By Barbara Petty
Bruce Hornsby makes no excuses or apologies for not being a repeat Top-40 success; in fact he rather relishes it. Throughout the 30-minute interview Greg and I had with Hornsby in January, his recurring mantra was, “Grow, Experiment, Change.”
For long-time Hornsby fans, his musical variety and willingness to explore different genres is the reason to see his concerts multiple times, because you never know what you are going to get. He rarely follows a play list, even taking requests from the crowd. His solo concert at The Carolina Theatre on Tuesday, February 14 (tickets: carolinatheatre.org), will be, “Twenty six years of music—the sum total of what I am all about,” Hornsby remarks. “It is a demanding night for me musically, but I demand a lot of myself. My left hand is the band! It will be a broad range of emotions, but also a good bit of levity.”
A review of album covers will attest to his sense of humor. In 2001, Hornsby released Bride of the Noisemakers, a sequel to the 2000 release, Here Come the Noisemakers. He explains, “We thought it was time to put out a sequel. [Our sound] has evolved; it has changed how we play the songs. So when we were looking for sequel titles it could have been called ‘Beneath the Planet of the Noisemakers’ or something like that as sequels go, so we decided on ‘Bride of the Noisemakers’ in that same frame of mind.” The cover image is a picture of his bass player (J.V. Collier) marrying the keyboard player (John “JT” Thomas) in drag.
Reflecting back, Hornsby says the musical shift began early on. “People don’t realize—they typecast you when you have ‘hits’ and think you are one thing. But if they would actually listen to the hits, Valley Road for example, it featured not one but two fairly lengthy improvised piano solos. My musician friends couldn’t believe what I was getting away with on Top-40 because I was, as they say in the jazz world, ‘blowing’ on Top-40! [Improvisation] was happening even back then.”
Hornsby was never one to be typecast. Even in high school, “I was always between worlds… I was friends with everybody, but I was a little too straight for the freaks and a little too ‘out’ for the straights.” A sports nut, he gave up basketball in the 11th grade when he discovered the piano. He also plays dulcimer and the accordion “…very badly. But I really consider myself just a piano player—that is a totally all-encompassing pursuit. In two lifetimes you would not be able to learn everything; it is so vast, broad and beautiful.”
Hornsby’s ten-year relationship with The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia was the next pivot point in his life. I mentioned that on the surface it may have been an odd connection, but Hornsby explains, “The Grateful Dead is the ultimate jam band—of the family tree of that world, it starts with them. And when I was in college I played in my bother’s Grateful Dead cover band, so the Dead’s music was part of my past. They sensed a kindred spirit in me early on because they asked me to open for them in 1987, and we continued to do so for the next four years.” He then moved from opening for the band to becoming a part of the band. Hornsby played over a hundred shows with the Grateful Dead, beginning in 1988 and continuing until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.
They weren’t the only musicians asking for Hornsby’s time and talent. “My life changed dramatically after commercial success (as anyone’s would), but it really started changing more (and for the good) when a lot of musicians started asking me to play with them. If you have a lot of hits, that’s a situation that’s generally going to end. You can count on maybe four or five hands artists that have had long relationships with Top-40 radio—Elton John, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Sting, not very many. In the early 90s I started getting all these great calls from people I admired very much to work with them, whether it was recording a record, or writing a song, or playing in their band, and that broadened my horizons. I insisted on having a career that was about the music, not about some notion of trying to stay on the charts. My music changed and evolved as I worked with people I loved: Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, Bella Fleck, Bonnie Raitt, etc. From 1990 on [my music] became much more interesting and deeper. Consequently, it may take you off the radio, but it’s allowed me to have a career where I have a very loyal following of people who don’t give a rat’s ___ whether I play Every Little Kissor not. That’s nice! I’ve just followed my instincts and have become a life-long student of music.”
He may not have been on Top-40 radio, but Hornsby was establishing himself in the music world on a number of fronts. A three-time Grammy winner (nominated 13 times), he won Best New Artist for The Way It Is, Bruce Hornsby and The Range’s first album; with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for Best Bluegrass Recording, ‘The Valley Road,’ on Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two; and with Branford Marsalis for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for Barcelona Mona, a song for the 1992 Olympic Games.
Hornsby has toured and recorded with Ricky Skaggs, toured and recorded with The Bruce Hornsby Trio (jazz ensemble), and his current band The Noisemakers have been together for over a decade. I asked Hornsby what the connection was between all these genres, to which he replied, “My whole trip is bursting people’s standard misconceptions that [the musical forms] are so different, and of course they are in lots of ways. But one thing that they have very much in common, which is at the root of each style, is that they are about the virtuosity on the instrument. And that is what jazz is all about. Bluegrass is also about great songs and great singing, but it’s very much about playing your instrument really well.”
University of Miami alum, Hornsby has also partnered with The Frost School of Music to establish the Creative American Music Program, a curriculum designed to develop the creative skills of talented young artist/songwriters by immersing them in the diverse traditions of modern American songwriting.
Hornsby recently wrote the score for a new Spike Lee movie, Red Hook Summer, which was premiered at The Sundance Film Festival. He has also forayed into Broadway musicals, collaborating on 19 new songs for the play SCKBSTD (pronounced Sick Bastard) that opened in Virginia to strong reviews. His offbeat humor is in full-tilt mode as he remarked, “One of the songs from the play is called ‘The Don of Dons,’ a song about Donald Trump. There is another song called ‘The Holy Trinity of Home Delivery’ about FED EX, UPS and Postal delivery guys.”
Hornsby and his wife Kathy have twin sons; Russell, a top middle distance track recruit in the US, and Keith, who plays basketball for UNC-Asheville. (Their home is in Williamsburg so they are able to drive down frequently for the games). Kathy is an artist of note and designed the covers for two of Hornsby’s albums, Levitate and Camp Meeting.
I asked if he felt a connection between spirituality and music, and Hornsby remarked, “I am always in search of the transcendence—the chill or the goose bumps when I play. So if you want to call that ecstatic moment spiritual, then I guess you can call it a connection—but that is what I am in search of.”
Music video by Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers performing Cyclone – Live. (C) 2009 The Verve Music Group, a Division of UMG Recordings, Inc.