Bruce Hornsby: "If You Live and Die by Radio Success, You Will Surely Expire at Some Point"
Bruce Hornsby is like one of those kids you loved to hate back in high school. Good grades aren't enough -- they have to take on every challenge the teacher offers. In Hornsby's case, he comes across as a perennial multi-tasker: An artist who's never been content with hit singles, even though he achieved several early on. He is prone instead to bend the boundaries and tackle seemingly any project that comes his way, even when it captures his fans unawares. Once a pop pundit, he's sped his way forward into rock, jazz, classical, and even avant-garde sounds.
Indeed, Hornsby's come an extraordinarily long way since he and his former band the Range garnered their Grammy for Best New Artist in 1987, and stormed the pop charts with the massive hits "The Way It Is" and "Mandolin Rain." Hornsby himself went on to win two more Grammys, one for Best Bluegrass Recording in 1990 and the other for Best Pop Instrumental three years later. Still, there's no better example of his dexterity than the list of outstanding artists that he's aligned himself with over the years, among them, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, Sting, and Ricky Skaggs. Indeed, it's his partnership with Skaggs that forms the basis of his latest effort, Cluck Ol' Men, a live follow-up to the duo's eponymous 2007 debut.
However, if we were to wind back the clock, back some 36 years, we'd have reason to claim Hornsby as a hometown boy, courtesy of the fact that he's a distinguished graduate of the University of Miami, class of '77. And hey, what do you do when you catch up with one of your former alum? You catch up of course! So naturally, that's what we did.
New Times: Was it always your intention from early on to delve into as many styles and genres as your talent would take you?
Bruce Hornsby: I didn't start out with any "intentions" other than an attempt to achieve or create a style of my own based naturally on music that inspired me; music that I loved, from Bill Evans to the American hymnal and church music traditions, to folk and modern classical music, and more. Soon after the success of our first record happened in 1986, I started receiving all these calls from musicians, singers and songwriters that I admired, calls to collaborate with them on their records. My musical life just broadened from there, and it has not let up for 27 years. I'm very fortunate that this continues to happen, and that the calls have never stopped.
Was there any worry at any point that after your huge initial success, you would alienate any of the fans of your pop hits by moving into such far flung realms?
If you live and die by radio success, you will surely expire at some point. It's, of course, a trend related game, and let's face it, generally a young person's game.
My radio success, to me, was a total fluke, and lucky accident created by BBC Radio One in England in the summer of 1986. So I never trusted it, and did not live my life trying to continually replicate that success. My first two records were stylistically very much of a piece, I was trying to cement that early "sound" of mine as very recognizable and identifiable. Then, from the third record on, I moved on and have continually followed my own path, trying to stay inspired through the years, and trying to not repeat myself very often. Many of the musical partnerships I've made through the years have definitely influenced my musical "path."
Do you find your fans tend to gravitate toward one aspect of your music over the others and that your following is somewhat segmented as a result -- or that instead your fans embrace everything you do?
There are certainly listeners who prefer one "area" of my music more than others, that's to be expected. There are fans of the '90s Jazz influenced music, fans of the period from Spirit Trail on (i.e. less jazz language, more folk, country, and modern classical music), and of course, people who wish I made Scenes from the Southside every time. But a nice number of people seem to be interested in all of it.
How did your collaboration with Ricky Skaggs come about?
I met Ricky in the summer of 1990, when we both played at a little civic festival in Horseheads, New York, near Elmira. We collectively drew a really small crowd, and the gig was pretty loose. I asked Ricky if he wanted to sit in, to just come out and play whenever he wanted to. So he played fiddle on one song.
Then, in 1995 I believe, he asked me to be a special guest on his TNN series Live at the Ryman, and I had a great time playing with Ricky, Bela Fleck, Vince Gill, and others that night. I think we both felt a nice connection. So a few years later, around 2000 or so, he asked me to be a part of his Bill Monroe tribute record, Big Mon. Another instant yes, and we recorded a new arrangement that I came up with on the old traditional tune "Darling Cory." Sparks really flew this time, and he asked me if I would consider making an album together. (He may have a different recollection, but this is mine.) I was totally interested, and in 2005 or so, we coordinated our schedules and gradually made that first record.
What attracted you to bluegrass to begin with?
Bluegrass music had a big surge in popularity during my late high school and early college years. I went to several bluegrass festivals, saw the Earl Scruggs Revue -- in a seven-thousand seat college basketball arena! -- and was fairly hooked on the music.
Piano is relatively rare in bluegrass -- did you have any apprehension that you couldn't make it work?
I've loved fiddle tunes for years, and have learned and practiced them for years. One would think I would be better at playing them than I am, but I just don't deal with them consistently enough, on a daily basis, to really have them down. I just play the songs in my fashion, with no real apprehension. Maybe I should be more apprehensive!