like a lot of us who grew up in the South, my earliest musical experiences were in the church choir. Choir was a great place to gain a real understanding of vocal harmony and musical structure. In fifth grade, I started piano lessons and began to learn about music theory in it's simplest forms. Later, I applied what I had learned to my Dad's old Martin guitar knock off that I found under the bed. I started playing guitar and bass in high school and formed my first band with my buddies. We were called Only For Tomorrow and we played mostly U2 and REM covers. Poorly...
Having always been heavily involved in the theatre throughout high school, I went on to graduate Florida State University with a degree in General Theatre in 1993. My band at FSU was called The Woodpeckers. We played every bar in Tallahassee, I think, and later released a CD under the name Distant Relatives. I was the lead singer. I will always treasure that experience and the guys I played with. Being in that band showed me that a life in music was not only possible, but attainable and sustainable.
After college, I moved home to Atlanta and formed the band Brighter Shade with great guys that I still play with today. We have released two independent albums and played countless gigs. When Brighter Shade's gig schedule slowed down in the early 2000s, I began to focus more on producing and writing in my studio which I named after the band. I recorded, produced and performed on many different records with many different artists during those years. One of them was named Zac Brown.
I met Zac at CJ's Landing in Buckhead in 1998. I was hosting their Tuesday night open mic night and Zac came to perform. I met Sonia Leigh there as well, coincidentally. It was a fabulous platform for new talent. Borrowing from Eddie's Attic, we made the open mic a small competition and I awarded winners a small cash prize and a song in my studio. Sonia actually won one of them...
Zac and I remained friends over the years and in 2001 we began recording together on what would eventually become his Home Grown album in 2003. We chipped away at it piece by piece as he was already very busy with gigs both in the Atlanta area and regionally. It was in the studio with Zac and Shawn Mullins in February of 2005 that I heard the beginnings of "Toes". Zac had come in to demo the song and work through some of the kinks. I'm a pretty good kink straightener. It was then that I learned that Zac was in need of a bass player. I volunteered to sit in until he found a permanent player.
I truly believe that my intentions at the time were merely to get out and have some fun with my buddy and step aside when he found someone to play bass. I have always known that singing harmony comes very naturally to me and I'm a very meat and potatoes bass player that loves following the kick drum. What I didn't really expect is that we would all play together so effortlessly. After a few weeks, I said to Zac "If you're not still looking, then I'm staying." The crowds were becoming rabid. One time, this huge guy got so into our performance, he repeatedly smashed his hand into an already broken glass on the front of our stage. We played six nights a week and packed the bar every night. Jimmy and I exchanged glances while opening for Angie Aparo and I remember thinking, "Damn. We've really got something here."
The next three years were sometimes brutal, sometimes hysterical, sometimes glorious, but always magical. We were going to call it Zac Brown and The Grit, but instead we named it Zac Brown Band. We played over 260 shows in 2006. We recorded half of The Foundation at my studio and half in Nashville. Some weeks we made negative money and other weeks we made up for it. We rode in an airport shuttle death trap up into the Rockies and back down to Miami. Guys got divorced. Guys got married. Babies got born. Families got built. Dreams got realized. When Chicken Fried made it to the radio in 2008, the sky opened up.
Being in this band has taught me so much about myself. It has made me realize a lot about who I am and who I want to be. It is a band where anything is possible and there are no limits to what can be achieved. The music that we write and perform has a Southern identity, but is in many ways without genre. We never come to the table with a preconceived notion of what the music should or shouldn't be. We debate. We disagree. We celebrate. We rejoice. In the end, we stand together and we often marvel at what has come to pass this far. It's an incredible journey filled with incredible people, and it has only just begun.