Bob Dylan. Bob Seeger. Stevie Nicks. The Grateful Dead. Bela Fleck. Leon Russell. Chaka Khan. Chick Corea. Cowboy Junkies. Don Henley. Huey Lewis. Willie Nelson. A random list of American musicians? Hardly. The fleet-fingered common thread running between these wildly divergent artists is one Bruce Hornsby of Williamsburg, Va. — a good Southern boy (well, a Southern boy, anyway) who has loaned his stunningly virtuosic piano prowess and mellow-but-potent vocals to projects by these and a seemingly endless list of other artists.
The lanky Virginian (no article about Hornsby is considered legitimate unless the term “lanky Virginian” is inserted in an appropriate spot) sprang into the American musical consciousness with 1986’s The Way It Is (RCA), the debut release with his band The Range. Populated with lushly melodic story-songs that decried the ugliness of racism and classism (the title track, which went to number one on the Billboard charts) and lamented the bittersweet loss of fecundly earthy early love (“Mandolin Rain,” which was also a hit single), The Way It Is explored a panoramic, dark-yet-hopeful American landscape. It went on to win the band a Grammy as Best New Artist(s) that year.
After two more critically acclaimed albums with The Range, however, Hornsby — never comfortable with the “pretty” hits he nonetheless continued to produce — struck out on his own. After a two-year stint touring with the Grateful Dead (among numerous other projects, including co-penning Don Henley’s smash hit, “The End of the Innocence”), he released Harbor Lights (RCA, 1993) — an innovative departure that was less about pop and more about the heavily jazz-infused sounds closer to Hornsby’s creative heart. Hot House (RCA, 1995) followed; gone now were pretty much all pretensions to pop. This release, filled with soaring, open-ended jazz-fusion brilliance, finally unveiled to the world the true, glorious extent of Hornsby’s (pardon the expression) range.
His latest release, 1998’s Spirit Trail, takes the listener into even more uncharted realms: A two-disc extravaganza featuring 20 songs, Spirit Trail meanders through musical territory which includes gospel, folk, blues and jazz, fleshing out a cast of often-bizarrely gothic American characters that range from snakehandling mystics to working-class heroes. It’s arguably Hornsby’s most ambitious — and most distinctly Southern — work to date.
OK, you’re probably saying. We know all about his music. Now what about Hornsby the man? What are his dark secrets? Unfulfilled dreams? What’s his favorite color, for the love of pete?
Well, your guess is as good as mine. Here’s what we know: He’s married. He lives, at least part time, on a farm in Virginia. He originally planned to be a basketball star, until the seductive lure of the Steinway in his living room proved irresistible and he enrolled in the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Other than that, precious little information is available. Hornsby is famously reticent about discussing his personal life. There aren’t even any screaming tabloid headlines about the guy, for chrissakes — no “Hornsby fathers triple set of three-headed love children!”
When I learned that I’d be interviewing him, however, I determined to change all that, tossing in some juicy personal questions (“What’s the most shocking thing you’ve ever done?”) at the end of the interview, once we’d established a rapport and all. But it was not to be. As I sat with a lengthy list of questions still waiting to be asked, Hornsby’s publicist suddenly cut in on our phone conversation: “I’m sorry, but that’s all the time we have.” Huh? (In all fairness, we had been on the phone for nearly half an hour, a more-than-respectable time allotment for an interview with a prominent musician.)
What follows, then, are the questions and answers we did get to. Is it coincidence that I was just about to plunge into the charmingly affable Hornsby’s inner psyche when the interview was cut short? I think not.
MX: Looking at your list of credits is pretty surreal, in a lot of ways — I mean, you’ve recorded and played with everyone from Chaka Kahn to the Dead to Bob Dylan to Bob Seeger to Branford Marsalis, not to mention writing songs for everyone from Huey Lewis to Don Henley. What is it about the way you play that lends itself so well to pretty much every kind of music?
BH: Well, I’m just a fan of lots of different types of music. I’ve been influenced by everything from bluegrass to modern classical music, so I’ve always been fairly comfortable in a variety of settings. The calls I get are really about people just being moved in some way by something they’ve heard me do and wanting a little bit of that on their record. So, yeah, I get a wide variety of calls stylistically, which I love. So it’s hard to typecast what I do in that sense. Sometimes I’ll show up on CMT [Country Music Television] and then BET [Black Entertainment Network]. In fact, I may be the only guy who does that: Tupac, Chaka and then, you know, Willie Nelson and Ricky Skaggs. I love that.
MX: Do you approach these projects with a different mindset each time, or do you pretty much go in and just do what you do?
BH: It’s … different … with each project. I just go in and check out the playing field that I’m in and figure out how to fit into it.
MX: By the same token, the Grammies you’ve won fall into such disparate categories — Best New Artist (with the Range), Best Bluegrass Recording (for “The Valley Road,” with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and Best Pop Instrumental (with Branford Marsalis). Did one of those, to you, most reflect the kind of work you feel most comfortable doing?
BH: The one I’m the most proud of — of all three of my Grammies, including the Best New Artist one — was the bluegrass award, because I’m just really proud of the record and the way that we managed to do “The Valley Road” bluegrass-style.
MX: And that’s quite an accomplishment, because I think that bluegrass, at least as far as the critics’ and the musicians’ and sometimes the public’s perspective goes, there’s a really purist aura that floats around bluegrass music. I think it might be the hardest genre to break new ground in and be accepted.
BH: Well, the Dirt Band was making this record, and they heard that I was a big fan of [their] first record, and … it was a natural fit — “Valley Road” to bluegrass. I think we probably did piss off a lot of bluegrass purists. And I understand that, but I’m really proud of the record I made.
MX: Well, they tend to be easily pissed off — in these parts, anyway — although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
BH: We played the Black Mountain Festival a couple of years ago, and I was struck by the number of Deadheads there in your area.
MX: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. Do you get tired of being asked what it was like to play with the Dead?
BH: Oh, maybe now and then, but it’s OK.; it’s fine. That was a fascinating phenomenon, the Grateful Dead, and there’s so many people who are so wrapped up in it and I understand that, so I became sort of part of the family and still am. So I don’t really get tired of it.
MX: So what was it like to play with the Dead?
BH: “There would be times when I wanted to press the eject button: it just wasn’t happening, and it was rough. But then there were many more times with the Grateful Dead than ever happened with my band … that I would get goose bumps. I’d get chills playing with them. And that’s pretty rare, to get chills while you’re playing. That would happen to me a lot with them. So I loved doing it for that reason. I loved the songs, basically. The cultural-phenomenon aspect was a different story. For me, it was about the fact that the Dead has 50 or 60 great songs. And a lot of people lose touch with that, or don’t realize it at all. … And also, Garcia and I had a real strong connection, both musically and personally.
MX: I’ve read that you feel The Way It Is — the album as a whole and the title song and the other pretty songs like “Mandolin Rain,” which became hits off that release — didn’t really reflect who you are musically. Is that true?
BH: Not quite. Well, it reflected what I was doing at the time, because that’s what I was doing. But I’d say the last three records really most reflect the scope and level of music that I’m comfortable with.
MX: Was it difficult to make that transition into doing the kinds of music more true to your own artistic vision?
BH: There’s no question that … well, Harbor Lights was actually a pretty successful record, in spite of the fact that it didn’t have a big hit. It sold a lot more than my previous one. But let’s be honest, commercial success in America, or even in the world, is generally about this: If you have a hit, you’ll sell records; and if you don’t, you won’t. And the music that I’ve played lately has not been so obviously about the radio and so, consequently, sales have gone down — with the exception of Harbor Lights, which was a nice way to sort of infiltrate … I was able to do what I wanted to do and have it be on a more sort of commercial level, too — not a top-40 level, but as far as sales go.
MX: Hot House, to me, was your biggest departure from that early signature sound, at least until Spirit Trail. Do you think so?
BH: That’s probably true, in the sense that it’s less … um, Harbor Lights is more of a sort of fun, up-tempo, exuberant record, but not about kind of the “sensitive cat.”
MX: I’m sure that “sensitive cat” thing is a little hard to carry around all the time.
BH: Well, it’s not really me. I mean, it’s part of me, but it’s not really me. So Hot House is one of my favorite records that I’ve made, and there was a lot of live material that was really fun to play.
MX: And it was more of a foray solidly into jazz and something totally different.
BH: Yeah, and Harbor Lights was, too — with Pat Matheny and Branford [Marsalis] on it. And actually, Harbor Lights, harmonically, is more complex than Hot House. Harbor Lights was probably a little more adventurous, but Hot House has more of an energy to it, and it reflects more of my life and what that’s all about.
MX: Is it upsetting to you when people still request the old hits, like “The Way It Is” or “Mandolin Rain,” instead of your more contemporary stuff?
BH: That’s actually kind of gone by the wayside. Sure, we still get people who come to hear the old hits …
MX: When I saw you at the Black Mountain Festival, it seemed like the crowd sort of roared more and really got into it when you played the old stuff.
BH: Really? More to the old stuff? Then I think you saw something that’s sort of rare. I totally understand it, but at the same time I feel that our crowd, at this point, is more there for the right reasons — it’s not the fickle, top-40 crowd. I think our audiences are just as interested, generally, in hearing some of the more obscure songs. Let me say this: When we first started out, we’d play for, say, 5,000 people in Chicago, and we played the hits early, and 40 percent of those people would then leave. Whereas now, we might play for 2,500 or 3,000 people, but they don’t care if we play “The Way It Is.” And that’s more fulfilling for me, as a musician.
MX: I wanted to talk about the Southern thing just a little bit. It seems that most Southern writers and musicians and artists are defined first by their geography, then by what they actually do. You, in many ways, have been pegged as a Southern boy who makes good music. Do you feel that the whole geographic thing is a big part of what you do?
BH: Absolutely. It always has been, and I’ve always embraced it, because I’ve absolutely played to that — not only on an image level, but on a level that the South is what I’ve always written about. There’s a real strong sense of place in my lyric writing, just like the best Southern fiction that I’ve always loved. I mean, I’m obviously not aligned to Southern rock — nobody’s ever compared me to Charlie Daniels or Marshall Tucker; I have too much of a 42nd Street New York, urbane feel to what I do to be compared to them. But that Southernness has always been a part of my music and will always be. I’ve always felt you have to write what you know.
MX: One more quick question, since we’re being told we have to stop: What’s the biggest misconception that American listeners have about Bruce Hornsby, either musically or personally — or both?
BH: Well, it’s an obvious fact that the mass of America, who are not true music aficionados, know me for five or six hit songs [recorded] from ’86 to ’90. So the biggest misconception, I guess, is that that’s what I’m about. But in the last nine years, I’ve been doing a lot more different things. I think most every musician suffers from that scenario, though: They’re known for their hits, and that’s it. But I would probably say that my musical scope … the difference between my hits and what I’m really about is larger than is the case with most musicians.