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 businessdealt 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.
(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 idiomsembracing 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.
"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 measureare 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 realityand this reality was made known to me through a National Geographic
article on Jamestownit'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."
And then there's the infectious "Prairie Dog Town." In what first appears to be an ethological study of cuddly grassland animals, turns into what may be a humorous bite on community boundaries and conflicts.
Jack DeJohnette, Bruce Hornsby and Christian McBride
"It's basically your 'can't judge a book by its cover' song," Hornsby explained. "These prairie dogs look so nice and so cute and sort of huggable, but if you get next to them they'll bite your ass. They're nasty little creatures actually, so I used that as a metaphor for some other situations."
This food for thought is disclosed in this section of the song's verse:
Disregard the great ethical truths
It's the collective life of the herd for you.
Closed society, no open door policy
Collectivist secret ideology
To whom are the lyrics referring to? It's clearly left to interpretation, Hornsby laughs. "That's rightI'll leave it to the listener," he said. "Whoever they think I'm talking about, that's who it is."
Hornsby's thought ballads continue to be memorable, whether dealing with the topic of introspection found in "Invisible" or the deeply personal, "Continental Drift," which contains a guitar solo by his nephew R.S. Hornsby, who tragically died in an automobile accident shortly after the recording. "He was a beautiful player," Hornsby said. "We miss him so much."
The making of the song "Levitate" is a tale within itself. It emerged from a film score that Hornsby was writing for filmmaker Spike Lee's Kobe Doin' Work
, a documentary on NBA basketball star Kobe Bryant.