It’s over 25 years since Bruce Hornsby keyed the world in on “The Way It Is” – a hit that earned him Best New Artist Grammy and helped launch the pianist’s music into a diverse and collaborative career. From The Range to The Bruce Hornsby Trio and eventually The Noisemakers, Hornsby continues to reinvent himself with spontaneous creativity.
Most recently, he signed with 429 Records for the release of Bride Of The Noisemakers, a double CD collection of 25 handpicked songs chosen from his twenty years as a singer/songwriter. Bride (the sequel 11 years after Here Comes The Noisemakers) was recorded live on tour in various venues between 2007 and 2009. For Hornsby, the unprompted spirit of his live shows is essential in his quest for the perfect musical moment – particularly when joined by The Noisemakers, who almost flawlessly combine rock, jazz, r&b, and modern classical into something far more beautiful than their moniker conveys.
The Noisemakers consists of bassist J.V. Collier, keyboardist/organist John “JT” Thomas, saxophonist/flutist Bobby Read, guitarist/mandolin player Doug Derryberry and drummer Sonny Emory. A band of brothers, you could say, with a long history together. In general, Hornsby’s musical connections stand the test of time – performing over 100 shows with The Grateful Dead, from 1988 until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. He has also played on over 100 records, including Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Still and Nash and Huey Lewis. Most recently, Hornsby has stretched his artistic wings even further working with bluegrass legend, Ricky Skaggs and double bass jazz legend, Charlie Haden.
A University of Miami music alum, he 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 young singer/songwriters. For a man who is constantly moving to new musical places, I was honored he took the time to sit and tell me a small piece of his story.
Hi Bruce…how are you?
I’m good thanks… I love the accent. I’m gonna guess New Jersey?
Close. I’m actually from Long Island, New York. Or as they say “Long G’Island.
Yeah, exactly. I’m from Virginia so I guess I should sound more like, “How ya’ll doin’ there?” I have a bit of a southern accent, but my mom’s from New England so I have an odd inflection.
Often with musicians you can’t hear their accent when they’re singing. Do you think that’s the case with you?
I think in my case you do hear it a little bit. My goal as a vocalist is to sing the way I talk. I think you can hear a bit of a twang or edge in my voice. And that oddly enough, is when I think I’m the most authentic. So hopefully that’s the case. Didn’t mean to get all heavy on you, but I went to that place because it’s important to me.
I had no idea your whole family is involved with music. You started with your older brother?
Yeah, he was the musical catalyst in our family ‘cuz at a young age he had a band. When I was eleven he was performing at thirteen and that was really the heyday of rock bands (late ‘60’s through the early ‘80’s) where there were lots of places to play. You could perform at a local high school sock hop, etc…so I started my own band at twelve. It was called the “Fourth Dimension”. Our band card said “live music for sub-teenagers” and our first gig was $20. We split it four ways …$6.66 (laughs) and we played at somebody’s make-out party at their house.
Sub-teenagers…what we now call “tweens”?
Yeah, I guess that’s right. We were in 6th grade and we won “The Battle of the Bands” right here in Williamsburg, Virginia. And basically, we had an advantage over the other bands ‘cuz we got to use my older brother’s hotshot equipment. So we sounded louder and better than everyone else.
And you’re a grad of University of Miami…
Yes and I started a music program there called The Creative American Music Program. It’s a songwriter’s program where musicians learn to write, sing and play most of the styles of traditional American music from blues folk, gospel, bluegrass, etc. We started it about three years ago and we only take about 8-10 students a year out of 200 that apply.
Miami always had an excellent music program.
Yes, it has and I got a lot out of it. I had a really tough teacher (Vince Maggio) who’s one of the great, rare teachers who really walked the walk. He was always telling me, “You’re terrible, but if you do this, this and this you won’t be terrible”. After reeling from that incredible ego-blast I got with the program. I still consider him to be my teacher and I’m still trying to impress him after all these years.
I’m sure he’s very proud of you.
Yeah, he’s pleased with the progression. Mostly, I think in the last 6-10 years is when he felt like it’s really gotten there for me. He’s happy with the jazz record I made because he’s a jazzer. He’s proud of the work I did on my trio record from 2007; he’s also a big fan of my box sets. He loved the DVD because it shows me in various incarnations.
Well, that’s just it…you’ve done so many styles. Did growing up in Williamsburg shape you musically?
Not at all. You would think that because I grew up in Virginia, that there would be some background in old-time traditional music – as it’s a mecca for that kind of music. But that’s mostly out of the southwestern part of Virginia. Ralph Stanley comes from Cobren but that’s about a 6-7 hour drive from where I am. I was just your standard kid growing up listening to the radio. We listened to a lot of soul music. There was a great station out of Norfolk called WRAP.
And you were a writer for 20th Century Fox with your younger brother, John?
Yeah, that’s right. We actually call him Lonny- named after Lonny Donegan – the famous skiffle musician who was well known for a song called “Rock Island Line”. But most well known to me for his great hit, [sings] “Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?” Does your mother say ‘don’t chew it’? Do you swallow it in spite? Can you catch it on your tonsils and heed it left and right? Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight…”
For us it was [sings] “Do your boobs hang low? Do they wobble to and fro? Can you tie them in a knot? Can you tie them in a bow? Can you throw them over your shoulder like a continental soldier? Do your boobs hang low?
Hilarious. To me, my version of that song was a seminal moment in my childhood. I was about 5 years old.
I think I learned my version of that song in sleep away camp. There’s so much written about your love affair with The Grateful Dead. Did your first band cover their songs?
My first band (Fourth Dimension) covered mostly The Stones and Neil Diamond. We weren’t even aware of The Dead in 1967, when of course they were going strong, but we were too young. My older brother’s band, “Bobby Hi-Test And the Octane Kids” covered The Dead. That was his band from University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I would commute from my one misguided year at a real college (University of Richmond) to play in his band. It was 1974 and that’s when I really got turned on to The Dead.
Did you ever think you’d end up close friends with Jerry Garcia?
No, who would ever imagine that? And it was a beautiful time. He was a great person and I, like many, many people miss him a lot. I learned so much from him…he was a walking encyclopedia of folk music. It was an amazing moment for the old crowd who used to hang around The Octane Kids in ’74 to come up to Madison Square Garden 16 years later in September l990 and watch me just start wingin’ it with him on stage with no rehearsal. It was like I was painting myself into the mural I was looking at when I was a kid.
Fans believe you were a major catalyst to their revival in the ‘90’s…
Well, I wouldn’t say that, really. I came in the late ‘80’s and Garcia died in ’95. I think that was a tough period for them. One thing that seems to be generally thought was that when I played with The Dead, Garcia really enjoyed it. We had a great connection. Sometimes I would verbally pick him up when I felt he was flagging on stage. I would be next to him on accordion sort of shouting (laughs)…
Those were definitely hard years for Jerry. You could see it…
Yes, he just had a lot of drug problems…a lot of demons.
What would you like to tell us about your new album?
Well, it’s the sequel to our first album 11 years ago, Hear Comes the Noisemakers. That’s how our band got its name. Our fans started calling us The Noisemakers and it just stuck. I guess the next one will be Beneath The Planet of the Noisemakers. We haven’t planned it, but it sounds good to me.
There’s certain songs such as “Circus On The Moon” that remind me of your late ‘80’s music.
Yeah, I can definitely hear that. And then there’s a lot of stuff on there that won’t remind you of it at all. What else would remind you of that time? Maybe “Defenders of the Flag” is from that era but is a different sound. Actually we’re going to do a funkier version of that song. A rowdier version.
How did you get together with The Noisemakers?
We’ve been gradually putting this band together. Most people come to my band and don’t leave. JT Thomas has been with me 21 years – even goes back into the ol’ “Range” era. Bobby Read’s been with me for 18 years. JV Collier is 17 years, John Derryberry 13 years and the rookie of the group, Sonny Emory – great drummer is almost 10 years.
Did you feel you had something to prove with this sequel CD – 10 years later?
I’m hoping it showcases the freewheeling approach we take – which makes it so the songs can become new and grow and evolve. It was time 10 years after the first live record for there to be a document showing what we sound like now. I think if you listen to the two records back to back, you will hear some similarities, of course. The instrumentation is the same and almost all the players are the same, but it’s a very different feeling – certainly vocally. I thought it was time for fans to be able to hear that. People are always badgering me saying, “You guys are so much better live” and I don’t disagree with that, so it was time for the next one. And also it was time to showcase some songs that aren’t as well known. To me, some of those songs are the best I’ve written. Lots of times I write the songs, we record them and then we learn how to play them (laughs). I’m a bit of a slow learner that way. Sometimes it takes me a while to find the best arrangement or the best way to sing it …who knows. In this case, I wanted to find definitive versions so I painstakingly went through many, many shows and graded them. It’s a process of self-revelation and education. I know the sound of me sucking really well now (laughs).
Well you’re a loose leader. You don’t like to rehearse a lot…
The guys probably wish we would rehearse a little more. I think they like it loose though. We have our own little language that we’ve created over the years. So if you see us, you’ll see me throwing my hands up, making these signals, pointing to these two guys.
Almost like a baseball game with the coach giving signs…
I think that’s a good analogy.
Speaking of sports, I know you have these two very athletic sons…
Yeah, my twin boys. The basketball player got a full scholarship to University of North Carolina in Asheville and that’s fantastic. And the runner is gonna run in Oregon and he got a partial scholarship.
And you named them after amazing musicians…
Yes, Russell after Leon Russell and Keith after Keith Jarrett.
Do you ever pinch yourself? You’ve had such epic hits with so many musicians – from Bonnie Raitt to The Dead to Don Henley. And then your own hits…
I don’t really feel it because it’s not about looking back for me…it’s about looking forward and what I’m most excited about now is this play we’ve been writing music for called “Sick Bastard”.
Tell me more about it…
There are a couple of songs on this record from the play. It had its first run in Norfolk, Virginia in January and February and in May it was written up in The New York Times Arts & Leisure section as one of five plays out in America that has a great chance to come to Broadway. I wrote the songs with my old childhood friend, Chip de Matteo and the story is based on an idea I had. But Clay Chapman wrote the book. I do the heavy lifting musically.
How can fans learn more about the play?
It’s all over the internet. We got a lot of reviews – all good. There’s a facebook page. That’s the good thing about the internet…
And the bad thing?
The bad thing is it’s really hurt the music business – it’s decimated the model that was in place before. I liked when people actually cared about buying records and had a greater appreciation for an album – a body of work, rather than a song here, a song there. That’s really too bad for me on a creative level. So now in the face of this massive indifference, we’ve put out a double record! It’s a big middle finger to the whole system (laughs).
Do you plan on touring again with Bob Weir?
You can never say never with those guys ‘cuz we have a long history and they’re great people. It could certainly happen. But I am touring with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He and I are old cohorts…I’ve been on several of his records and he’s been on several of mine. We’ve done banjo and piano duo concerts here and there through the years, so it’s a very natural pairing.
So where is the magic bus off to now?
I have a pretty clear idea, actually. I’ve got four incarnations of my musical trip right now. One being the band. One being my solo piano concert. The third being the bluegrass collaboration with Ricky Skaggs, my country cousin. And then there’s the jazz thing with the trio, Jack and Christian. Next February or so I have a solo concert record coming out and I’ll be touring February, March and April 2012 for that. Then probably the Skaggs/Hornsby duo will crank up again and we’ll put out a record and I’ll tour that. And then I’ll probably put out a record from the musical, “Sick Bastard” and then a jazz record. So that takes me through 2014 or 2015…
Unbelievable. You sound very organized…
Well, there’s so much I want to do so I need to keep it in check so I don’t go crazy. Also, side projects come up. I scored a movie for Spike Lee a couple of years ago – A Kobe Bryant documentary for ESPN. A lot of my music was in this Robin Williams movie that Bobcat Goldthwait directed, so there’s always things that come up between the best-laid plans that I make for myself. It’s a pleasant problem to have. There’s never a shortage of beautiful projects to get involved in.
That’s truly a testament to you as a musician…
I think it comes from this place – I’m a lifelong student and I’m always looking to move my playing, writing and singing forward. It doesn’t bode well for retaining the loyalty of old fans who would like to hear the same sound over and over again. That’s not me – I couldn’t do that. But at the same time, it’s a very creative place to be in and it seems to attract like-minded individuals who want to collaborate and hence, all this new music to keep me inspired.
Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and freelance writes about music and the arts for other websites. She can be reached at [email protected]