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Bruce Hornsby: Still Hitting All the Notes

The Virginia musician chats with Elmore about the dulcimer, the Dead and... Steph Curry

Bruce Hornsby by Keith LanpherBy Lou Montesano

“[S]ome things will never change,” Bruce Hornsby sang in his first radio hit, “The Way It Is,” but clearly that hasn’t applied to his music over the past 30 years. From the tightly constructed tunes on his debut album to collaborations with country and jazz artists and his years as an honorary member of the Grateful Dead, Bruce continues to draw on diverse influences to create his own unique sound. Further stretching musical boundaries, his latest album, Rehab Reunion, was written and performed on the dulcimer, a traditional stringed instrument associated with Appalachian music. On tour for a series of solo shows, as well as a few with his band, the Noisemakers, the Virginia native took time out to share some thoughts on where he’s been and where he’s headed.

Elmore Magazine: Your work has touched all the bases: rock, bluegrass, jazz, classical and just about every other musical genre. Now you’re about to release an album written and performed on the dulcimer. Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a while?

Bruce Hornsby: The dulcimer has been a small but gradually growing part of my music for years, starting with my purchase of one at the Galax Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in 1996. It appeared on the song “Shadow Hand” on my record Spirit Trail in 1998, again on “Mirror On The Wall” from Halcyon Days in 2004, and then in 2009 on “Prairie Dog Town” from Levitate. We started playing mini dulcimer sets from 2009 on and I started writing more songs on the instrument, culminating in the growing collection of dulcimer songs that made this new record necessary.

EM: The dulcimer adds an ethereal sound to your music, especially on the first two tracks: “Over the Rise” and “Soon Enough.” How would you describe what you were going after in making the album?

BH: On any record that exclusively features the sound of one instrument, I feel the need to create a body of songs with a range of styles, grooves and approaches. The “ethereal” sound you refer to is probably a result of certain hypnotic musical areas like the intro dulcimer part on “Over The Rise” along with the organ.

EM: It’s clear what the title track “Rehab Reunion” is about. I’m not aware of any troubles you’ve had in that area. Are you writing from personal experience here?

BH: The “Rehab Reunion” lyrics were written by my songwriting partner, Chip DeMatteo. Chip generally takes a very irreverent approach in his writing, so this song is not about my past, nor is it really a serious song.

EM: I love the remake of “Valley Road” on the dulcimer.

BH: This version of “Valley Road” was born at the Bonnaroo Festival in 2011, where they asked me to perform a dulcimer set on one of their small stages. It came to me as I was playing something that took me into “There’s A Hole In My Bucket,” which led into this arrangement. The take on the record is a live recording.

EM: You played more than 100 shows with the Grateful Dead in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Your own live performances have become increasingly free-form: no set lists, lots of improvisation, blending classical music into your own compositions. Did your time with the Dead lead you to become more unscripted on your own?

BH: I think when you spend that much time intimately involved in something so deep as the Grateful Dead musical experience, it can’t help but have an effect on your own approach. My approach before my time with the Dead was already becoming more free and loose, but my 100-plus shows with them pushed me farther along in the freedom and spontaneity departments.

EM: You’ve said about your time with the Dead that there were good nights and not-so-good nights. What were some of the high points you remember?

BH: Even their most devoted followers knew that there were great and not-so-great nights, but the really great nights could be so transcendent as to be worth waiting for. Mostly I remember the chills I used to get playing certain songs, “Wharf Rat,” for instance. I remember playing the accordion standing next to Garcia on “Iko Iko” at Mile High Stadium in Denver and just whooping and hollering as he played his ass off over those two chords for several minutes.

EM: What about the “Fare Thee Well” tour? The tour was a big success commercially, but got mixed reviews musically. Do you think the criticism was fair?

BH: Considering we learned 90 songs in two weeks — one week for vocal rehearsals, one week with the band — to play them all once, with the exception of “Truckin’” and “Cumberland Blues” — which we played twice each — I think the band did pretty well.

EM: You’ve done so much collaborative work over the years: country artists such as Ricky Skaggs, jazz artists such as Pat Metheny and Branford Marsalis, rock icons like Eric Clapton and Elton John. With whom have you been working recently?

BH: There are lots of great musicians out there, and I’ve been lucky enough to play with many of them. I’ve very much enjoyed working recently with some younger artists like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Brandon Flowers of the Killers. I’m very open to that type of collaboration, because it takes me to new musical places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit.

EM: Harbor Lights was seen as a turning point for you, followed even more so by Hothouse. Were they really conscious efforts to move beyond what you had become known for or was it just where your music took you at the time?

BH: I’m a lifelong student. I’m always pushing into new territory, looking for new inspiration and learning new music, from old-time American music to modern classical music. Harbor Lights and Hot House were obvious forays into musical areas using more of the jazz language, but they represent just one of several moves I’ve made over the years. So, as you say, it was just where “the music was taking me” at that time.

EM: Some people still know you as Bruce Hornsby and the Range even though that was a long time ago. The Noisemakers seem to be a pretty stable group. Is the current lineup your band for the foreseeable future?

BH: The people who still think I have a band called “Bruce Hornsby and the Range” are clearly not deeply involved fans! The Noisemakers have been together for 14 years — with two new members having joined two years ago — and should be together for the foreseeable future. We just ride around the country, play music and laugh a lot.

EM: You played to 100,000 people for the “Fare Thee Well” shows. For your solo shows you’re sometimes playing in venues with a few hundred fans. Do you enjoy the intimacy of the smaller shows?

BH: I’m an acoustic musician, whether on the piano, the accordion or the dulcimer—although I’m terrible at the latter two! — so I often feel inadequate sonically in larger spaces. Also, the way I want to play the piano doesn’t really connect in large venues. Elliott Carter music is not meant to be played in an arena!

EM: While you’re out on tour you see lots of new artists opening for headliners or just playing in smaller clubs. What new acts have you seen that our readers should know about?

BH: I like Aoife O’Donovan, Greensky Bluegrass, the Wood Brothers, Chess Boxer, Nick Emory and Brian Darden.

EM: You played basketball growing up and are still a big fan. Sports, like music, evolve. What do you think of the Golden State Warriors? Is Steph Curry taking the game in a new direction, away from a reliance on height to more of a skills game? 

BH: Basketball has been evolving into more of a guard-dominated game for several years, but Steph Curry is certainly the catalyst moving it more quickly. My son Keith just finished his college basketball career as a two-year starter for the LSU Tigers, and my son Russell finished his career as a 400-800 meter runner for the great Oregon Ducks. My wife Kathy and I have been deeply involved for many years with high school and college athletics. It has been quite a run with our boys . . . very exciting.

EM: What can we expect from Bruce Hornsby in the future? To say more of the same is like saying more of everything. Are there specific things you haven’t done that you’d like to realize?

BH: My next stylistic move is a very exciting one. For several years I’ve been writing songs that are heavily influenced by the dissonance, chromatism, advanced harmony and atonality of modern classical music. We performed two concerts last year with Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphony in Miami Beach and have been writing and orchestrating more and more during the last year. At some point this will culminate in larger, more expansive concerts and the production of an orchestral record featuring all of this music — music using all the notes, the black ones as well as the white ones!

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