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?

BH: Well, I always think that's true. But I'm not going to say that my history or my success illustrates this necessarily but I certainly think that it illustrates that the uniqueness of style can be something that the masses are interested in. But to be perfectly honest with you, I think that "The Way It Is" in the best sense, on a hit level, is a novelty record because I think it had a unique sound, it kind of went down easy and I think people just responded to the sound. The fact that I was soloing was only important to my musician friends and the lyric aspect was something that I think was secondary to most listeners. People might have discovered the meaning on the 25th listening. The rare exception may be like your experience but it's just my feeling about it.

LP: You appear to approach your work in the same way as most artists regardless of the art form. You don't seem to be thinking about the audience or what they might want to hear or what their expectations might be. You are unique in that you use this approach but have still had success in mediums that focus on music as entertainment.

BH: I think there are a lot of musicians that don't make music that is obviously commercial. I guess a lot of us hope that people will like it but that's not really why we are making it. We are making it for ourselves. I'm just trying to create something that moves me, that is special and has a reason for existing whether it's on a lyrical level or on a musical level. When I made the jazz record, I wanted it to have a strong conceptual reason for existing. I wanted it to have a strong sense of style and I have always wanted my music to have a strong sense of place.

I happen to live in a great place out in the woods and when I look out my window, there is a muddy creek and also something really funky but really beautiful about where I live. So part of my goal is to make music that sounds like this place.

LP: You also have a very exploratory approach that travels beyond creative and traditional boundaries. Can you explain where this creative approach is from?

BH: Well, I think it comes from my basic personality, which is pretty open, but I'm also not someone who is satisfied with doing the same thing over and over again. I was always a terrible top 40 musician and when I was playing at Ramada Inns, I got fired a lot as a result of that. Our approach would be to only play the skeleton of the latest hit and then play a ten minute funk jam over it or do something completely different or take it completely out.

I guess spontaneity has always been important to me and if you have ever seen my band play, we are always interested in being creative and making the music new. And that really pisses people off who have come for the nostalgia of old hits or for their "stroll down memory lane." But if I offered that as my approach, the performance would be so lifeless and dead because it is so not me. It's not in my musical or personal nature to play it safe, and I'm just not going to be your "nostalgia vehicle." And because I am a song writer who has had success on the radio, that has painted me into an area where there are those expectations. I am more interested in the next move that will make the music new, keep it creative and also keep my band interested. I'm an old side man too and I know how stifling it can be to be the glorified live Top Forty juke box. It's not creative, and I refuse to nod to that expectation because to approach music in that way is a creative prison and I refuse to be shackled by that notion.

LP: So you are playing a genre of music...

BH: ...that some people take issue with but it's so silly and confining to feel as if you have to play within a tradition but generally, it's a very tradition oriented audience. Ricky Skaggs struggles with it himself. He's always getting slams from people that think he is going too far with things. So he's become used to it and I'm damn sure used to it. When I won the Bluegrass Grammy, the purists howled in protest. And I don't blame them, but at the same time, I'm really proud of the record I did with the Dirt Band (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played "The Valley Road" with Bruce). I think it really holds up, and I don't always feel that way, but I felt that way with this particular record.

LP: Do you consider the criticism a validation of the work that you are doing?

BH: (Laughs)...I don't think about it that way either. I mean, I don't live in a vacuum or keep my head in the sand. I read about what people say about me both good and bad and luckily for me, 90% of it is good. But there is always going to be someone who is going to take some shots but generally in my case, it's usually someone that has typecast me as this old Top Forty relic. So they usually don't know that much about me. They are coming at my music from a point of ignorance so it's something that's easy to dismiss.

LP: But has forward thinking creativity always been criticized by traditionalists?

BH: It's always happened and it's always going to happen. It happened in the classical world in the 17 and 1800's. And anyone that is innovative in any way has had their efforts decried, vilified by conservative opinion. So you just cannot be bothered with that.

LP: You have developed your own sound, your own voice. It doesn't matter what genre of music that you play, you can tell it's you and importantly, it always has your soulfulness that transcends any style of music that you are part of. When did you know you had your own voice musically and how did it develop?

BH: I think my own voice pianistically really comes from listening to so many different styles of music. I created my own harmonic aesthetic based on harmonies and chord voicings or harmonic movement that moved me and gave me chills. It was a very natural stylistic progression based on my emotional reaction to music and finding out what I loved so much about it and then gradually incorporating that into my music. When people ask me to describe my style, my standard answer is usually, "Bill Evans meets the hymn book." And I think that's pretty accurate because there is a sort of an open American folk/church feeling in my music but I also love the more harmonically advanced conception coming from Bill Evans and onward; McCoy Tyner and quartal harmonies. In all that music and all those approaches, I picked and chose all the areas that moved me the most and hopefully in the end, something creative that is my own comes out of that.

LP: Even with your Bluegrass work, you still have that sense of seeing where the music can and wants to go.

BH: I am comfortable in any given genre situation but I am most comfortable where I can draw on all of it. And it's obviously going to be a little limiting when I'm playing with a bluegrass group or a jazz group because I am not going to be able to go to certain places where I love to go. I am not going to be able to play a Cajun waltz on the accordion. My band has been playing together for so long and we have shared so much developing a common language that we have been able to keep growing and expanding that language.

It could happen with a Bluegrass or Jazz setting but it's probably not going to because there is just not enough time. It's a question of time served, time spent together and knowing each other well. My band has a connection and so you can see us attempt to create something new every night. But in these other situations, we are just trying to play the songs well. Given time, these situations would grow to be in the same place.

LP: Jazz is one of the most important contributions in American history and culture but I don't think enough significance has been placed on Bluegrass and its importance towards our history and culture.

BH: Yeah, I'm with that. I agree with that. I think it's a deep well, a deep musical area that's been growing for the last 50 or 60 years. But there is one difference in that I think a lot of people in Jazz have a forward looking aesthetic. And there is a lot of consternation in jazz because a lot of my jazz friends feel that the musical community has not really come to the table with new innovations in the last 20 or 30 years; whereas the Bluegrass community doesn't have that artistic forward looking view about it. There is a real difference in the mind set there. This goes along with what I was saying before about the conservative traditional mainstream Bluegrass audience. If Bluegrass wants to be considered as an art form as deep as jazz, then I think the overall mind set would have to change. And obviously there have been a lot of people who have done that. There is the New Bluegrass Revival including Bela Fleck's whole thing, Ricky's thing, and Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Connor and many more. There are so many virtuosos who bend and try to move the music in different ways. So, it's definitely there but it's the audience that needs to be educated and be willing to go along with crazy new attempts and innovation.

LP: In a way, I think the individual artist will always be more important than any specific form or genre.

BH: I'm always looking to push a few boundaries in that way but I'm never sure how successful I will be as I'm a bit of a traditionalist in my song writing approach. I like to write a good chorus and like to have words so I'm not sure if it's in me to be the Ornette Coleman of the pop world. (laughs) But I would like to think that I could do that, but I'm not sure. I would have to be deeply committed, but it's a good goal and it's an interesting idea.

LP: Many of us just want you to continue to be Bruce Hornsby.

BH: Well that... I have no choice. (both laugh)

LP: But some people don't realize how important it is to be the selves and create from there.

BH: Yeah well, that's right. But it's been my approach for a long time. I'm just kind of trying to find myself so I appreciate your noticing and being interested. It means a lot.

LP: What about your own creative process?

BH: My own creative process is all about the search for chills, trying to get myself off musically. And for me, that's really hard to do. It might be something that I accidentally stumble across while playing or I will hear what someone else had done and love it so much that I will try and find my own way of getting inside that same area musically without copying. But I am constantly in search of the chill.

LP: Do you believe in the philosophy that you have to go backwards to go forward?

BH: That's what Dylan would say and I think it's a basic rootedness. Dylan had a thought that I am paraphrasing but he said, "Here is a song I have written and it may not be a very good song, but it comes from a place that is so deep that there has to be something in the work that I have done here." I personally think there is something to that.

LP: Miles Davis had a reputation of finding young creative talent but I think an even more significant factor was his ability to find musicians that were not bound or held back by past traditions and influences of jazz history. Is this something you consider when looking for musicians to collaborate with?

BH: The members of my band need to be really broad in their knowledge and open in their approach. But as far as collaborating with other musicians, I have played with others who are very limited in their stylistic range but are so great. I just basically collaborate with people who move me. And it could be anybody from Shawn Colvin to Leon Russell to some rap artist. If I think they are fabulous, I will work with them.

LP: I admire your humility; can you explain where these roots are from?

BH: Perhaps it comes from being aware. I was going to say truly aware but who can know if they are truly aware? My interest in music and therefore my knowledge of music and musicians is such that I could never think that I was a great pianist because I know full well and know very clearly that there are 200 guys that could blow me away. The same goes with singing and song writing.

So I think humility comes from the awareness of your surroundings, but it's also really difficult to have a perspective on your own creative endeavors. It's difficult to know where you are and know if you are doing good work. You really have to be humble and be a tough self critic and try to retain a perspective about what you are doing, as you are doing it. And that's very difficult to do. And I'm really aware of how difficult it is to do and it's still hard. I will still hear something that I did five years ago and think, why did I think that was good? (laughs).

LP: I read an interview where you said that you were interested in the pursuit of musicality and of finding new ways to be inspired, just trying to be creative. Would you say you are still in a process of discovery?

BH: Oh absolutely! If you are not in pursuit of discovery, then you are, for all creative purposes, finished! I have always been interested in exploring new areas and in a sense, exploring old areas that I have never dealt with or dealt with on a deep level. For instance, I have started a new program at the University of Miami Music School and it's called the Creative American Music Program. And the initial thrust of the program is to turn people onto traditional and basic primitive American music, folk music, early gospel music; African American traditions and Anglo American traditions. Everything from shape note singing and sacred heart music to the incredible traditions of the Black churches and on and on.

So in the process of molding this into my own graven image, I have been delving into areas and resources that I have never deeply dealt with such as the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music. It's pretty legendary and I have heard of it but never really delved into it and when I finally did, it made so much sense to me and moved me. In fact, I have an old Bob Dylan bootleg tape where you can tell he obviously acquired some tunes from the Harry Smith Anthology or he got them from someone who got them from there because those songs are on this record. So I have been deeply into this music and basically got into this program from a quote of his. He was asked the question, "How do you become a good song writer?" And his standard answer seems to be, you go back to the roots and go back to the tradition.

It's such a deep well of inspiration and it cannot help but influence you in your own writing. I mean, there are so many musical areas to get into. You could spend two lifetimes and not deal with the literature of the piano. So it's not too hard if you're open minded and as a result will have artists who desire your services from various walks of life. For me, there are so many areas of my life that have contributed to my continued growth and have expanded and broadened my palette.

LP: There is an entire history of horn players who have developed their own voice but the piano is somewhat different. There are literally hundreds of pianists but only a handful who have developed their own personal voice. You happen to be one of them. Why are there so few pianists who have developed a distinguished voice on their instrument throughout the history of the instrument?

BH: You could talk about modern jazz piano through four names that in the jazz world are on a first name basis; Herbie, Keith, Chick and McCoy. You have four people that were sprung from Zeus. They were child prodigies and I think that those four guys together were so incredible and so moving to everyone. They were so influential and also intimidating (laughs) and the jazz piano world spent the next twenty-five years just dealing with what those four guys were putting out.

So you had your school of pianists that came from each of those four guys and I think that it's been only in the last several years that we have seen people finally emerge from the incredible shadow cast by those guys. This is getting a little more cosmic than I like to get but it might have something to do with the mid sixties or more precisely, 1963 through 1974. I consider the sixties to start with the Kennedy assassination and the emergence of the civil rights era and of course, the war was going on as well. There was the emergence of the rock era in about 1963 or 64 and ending about 1973 or 74. There was also Watergate and Nixon's resignation and the advent of disco (laughs). That was such a fertile creative time that really hasn't been replicated or occurred since, to me. So there were all these elements going on and that whole free spirit or whatever you want to call it. There is something in there that might have influenced these four guys but it's hard to say. It was a great time to find your own personal voice.

LP: You seem to have your own personal sense about the importance and quality of time, of always wanting to be in the moment as much as possible. It comes through in your performances very strongly. How important is this to your own creative process and approach?

BH: Musicians talk about being truly awake but that's a very difficult thing to do; to be truly awake and truly aware and ready to receive and be in the moment. Most people kind of sleep walk through their lives and sleep walk through their lives creatively. And the way the music business is set up and the way that people want to hear music, feeds that approach. Again, my approach comes from my basic personality of always looking for a joyous feeling, to make a joyful noise and I'm also looking to do new things. On a very basic level, I am always looking to entertain my band during a performance (laughs) and that involves a certain creativity in going to new places.

LP: You are known as a story teller but also unique, is your ability to find musicians that are also storytellers with their instruments. That's the way I perceive Pat Metheny and Jerry Garcia. They don't just play licks but they express feelings and emotions through the stories they tell. I felt that they brought this to your compositions. Did you know in advance that this would happen?

BH: I wasn't thinking of them as storytellers but since I am a songwriter, I guess I am more literal in my thought about that. I think of Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Bernie Taupin or Randy Newman as story tellers. The word that I would use to describe what you are saying is that they are both very expressive musicians. They are so expressive and so soulful and that's my reason for being interested in those guys. Are they telling a story? Well, that's a little too obtuse for me. That's a concept in describing them but for me; they are just expressive and soulful players who have moved me many, many times.

LP: Your relationship with Garcia goes back quite a ways.

BH: My relationship with Garcia started in 1987. Both Jerry and especially Phil were fans of my first record and they asked if my band could open for the Grateful Dead for two shows in Monterey, California. This happened for the next four years and they soon began asking me to sit in with them. As time went on, Garcia and I became really good friends and I asked him to play on my record. When Brent Mydland died, they asked me to take his place but I only agreed to help them get through this tough time as they broke in their new guy (Vince Welnick). And so that's what we did.

LP: What was it about Garcia's playing that moved you?

BH: Garcia could play one or two notes and it would be so expressive and soulful. I just loved his playing and both his tone and his attack were so striking. Just a beautiful sound... and that's enough and it's a lot. I feel the same way about Pat's sound or Mark Knopfler's sound. This area can be a little frustrating for a pianist because it has that one sound. People can get different sounds out of their instruments but the electric guitar is so open to finding your own voice. It's so expressive on a sonic level and so varied. There are just so many things that you can do with an electric guitar.

LP: I think there is a unique aspect of the Dead that gets over looked. For the longest time, at least since the Dixieland era, improvisational solos in mainstream jazz were done by a single soloist and the rest of the band worked as a rhythm section. But with the Dead, every member might be improvising through their own voice, all at the same time and any two or more members might be laying down the rhythm at any given time.

BH: I thought they were very innovative and have not received the credit that they deserve. They have a great body of work that stands up to anybody in the pop or rock world and have not been given the credit they deserve as song writers. They were so soulful and so deep. Garcia and (Robert) Hunter should be right up there with Robbie Robertson, and I mean absolutely. They were equally influential but just on a more underground level. Many of my musician friends could not understand why I would want to play with them because they could not get past the way they played and the way they sang their songs. They played and sang out of tune a lot and they could not get past that to hear the incredible song writing.

LP: Garcia had one of the brilliant minds in music. He would come up with such compelling and complex thoughts. What made him unique to you?

BH: To me, he was a walking encyclopedia of folk music and that really influenced his song writing a great deal along with his playing. He turned me on to so much that I wasn't aware of. So he is a perfect example of a guy who drew from that deep well of folk music, of American traditional playing. And he was so bright and so smart. He wasn't a lyric writer but he had a great mind. The great lyricist was Robert Hunter, a brilliant guy. Garcia and Hunter were two of the greatest songwriters ever and have not been given the credit due. But I also don't see how that's going to happen because rock criticism has them etched in stone and it's hard to go back and re-visit and reconsider. It doesn't happen much but it absolutely should in this case.

LP: Do you miss playing with those guys?

BH: I miss Garcia, definitely. I miss Garcia a lot. The post Garcia years had some great moments but there were some moments that I thought were not so creative and I just don't miss doing that now. It didn't feel that creative to me in a way that I would be interested in. I loved the members and their music but I felt that I had done it and wanted to move on to a new place.

LP: In a previous interview that I had with Christian McBride, he mentioned that he was criticized for playing with you because of your music relationship with the Grateful Dead. However, he had nothing but very positive things to say about your musical approach.

BH: Once again, many people live in their own little cloistered world and are usually only part of this one bag. They are usually not familiar with very much music outside of that and not broad in their knowledge and interest. Consequently, they are judging most everything from a very un-informed position.

LP: And their music usually reflects this...

BH: Yes, that's possibly right.

LP: I read an interview that you did with Relix Magazine while Garcia was still alive. It was sort of a wakeup call to a friend.

BH: Garcia's problem over the last few years of his life was drugs of course. He was not all there physically or mentally and so it was a very difficult time. And that was one of the reasons that I stopped playing with them because I felt there were too many times that he wasn't really there. It was a drag for me but I'm sure it was a drag for everybody else too. I did it because I loved the music and loved the guys and I still do. I loved the time that I spent with them and I wouldn't trade my time with them for anything in the world but there are other things that I want to do now. And the fans will always come out but it's more a stroll down memory lane scenario now. At one time the creativity was amazing and unprecedented and was really deep on lots of levels. I have such deep admiration for what they created.

LP: Does music have the power and harmony to be the language of peace between all people and societies so all can live in peaceful coexistence?

BH: Well certainly the capability is there because it's the old cliche, it's the universal language but I think there is definitely some truth to that cliche in the sense that it breaks down all language barriers. A groove can reach someone who lives in Lebanon, as well as someone in Angola, in Thailand or Des Moines, Iowa. So that is a very common love that people have, a common way to be moved. I think it is a tool that could be used to break barriers and bring people together. How exactly, who knows. But it would be nice to get Ahmadinejad and Bush together with some music and find some common ground. They could hang out and listen to some James Brown. That might make the talks be more productive. (laughs)

LP: One could only hope.

BH: The world would certainly be intrigued by that happening.

(Both laugh)

LP: Is it possible that because of all the strife going on in the world today that people might find a new appreciation for things that have more depth and creative value?

BH: I would love to be optimistic about it but all signs point to the opposite. I hate to be such a naysayer and would like to give you a flowery piece... but I must say, I'm just not feeling it.

LP: It's interesting; some of those that are the most pessimistic are the ones that believe it is worth trying to make things better for others.

BH: It has never stopped me but I have always been a sort of proselytizer, forcing relatively challenging music on adult contemporary listening housewives and not getting much positive feedback from it. But I'm undaunted... and will continue to do this.

"The Way It Is"

Bruce Hornsby

Standing in line marking time—

Waiting for the welfare dime

'Cause they can't buy a job

The man in the silk suit hurries by

As he catches the poor old ladies' eyes

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