If nothing else, Bruce Hornsby’s career has always seemed to be propelled by far flung ambitions. His early albums reaped an immediate fan base, garnering him a Grammy for the “Best New Artist” in 1987 and a hit single his first time out with “The Way It Is,” a moving testimonial to the state of American race relations. From that point forward, Hornsby has continued to diversify as a , tempering with his template and expanding his parameters through work for hire with Bob Dylan, Elton John, Sting, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Crosby Stills and Nash, Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Bela Fleck, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Leon Russell, Huey Lewis, Don Henley and bluegrass champ Ricky Skaggs. Of course many live music fans know Hornsby for his stint as touring keyboardist for the Grateful Dead following the death of Brett Mydland, which earned him a spot in future Furthur Festival lineups and with Dead spinoffs- The Others Ones, while also holding the piano chair for last summers Fare Thee Well shows.
The reason Hornsby draws such hurrahs is due in large part to his willingness to expand his parameters. He managed to transcend several genres, from his early rural ballads like “The Way it Is,” its Top Five follow-up “Mandolin Rain” and the populist platform he ascended with the Grateful Dead, to his 1990 album with jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Charlie Haden A Night on the Town, his stylistically diverse double album Spirit Trail, and the two discs released practically simultaneously — a bluegrass set with Skaggs entitled Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby and Camp Meeting, a traditional jazz effort recorded alongside bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
With a new album, Rehab Reunion,due out June 17th that features Hornsb performing on dulcimer backed his band the Noisemakers. The album expands upon the Noisemakers dulcimer led mini-sets which have become fan-favorites during recent tours. It serves as a return to his roots — both literally and figuratively — it seemed the right time to speak with the ever amiable Mr. Hornsby about where his career has taken him so far and where it finds him now.
Please give us an idea as to how the album came about?
This album has been coming ever so gradually since about 1996, when I bought a dulcimer at the Galax Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention. The instrument started making small appearances on several of my records from ’98 on, and from 2009 on, we have had a stripped-down dulcimer-based acoustic set in the middle of our concerts. Two years ago DeMatteo and I had a month-long jag where we wrote three songs, and I wrote one alone, and after that month it became clear that it was time to make this record.
This album seems to return you to that rootsy, rustic sound that was a big part of your approach early on. Was that a deliberate attempt on your part?
No, just a natural creative progression based on my continuing and growing interest in writing on the dulcimer. And clearly, music written on this instrument is most likely going to be “rootsy and rustic,” as you say. It’s a diatonic instrument — only the white notes, which limits the palette one can paint with harmonically. I like those limitations, and it leads me to places I wouldn’t visit otherwise.
It might something you might like to forget but you played keyboards early on for Sheena Easton and were in her Sugar Walls video. Of course this song was written by Prince — can you share any thoughts on Prince and tell us if you ever got to meet him?
No, I don’t want to forget it. I find it funny, fairly comical. I embrace my sordid lounge – sideman past. My son Keith just finished his college basketball career as a starter for the LSU Tigers, and whenever he would have a tough game and be despondent about it, I would tell him to watch me on Sheena’s “Strut” and “Sugar Walls” videos. Since I look hilarious in them, it always picked up his spirits to sit there and laugh his ass off at my amazing screen presence. I never really met Prince, but I was around him a few times, with Sheena and later. What a transcendent talent.
A lot of people think of you fondly as a true and valuable member of the Grateful Dead community – looking back now, do you think your solo career would have been any different had you not played with The Dead for those years and participated in the post Jerry ensembles and Further Festivals?
Any time you spend that much time around a musical scene as vast and deep as the Dead world, it can’t help but have an influence. I loved them as writers, so that was an influence. I loved their loose approach, so that was another influence (although having been a Jazz major at the University of Miami, I was always game for winging it and improvising), and the whole “be kind” philosophy that permeated their scene was another beautiful influence.
You perform with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on the new Day of the Dead album and then you guys regrouped for a song on the new album “Over the Rise.” Most people would find this an unlikely collaboration, but it seems he’s been a fan of your music prior and he’s still a fan. Were you familiar with his work? Were you familiar with the Dessner brothers who put together the Day of the Dead album?
So many of my collaborations over the years have been deemed “unlikely” that one would think people would cease to be surprised. The collaboration with Justin was, and is, very natural; he was very interested in my music when he was coming up, and I’ve been a fan of his music since I first heard “Holocene”.
This past summer you played some huge shows as part of Fare Thee Well – massive stadium sized gigs. So how did it feel to step back into the ring and play such large venues to such boisterous fans after all those years? Did you appreciate it even more?
The finality of these “last Dead concerts” gave me a different sense of what was happening. I tried to savor certain special moments while they were happening, moments when things would really jell musically and the crowd would respond in that amazing Deadhead fashion.
You had only played maybe one other time with Trey Anastasio. Did you guys foster any type of friendship and musical groundwork for future shows?
Trey and I connected very easily and naturally on musical and personal levels. We had a great time together for those three or four weeks. I thought he did a fantastic job in the toughest spot in the stadium.
Of all your albums, 1998’s Spirit Trail continually sounds as fresh and exciting as when it first came out. Looking back at your albums, which ones do you find still most interesting and do you still listen to today?
If I had to name one studio record as “the best” I would probably pick Spirit Trail as well. I’m also very fond of our 2011 live record, Bride of the Noisemakers. That is probably the record I would recommend to anyone who wants to hear what we really sound like.
Please give us an idea of your earliest influences.
I got interested in the piano at age 17 because of Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen record with all that great Leon Russell piano. So it was Elton and Leon, and then Keith Jarrett, who led me to Bill Evans, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Bud Powell, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, and now modern classical music composers like Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen, Gyorgy Ligeti, and more.
How would you describe yourself to someone who was unfamiliar with your music?
Jack DeJohnette calls himself a “multi-genre” artist. I think that would work for me.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I think this is enough- I’m not that interesting!