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Bruce Hornsby: The Master of Levitation

Mark F. Turner By

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For more than 20 years, singer/songwriter, pianist/composer, and band-leader Bruce Hornsby, has proven to be a survivor in an ever changing music environment. From winning multiple awards including a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1987 for the multi-platinum album The Way It Is (RCA, 1986) with his band The Range, to dual releases in 2007 (on Sony/Legacy)—a foot-stomping bluegrass duo Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby and the swinging jazz trio outing Camp Meeting, with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Christian McBride—Hornsby has thrived in a variety of settings.

He's adapted to the shifts in the business—dealt with the pressures of major recording labels, entertained audiences in small towns or large venues around the globe, and inspired a new generation of fans and artists.

Whether jamming with the Grateful Dead, accompanying soul diva Chaka Khan, or rocking out with guitarist Eric Clapton in a performance during the debut week of Jay Leno's prime-time talk show, or composing the score for his first Broadway musical, SCKBSTD (aka Sick Bastard), the hometown musician from Virginia, who's internationally recognized, is still venturing into new and unexpected territories.

With Levitate (Verve, 2009), he celebrates his tenth studio album, revealing more of his singular approach to contemporary/traditional Americana with his longstanding touring band, The Noisemakers. They are comprised of newer and older members, some of whom, being members of the band for nearly 20 years, Hornsby explained.

"I think we'll stay together for quite a while," he said. "We have a great time playing and we want to capture that feeling of the 'joyful noise' on this record. The last four songs really showcase that and really feature The Noisemaker's playing. And the middle four are more loops. It's the band playing, but along with some other more modern material, it's not just a bunch of guys in a room playing. It's a different approach to record making."

Hornsby's approach to composition is informed of numerous idioms—embracing the sounds of rural small-town, modern classical, rock, gospel, jazz, and urban music. It's a progression that has evolved over time.

"It wasn't always so," Hornsby said. "I think, if you've heard my first two records, they were less stylistically broad or stylistically disparate then the newer music. But I think it's just a question of growing, evolving and assimilating many new elements into my music, so it makes for a broader palate. It's not as tightly concise and consistent, but it's what I'm about now. I'm just broadening my range."

A wise quote from noted author and Jesuit priest, Anthony de Mello, reads that "The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story." Throughout his career, Hornsby's acumen as a songwriter has articulated the human condition through enlightening lyrics.

Bruce Hornsby / Levitate"I've always considered myself a storyteller," he said. "I've had my moments of more personal narratives, but I always like stories since I'm a bit of a reader. I always wanted to have my songwriting feel like short stories in most cases, or vignettes. I wanted them to have a strong sense for place throughout the years. My first five records, or so, were really stories emanating from this town, this area, in Williamsburg, Va.—the small town in the South, a college town. Obviously, I loved growing up here so much that I moved back. So I've definitely been interested in telling a tale through the years."

This gift of communication is still resolute within Levitate. Songs such as "The Black Rats of London"—a spirited tale with some early American history thrown in for good measure—are intriguing.

"Yeah, it's sort of a narrative I guess," Hornsby said. "It's really dealing with the white washing in history and giving ourselves so much credit for our glorious past, when in reality—and this reality was made known to me through a National Geographic article on Jamestown—it's about all these bacterial strains and rodents that came back on the ships. It infected the locals and allowed the colonists to prevail, once again, the unsung heroes of American history. Maybe our past is a little stranger; we can't give ourselves all the credit, a lot of it was either good or bad luck, depending on what side you're on."

Provocative lyrics have been integral in conveying life's joys and pains, Hornsby noted.

"No question, and that's why at the end of this song I added a postscript," he said. "I didn't want people to think I thought this was a great thing that we had prevailed over the Indians, so I wrote, 'Where were the black rats when we needed them the most? There were slave owners to infect...' I wanted to make it very clear that I didn't think that this was necessarily such a great thing in every case."

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