Bruce Hornsby: Halcyon Days

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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...to approach music in that way is a creative prison and I refuse to be shackled by that notion.
If Bill Evans would have grown up in the Deep South influenced by the gospel hymns of the Southern Baptist church, he just may have sounded like Bruce Hornsby. That would probably be a fair description considering that Hornsby knows no boundaries and often travels into the genres of pop, folk, jazz, classical, bluegrass and whatever else might inspire him. And though it's an approach that would never inspire record company executives, Hornsby has never catered to the whims of the music industry marketing trends.

He is an aberration, a musician able to break into Top 40 radio where solos of more than ten seconds are considered beyond the limits of the pop radio audience. He was awarded Best New Artist in 1987 but when awarded the Best Bluegrass Recording Grammy in 1990, the purists howled with descent. But it has always been this way for Hornsby. He spent time touring with the Grateful Dead and as a result, highly respected jazz musicians have been criticized for collaborating with a member of the Dead. However, such narrow mindedness is a prejudice that will always exist in all facets of popular culture and traditional thought. Yet he understands and moves on, not falling prey to false expectations.

But perhaps for me, what will always stand out is his sensitivity for his fellow man. He remains a fresh and honest voice, always moving forward, looking for the next idea, for the inspiration that gives him the next "chill," humbled by the opportunity to express his artistic ideas.

Lloyd Peterson: When I first heard your song, "The Way It Is," I literally had to pull my car over and stop driving to listen. I was so moved by the insight and the emotion that was reflected. And as a person of color, I'm glad to finally have the opportunity to say thank you.

Bruce Hornsby: It's been meaningful to a lot of people, which was incredibly meaningful to me, so thanks a lot.

LP: You are obviously sensitive and empathetic towards race and cultural issues. What has influenced you to such a degree?

BH: It comes from my upbringing. I grew up in a small town called Williamsburg, Virginia, and it was a great place to grow up. But you also had the old guard of the town, which included the country club community, with great exceptions mind you. You can't totally damn an entire crowd but for the most part, this crowd was un-enlightened socially and just as an example, on the issues of civil rights. Looking back at my childhood, I knew that there was a general sense among my parent's friends that Martin Luther King was a bad man. And at seven or eight years old, you are still soaking up everything around you.

There is a song called, "A Night on the Town" that my brother and I wrote and it's about a couple of country boys whose idea of a good time was to get drunk and beat the crap out of people in a violent and destructive way. And one of the key lines is, "They said do what your daddy told you, well I just went out and did that." Well, it can also be very difficult to rise above your raising in that sense. Ricky Skaggs has a song called; "Don't Get Above Your Raising" and I think the song is about not getting pompous and pretentious. But in many cases, you damn sure want to get above your raising because your raising was teaching you the wrong way.

My parents sent me to private school in 7th, 8th and 9th grades. And since I was very much into sports and wanted to play basketball in particular, I transferred back to a public school where I was the only white guy on the team. That was a beautiful situation and one of the most enjoyable and influential times of my life. I just loved that and to this day, still draw from it. As a white guy in more of a black world, I was definitely in between two worlds.

LP: I believe you have also been involved with human rights organizations for quite some time.

BH: I am involved with the incredible organization, Morris Dee's Southern Poverty Law Center, which takes legal action against hate groups, and also The Innocence Project and the National Fair Housing Alliance. I have been interested in justice aspects of our society for many years. The song "The Way It Is" is about narrow mindedness and racism. "Talk of the Town" is about the first interracial relationship in my town and all the consternation it caused. "See the Same Way" was about the amazing polarized reaction to the OJ Simpson verdict. The way that people can look at the same picture but see completely different things based on their background and point of view. There is also my song; "The Great Divide" which also deals with this, so it is something that I have felt strongly about for years.

LP: You have had hits on mainstream radio that are not typical of what one would hear and I mean this in a positive way. There is a lot more soloing in the songs than what one would normally expect.

BH: I got away with a lot with "The Way It Is" and "The Valley Road." And even now when I put out a jazz record or a bluegrass record, people will come up to me and say, "Wow, you are playing so much." And I'll say, "Well, if that's what you're thinking, then you are really missing the point. Two of my three biggest hits had me just blowing all over them." I was really doing this from the very beginning and just got lucky with those "wonderful accidents" when they became hits because they are not typical. I liken them to Mark Knopfler's "Sultan's of Swing." That was a top forty record but it was him soloing through the whole thing. So that's just rare and it's not going to happen very often but when it does happen, instrumentalists love it. Most of the calls I received were from my old music school pals who said they couldn't believe what I was getting away with on Top Forty (laughs). So it has always been there and I have always been interested in playing the instrument well and trying to find a place in my song writing for that to be expressed.

LP: Some of the most creative music never sees the light of day but you are one of the few composers who used a more complex creative approach in the beginning of your career and still became popular with mainstream audiences. Is that a sign that the audience might be able to grasp more than the record companies are giving them credit for?
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