Against the Grain
An Interview with Bruce Hornsby
First Appeared at The Music Box, November 2000, Volume 7, #11
Written by John Metzger
Mention Bruce Hornsby, and most folks will recognize the name of the gifted pianist and songwriter, while rattling off a few of his hit songs from the latter part of the í80s. The funny thing is this: Most of mainstream America really isnít familiar with who Bruce Hornsby is. They think they know, but they donít ó a reality that should change with the October 24 release of the double-live disc Here Come the Noisemakers.
Speaking about the album in a telephone interview from his Williamsburg, Virginia home in early October, Hornsby said, "This is a really good introduction into what Iím about. I really feel that what I do is not what people think I do. [Here Come the Noisemakers] is exactly what I do, and so itís an important record to me."
To understand what Hornsby means, itís necessary to reflect on the entirety of his career. Itís been 14 years since he released his debut and scored his only self-recorded #1 hit single The Way It Is ó one of many adult-contemporary songs for which heís most often remembered. In 1987, he won a Grammy for Best New Artist and landed two more Top 20 hits ó Mandolin Rain and Every Little Kiss.
As is customary in the music business, getting to this point hadnít been the easiest of journeys. In 1980, Bruce and his older brother Bob had moved to Los Angeles, where they found themselves working as contract writers for 20th Century-Fox. After a slew of recording sessions and a jaunt as part of Sheena Eastonís touring band, Bruce rounded out the group that later became the Range. Yet, it was a series of demo songs that Hornsby had performed acoustically that finally garnered major-label interest. The rest, of course, is history. Or so it would seem.
Where most artists might have cracked under the pressure, struggling to recapture their early success, Hornsby simply pushed onward. "Winning that first Grammy was a nice thing," he commented, "but the main effect that it had was that it made my parentsí friends think that I was something. It had no effect creatively."
Instead of succumbing to the musical prison of commercial success, particularly in the restrictive adult contemporary radio world in which he found himself, Hornsby skillfully maneuvered his way through what has become a stellar career that found him writing a Grammy-winning hit song for Don Henley (The End of the Innocence), becoming a member of the Grateful Dead, being sampled by Tupac Shakur, and recording with an array of artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Branford Marsalis, Ricky Skaggs, Squeeze, Leon Russell, and Pat Metheny. "I was never trying to be the great collaborator," Hornsby explained. "It just happened. Iíve just gotten so many great calls from so many amazing artists whom I have admired for years. Itís inspirational and educational to step into these peopleís worlds and see how they see their process and to see how they do things."
With such a disparate series of recordings, itís no wonder Hornsbyís music grew increasingly expansive throughout the í90s. Yet, itís a trend that actually blossomed out of his own musical vision. Said Hornsby, "I never wanted to be put in the Top 40 box exclusively. Itís great to have big hits because then a whole lot of people get to hear about you, and thatís a very nice thing. But in the end, itís a very limiting and limited scenario."
Hornsby slowly began to slip jazz and bluegrass elements into his music. In 1989, he performed at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He also reworked his hit The Valley Road with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which scored a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Recording in 1990. That year, he also released A Night on the Town, on which he teamed up with jazz musicians Wayne Shorter and Charlie Haden. Yet, this was just a glimpse of things to come.
In concert, Hornsby and the Range began to stretch out their songs, incorporating more and more freewheeling musical exchanges. Yet at their heart, the group was still a rock band, and after a final three-week tour in 1991, Hornsby disbanded the outfit to enter a new phase of his career.
By this point, he had already joined the Grateful Dead, and their loose-knit expressions further pushed him outside the confines of mainstream pop. Said Hornsby, "I loved the music. I loved the songs. I loved their approach to playing their songs. Thereís so much about the Grateful Dead experience musically that has been an influence on me. Once I started playing with the Dead, I think it definitely opened me up."
However, it would be a real easy, sort of sound bite explanation to say Ďwell he started playing with the Dead and then he loosened up,í" he continued. "I mean, I got my degree in jazz music so the jazz influence has not much to do with the Dead, as you can see. I was always interested in that music. Harmonically, I loved the sound of the chords. Iím a piano player, and so for me, the jazz language is more colorful...more varied. Itís more expressive for me, and so Iíve gravitated toward that and compositionally, Iíve gone in that direction many times since 1990."
Indeed he has. Harbor Lights seemed to open the floodgates, revealing a great deal more about Hornsbyís diverse musical personality. Its livelier, more disparate, and jazzier sound set a new tone for the next stage of his career. Hot House followed, containing the soulful energy of a southern juke joint, and in 1998, he released the expansive, two-disc set Spirit Trail, which stretched his stylistic range even further ó mixing jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop, while lyrically taking a more introspective turn. He commented, "To me, my most interesting music has been made from 1993 on ó since Harbor Lights. Thatís the area of my music making...the period that I am the most proud of ó by a long shot."
Even his concerts conveyed a looser, more playful mood, and Hornsby began taking requests from the audience. His most requested song is The Show Goes On, which appeared on Scenes from the Southside and was used to great effect in Ron Howardís movie Backdraft. "The most unusual requests," said Hornsby, "come in the form of requested medleys. People who are aware of what we do, know that we run songs together, and so theyíll come with their own completely outside medley requests such as What a Time into Play that Funky Music into Whiter Shade of Pale. Now, of course, a lot of that sounds ridiculous, and it wouldnít work. But sometimes Iíll see one that I think is interesting, and Iíll see if I can find a way to seamlessly thread these seemingly disparate elements together."
As good as his albums were, however, none of them seemed to capture the many faces of Bruce Hornsby or the magic of one of his concerts, and he always seemed to have more to say than he could possibly fit within the boundaries of a studio album. This year alone, he recorded a splendid cover of Darliní Corey for Big Mon (the recently released Ricky Skaggs-produced tribute to bluegrass founder Bill Monroe) and joined forces with Jason Marsalis, Bo Dollis, and the New Orleans Nightcrawlers for a spirited rendition of Backhand, which appeared on As Long as Youíre Living Yours: A Tribute to Keith Jarrett. In addition, he contributed his second song (Shadowland) to a Spike Lee-directed movie ó this time for the forthcoming Bamboozled. Admitting his tendency to drift under the mainstream radar, he stated, "[Itís all] good work that Iím proud of that wonít really be heard by a mass audience. I understand, but it is unfortunate."
Nevertheless, that hasnít stopped Hornsby from trying. If anything, itís encouraged him to continue restlessly moving forward ó always searching for some new place to take his songs. He seems to thrive there ó going against the grain and creating music that was meant not for a commercial market, but for himself. "A majority of the most interesting and fulfilling music that Iíve done has happened sort of in secret," he chuckled.
Hornsby is currently making plans to record an entire album of bluegrass material with Ricky Skaggs, and he already has begun writing songs for his next studio release, which is due sometime next year. "Itís my interest on this project to perform my version of the classic old Elton John rock band and orchestra records: Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, the first record thatís just called Elton John," he explained.
In the meantime, Hornsby will reintroduce himself with three different live albums in the coming months. England will see the release of two of them: a Bruce Hornsby and the Range concert from 1990 at the Hammersmith-Odeon and a 1993 Jazz Cafť show. Seeing wider distribution is the aforementioned Here Come the Noisemakers, which compiles selections from PBSí Austin City Limits, BETís Jazz Central, and several full-length concert appearances between 1998 and 1999. When asked which of the three releases he prefers, Hornsby enthusiastically responded, "If you got those two records and you put Here Come the Noisemakers on along side them, it is by far the better record. People have been asking me for years to put out a live record. I guess we could have done it in years past, but it wasnít until the particular group that is on Here Come the Noisemakers that it was really all there, [including] my singing and playing. So Iím glad I waited."
Here Come the Noisemakers not only captures the ambience of one of Hornsbyís concerts, but it also reflects the vibrant temperament and true stylistic diversity with which he approaches his craft. "Itís very spontaneous, and new things are happening in the moment," he said. "As opposed to most live records that you would hear, I really feel that this is a singular musical statement ó as creatively new a statement as any of my studio records because I really think it shows our approach and how we try to make the songs new."
"Iím really interested in true spontaneity," he continued, "and I think that does come off here. Thatís not really something thatís very typical of the pop world at all. I donít know many bands [in any genre] that really do that. Sure there is the jam band area, but I donít hear a lot of true spontaneity there either."
"A lot of people...most of America," he concluded, "probably wouldnít recognize me. I wanted there to be a document out there [that defines what] we really sound like. I think [Here Come the Noisemakers] really shows what my concert musical experience is about."
Here Come the Noisemakers is available from Barnes & Noble.
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As Long As You're Living Yours: A Tribute to Keith Jarrett< is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
Bamboozled Soundtrack is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
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