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John Driskell Hopkins & Balsam Range

Daylight – 2012 (Brighter Shade)

Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

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CDs by John Driskell Hopkins & Balsam Range

As he was planning his new solo album, John Driskell Hopkins, a founding member of the Zac Brown Band, enlisted award-winning bluegrass band Balsam Range, hailing from Haywood County, N.C., to join him and bring his songs to life. The result is pure musical joy, with songs ranging across every musical style from bluegrass and gospel to jazz and blues to country.

The album races of to a fast start with growling blues and ZZ Top-inflected rock tones on Runaway Train that features Jerry Douglas' lightning Dobro. Brown sits in on the straightforward bluegrass gospel I Will Lay Me Down, driven by Darren Nicholson's hauntingly beautiful mandolin, Tim Surrett's plaintive Dobro, Marc Pruett's resonating banjo and the band's infectious harmonies, in what is the most beautiful track on the album. The sparely beautiful Daylight opens with a guitar riff resembling the opening of Dave Mason's We Just Disagree and the mandolin-drenched tune echoes Sam Bush's delightful Circles Around Me. In the album's starkest search for meaning, Hopkins yearns for the time when "when I break through daylight, you and I will see each other clearly/when I shake these shadows/ I'll learn to live the life I love so dearly." In the clever blues-inflected bargain with the other side, The Devil Lives in a Mason Jar: "The Devil hollers out my name, drags me into the flame, drowning more sorrows than sorrowful than he is." The Grass Don't Get No Greener starts off with a slow jazz Leon Redbone-inflected growl, opens up into a full throttle bluegrass scamper, and closes with a growling barroom blues.

Hopkins' collaboration with Balsam Range often blinds with dazzling light, bringing some of his older songs out of the shadows (such as Daylight) as well as radiantly shining a light on the superlative talents of Balsam Range.