Intersections of Musical Directions

An Interview with Keyboard Great Bruce Hornsby

by Greg M. Schwartz


The release of a box set is a landmark occasion in the career of a musician. It means a performer has stood the test of time and accumulated a wide body of work worthy of retrospective appreciation. Keyboardist Bruce Hornsby has reached that moment with Intersections 1985-2005 a four CD (and one bonus DVD) box set spanning his 20 years as a major label recording artist.

The list of musical luminaries whom Hornsby has collaborated with over the years—Robbie Robertson, Roger Waters, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, Ornette Coleman, Branford Marsalis, Elton John, Ricky Skaggs and more—has earned him a reputation as more than just a successful pop artist. Hornsby’s diverse talents have won him a reputation as a musician’s musician, an in-demand player in a wide variety of genres. The box set spans Hornsby’s solo work as well his many collaborations, exposing a creative canon whose diversity is hard to rival. The collection also traces Hornsby’s evolution from a radio hit maker to a more experimental player, unafraid to step out of the safe musical boundaries that many songwriters feel confined to. In a recent interview, Hornsby spoke about this evolution.

“There was a time in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, right around our third record, the last one that was with the Range, a record called Night on the Town ... that I started getting all these great calls to work with all these great musicians and songwriters. So I started seeing this grass is greener scenario and it just fed my musical appetite, which is right up my musical alley,” says Hornsby. “I mean I’m an old school musician and sort of a lifelong music student. And so here I’m working with all these great people on their records or writing with them, and I wanted the freedom to push my music in all these different directions. You could really see it on the fourth record I made, Harbor Lights, utilizing more of a jazz language. That was always a big part of my musical interest on the piano… and so I just was following my instincts and working with people that I wanted to work with.”

While Hornsby’s success over the years has given him the freedom to follow a more experimental muse, such creative instincts are part of what led to his success in the first place.

“When you go in a more adventurous harmonic area, that tends to guard against commercial success ... But you know, let’s be serious—my hits were hardly formula. I mean “The Way It Is”, “Valley Road”, all this piano soloing, songs about racism, a guy getting a girl pregnant, wasn’t typical. So when I was ‘commercial’, I don’t really feel like I really was ... I was just doing what I was doing and it was a great fluke, a wonderful accident that happened. BBC Radio One broke “The Way It Is” in London and it went around the world from there. It could have easily not have happened as happened.”

In an ironic twist that could offer hope to struggling musicians everywhere, Hornsby says the demo tape that won him a major label recording deal in the ‘80s was the least commercial demo he’d made.

“That was a situation where I’d been trying to get signed for six, seven years and I always had my ear to the radio ... I was trying to find my own way to find an area that was unique to me ... I wasn’t playing much piano,” says Hornsby. “Finally I was frustrated musically with doing this and not doing what I felt I was good at, which was utilizing the piano in that sort of pop song context. So I made this tape and I thought no major label would have any interest in it. I gave it to Windham Hill, to a woman who worked there and they offered me a deal and I thought that was great. That’s what I was going to do, until my lawyer leaked the tape out to RCA and then they came in and that was it for Windham Hill ... Anyway, that’s how it happened—it was when I turned my back on the whole sort of commercial music process, that’s when they embraced me.”

By the early ‘90s, Hornsby was living out a rock and jazz fan’s dream—playing as a fulltime member of the Grateful Dead, collaborating with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, jazz greats Branford Marsalis, Ornette Coleman and more. Hornsby served as a keyboardist with the Grateful Dead from the fall of 1990 until the spring of 1992. Intersections features Hornsby’s own recording of the GD’s “Jack Straw” from the GD tribute album Deadicated, a GD performance of Hornsby’s “The Valley Road” on their fall ‘90 tour, as well as a DVD track of the GD’s “They Love Each Other” from the spring ‘91 tour.

“We [Bruce and Jerry Garcia] had a close connection. And I think it was pretty clear to people who were just watching, he’d always be looking over and laughing at me. We’d play things off of each other. Yeah, he was a great friend and musical partner,” Hornsby reminisces. “I had him play on all my records during the time I knew him, and then when he died I just sampled him, he he. So he was on four straight records of mine, three and then one posthumous one.”

One of the most epic moments on the Intersections DVD shows Hornsby joining Roger Waters for a duet on the Pink Floyd classic “Comfortably Numb” in a front of a stadium crowd at the 1991 Legends of Guitar Festival in Spain. For Hornsby, it was a memorable moment, but still just one in a night of multiple collaborations.

“The Roger Waters thing, that just happened. I was over there performing with Robbie Robertson. Robbie and I had written a song for his record at the time, Storyville, and went down to record it with The Meters in New Orleans and had a great experience with those guys,” says Hornsby. “Then he asked me to help him out with his band, over there in Europe, so I did. Then Roger Waters heard that I was part of this band so I get this fax out of the blue at my house before I left, to go over there, from Roger Waters saying ‘Would you do this song with me?’ So that’s how that came about. I ended up playing with four out of the five bands that night. It was so funny, because Roger McGuinn and Richard Thompson showed up and they didn’t have bands. They saw Manu Cache and Tony Levin and me play as the sort of basic piano/bass/drums rhythm section for Robbie, and they both latched on to the three of us and asked the three of us if we would be their backup bands too. So I ended up playing with everybody except Les Paul that night.”

Hornsby was so inspired by the experience with Waters that he was inspired to write his own song along the same emotional lines as “Comfortably Numb.”

“It was a chilling moment and it made me want to go write my own song that would give me that similar feeling, and that’s the song “Fortunate Son”,” says Hornsby of the collaboration with Waters. (Another live track on the box set features a segue of “Fortunate Son” into “Comfortably Numb”.) “So actually there’s two versions of “Comfortably Numb” on this box set. Most people who don’t know that much about me would probably be shocked that there was even one and now there are two.”

Another song on Intersections that features a moody, psychedelic vibe is “The Chill”, featuring lead guitar from another luminary of the Bay Area music scene, Steve Kimock. In the box set liner notes, Hornsby writes that the song is about “a mysterious house in my childhood neighborhood (Williamsburg, Va.) that, rumor had it, harbored Russian spies ... In the Cold War/Khruschev dominated ‘60s, this idea, hilarious when considered later, gave pause to any 8- to 13-year-old-kid who heard about it.” But now, Hornsby says that the notion of Russian spies in the neighborhood might not be so laughable after all.

“It’s one of my favorites,” says Hornsby of the track. “What’s interesting about that (the concept of Russian spies in the neighborhood) is I asked my mom about it, just a few weeks ago, and she said ‘Yeah, we still think that’s what was happening’…. So it wasn’t just a kiddie rumor.”

Another notable collaboration on Intersections is “Hop, Skip, and Jump,” a song recorded in 1995 with legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. When queried about which artist he found himself most nervous about collaborating with over his career, Hornsby immediately cited Coleman.

“The Ornette playing field is, as he says, he doesn’t want to play the sequence… he doesn’t want to play the standard way. He has a very unique and original approach to music. So I entered that situation with a little trepidation. I mean he’s a beautiful guy, he couldn’t be a more warm individual, so that makes you feel more at ease. But at the same time, it’s its own world musically and you have to really free your mind of standard preconceptions and your standard way of doing things, standard modes of playing and hearing. So that was very challenging, but beautiful in the end…. I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to be around some great people, so that’s been a nice score for me, a nice situation.”

A notable unreleased track from the Intersection DVD features Hornsby performing a moving solo version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in tribute to tennis legend Arthur Ashe at The National Sports Awards in 1993. While not as outspoken in his activism as Lennon—whose anti-war stance is the subject of a soon to be released documentary The U.S. vs John Lennon—Hornsby has had his own clashes between a socially conscious direction and mainstream opinion.

“Well I can speak from personal experience—Sean Hannity uses my song “The Way It Is”, or at least he has used it, I don’t know his show, I’m not sure if he still does. But I know he has for years, as music for his radio show. And I was asked about this usage and what I thought about it,” recalls Hornsby. “And I said well you know, he can do what he wants to with it, he has the rights to use it, but I’m not with him politically. It was a very bland statement I made, and boy I was rained on with the nastiest, personal vicious emails. You know, hundreds of them. And I thought you know, it’s unbelievable, the heightened emotional state of the political discourse these days, at least on the Internet. It was unbelievable to me. I thought—man, what would they do to me if I really made a strong statement rather than just this nothing statement? So anyway, it’s a very tense time and polarized. It’s an incendiary time to me, so I just stay the hell out of it. I’m liberal Lois Hornsby’s kid, so that’s where I am on the political spectrum. But at the same time, I’ve voted Republican too here in my state (Virginia) when I thought a guy was very strong and solid. So anyway, it’s a strange time for all of us for sure.”

As to the concept of musicians and artists coming together to for an activist political cause such as 2004’s “Vote for Change” tour, Hornsby has mixed feelings.

“I tend to be cynical about it, but at the same time applaud anyone who tries… and support them. But I just think it’s too nasty an area to deal in right now for me.”

As to the future, the only thing for certain is that Hornsby will continue to explore a variety of musical situations. While he joined surviving Grateful Dead members to tour as The Other Ones in 1998 and 2000, Hornsby says he’s now more interested in pursuing different musical directions.

“Yeah, I’ve just been interested in doing other things. I just made this bluegrass record with Ricky Skaggs that’s coming out next year. I just made this jazz record with Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride. I’m writing a musical, I’m just looking for creative areas in music. Lots of times the (Dead) scene now feels sort of like recycling the past if you know what I mean ... I don’t know, I’m just not drawn to it right now ... [but] I think Phil himself and his group are as strong as ever,” says Hornsby regarding 66-year-old Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. When queried about where he might see himself at such an age, Hornsby cites multiple possibilities.

“Oh I don’t know, I think I might be playing a little bluegrass with Ricky Skaggs here and there, and jazz with these other guys and just sort of mixing it up. Maybe playing with symphonies, I’ve done a good bit of that through the years and I’d like to do that a little more. Writing this play, doing that sort of thing, maybe a little scoring, just all over the place—just whatever seems interesting musically, whatever seems creative.”

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