Winning a Best New Artist Grammy is often the kiss of death for a group that aspires toward commercial success. But that was not the fate of the Zac Brown Band, which won the prestigious award in 2010. The group has only continued to raise its profile since then, not just in the realm of country music, but in popular music, as well. And this week, the band will headline the first-ever major concert held at Coors Field. The eclecticism of the act’s sound — which is more pronounced than ever on the newly released Jekyll + Hyde — has garnered it new fans as well as collaborators among fellow musicians, including country heavyweight Alan Jackson and rocker Dave Grohl. But the band’s roots are humble; they involve a meeting between Brown and the guy who ran the open mike at CJ’s Landing in Buckhead, Georgia, in 1998.
“I ran [the open mike] on Tuesdays for probably two or three years,” says former ZBB bass player and current multi-instrumentalist and singer John Driskell Hopkins. “My main gig at that time was in the studio. For me, it was a great opportunity to find new talent in need of recordings. I would often offer a free song to the winner of the open mike. Sometimes those winners would record with me, or they would go on to other things. But it was a great way to meet a lot of the new writers in the Atlanta area.”
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Hopkins recorded Brown’s solo debut in his studio two years after they met, and he was struck by Brown’s talent from the start. When Brown began putting together a band to take his music to bigger places, he tapped Hopkins to play bass, a role that Hopkins filled from 2005 until old friend and Berklee College grad Matt Mangano took over. The transition allowed Hopkins to return to guitar and vocals, where the longtime songwriter was more comfortable. This change in focus seems to have helped send the songwriting for Jekyll + Hyde in a slightly different direction.
“We’ve always pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable in the country genre,” says Hopkins. “A lot of other country bands do that, as well. We’re just trying to be what we were before we got on country radio, which is sort of a rock band with Southern leanings and a bluegrass background. I think [the title] is a nod to the fact that it’s so diverse. It’s kind of like a two-headed dragon.”
One surprise element on the new album is the presence of grunge-era star Chris Cornell on “Heavy Is the Head.”
“That tune almost sounded like a Soundgarden song,” says Hopkins. “[We said,] ‘It’s Chris Cornell. Let’s call him and see if he’s into it.’ And he was into it. If someone like him is interested in sitting in, you consider that a real blessing, because we’re huge Soundgarden and Chris Cornell fans. [He’s got] the best scream in rock and roll. He really brought it to another level.”