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Don't Call It A Comeback

Bruce Hornsby on his 20-year career, his new CD's and his foray into Broadway.



Twenty years ago, Bruce Hornsby set the music world on its ear with his first album, "The Way It Is." The title track to that album hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Dec. 13, 1986. Two months later Bruce Hornsby and The Range accepted the Grammy Award as Best New Artist at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

It looked like an overnight success story, but the reality was anything but. "It's all about our path," Hornsby says, reflecting in the recording studio of his Williamsburg home the day after the Fourth of July.

The road started when he and his drummer, John Molo, went searching for Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers, who were playing at the Hampton Coliseum. They found McDonald in the lobby of the Sheraton Coliseum Inn, where he was staying.

"We went up to him [and] said, 'Hey Mike, we're the baddest mothers in this town, and we're playing right over here at the Jolly Ox and you should come hear us,'" Hornsby recalls. "He said: 'I'm going to this movie. I'll try and come later.'"

Hornsby's band went on, saving all its originals to play a set if McDonald showed up. He did, and liked what he heard.

"There were about 15 people in the bar — pretty empty," Hornsby says. "And so we were just hitting it, doing as well as we could do. And he was really into it. He said, 'Come back to the hotel — let's hang out.' So we went back to the Sheraton."

Before the Doobie Brothers took the stage the next night at the Coliseum, McDonald told Hornsby he'd try to "bring everybody over" to hear his band.

"It took them forever," Hornsby says. "We must've taken an hour-and-15-minute break waiting for them to come. The club owner was getting pissed, but the word had gotten out; the place was packed. I get chills thinking about it now — one of those amazing life-changing moments. They all came, we played our set — Mike even sat in with us."

About two months later, Hornsby and his band came to Richmond to make a demo for McDonald — a "half-assed" one, as Hornsby puts it. "We sent him the tape," Hornsby says — "I think he was a little underwhelmed!"

But it wasn't enough to make McDonald write off Hornsby. In February 1979, Hornsby and Molo found themselves sleeping on McDonald's floor for 10 nights. Two producers got interested, Hornsby says: Jeff Baxter, who was leaving the Doobie Brothers, and television composer Mike Post, of "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law" fame.

"Of course we went with Baxter because we thought, wow … a cool cat!" Hornsby says. "So we went to his house and he said, 'OK, guys, let's get high and make a record.' That was his opening line."

A month of showcase performances in Hollywood led to one small label offer, which they chose not to take. Everyone else said, "No, thanks." Nonetheless, Hornsby's songwriting attracted the attention of industry honchos.

"I got all these publishing offers for the very same reason we got passed on," Hornsby says. "They thought we sounded too much like the Doobie Brothers. Artistically it was derivative, but for a publisher that was sort of in vogue. So I ended up signing with David Foster and 20th Century Music as a writer."

He and Molo moved to L.A. in April 1980 with guitarist Steve Watson. Hornsby's future wife, Kathy, joined him that summer. Success appeared to be just around the corner, but the dues-paying had only just begun.

"I was 'bubbling under' for a lot of years," Hornsby says. "I spent seven years basically getting turned down. I probably got passed on seventy or eighty times by the record companies. Every year I would make a new demo of songs, and they were interested enough in me, they thought I was talented enough, that they would always listen."

But the big break didn't come. Promises and encouraging words from industry bigwigs like Foster, David Geffen, Lenny Waronker and Huey Lewis led only to dashed hopes.

"About 1983, I started to move away from the Steely Dan and Mike McDonald kind of music, and more into Tom Petty and Springsteen, American roots rock, and getting back into the groups I was into in high school, like The Band and Dylan. My music started moving more into that Americana, roots-influenced music."

He started The Range in 1984. "I thought Bruce Hornsby was a terrible stage name," he says. As for The Range, "It felt American, it felt open; it felt like the music I was making. We had songs like 'The Wild Frontier,' 'On the Western Skyline,' 'Red Plains.' I didn't play piano, I was playing accordion."

They dressed in period clothing too. "It was my one effort to play the game," Hornsby says, "but at least I wasn't getting a new-wave haircut and wearing a skinny tie. We were just sort of dressing up in old suits from the '30s, that type of thing. I guess you could say we looked more like a bluegrass band — not with hats and ties, mind you, but just those kinds of pants and nice shirts."

Another demo failed to garner any record company interest, Hornsby says. "It became embarrassing to me, because I had all these great people trying to help me and I couldn't get arrested."

He began to question the quality of his songs. He couldn't get the sound he was looking for with his band, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.

"After our final big attempt didn't work, it's '84, I'm turning 30 years old," Hornsby says. "So I said, well screw this … I'm going to record this just once with everything on the tape being out of my head. So I cut a couple of songs with drum machine, piano, synth bass, a little keyboard pad … and vocals. Simple."

William Ackerman at Windham Hill Records liked what he heard and offered a recording contract. But Hornsby's attorney advised against accepting the small-label deal. He played the tape for friends at some of the larger record companies, and Hornsby got big news: RCA and Epic both wanted him.

"They didn't think it was commercial," he says. "They just couldn't stop listening to it. It moved them. So it's a very simple scenario in theory. How do you get a record deal? You make a tape that moves the people that have the power. It's simple in theory, but it's very hard to do.

"The moral of this story is, after all the years I spent trying to fit into some notion of what was happening, it was when I turned my back on it and made the least commercial tape that I'd ever made, that's when they embraced me."

In 1985 he recorded "The Way It Is," which was released in the spring of '86. But it wasn't until a BBC disc jockey played the title track — one of those original self-produced demos, that the album and the song took off.

"Our record was not an instant success," Hornsby says. "The least commercial song on the least commercial tape was 'The Way It Is.' Everybody thought it was a B-side." After it hit the airwaves in Europe, he says, "Boom! It exploded."

"We got these faxes: 'The Way It Is' is exploding in England, then in Holland. By the time they put it out over here, it was No. 1 in Holland, top 10 all around the world. The United States was late to the party."

Home is important to Bruce Hornsby. After spending the '80s grinding through the gears of the star-making machinery in L.A., he and Kathy moved back to Williamsburg in 1990. Older brother Bobby, his musical partner from childhood into young adulthood, built them a beautiful home and studio. He'd returned to his hometown, to a region filled with relatives.

"[My grandfather] Old J.W. Hornsby, who died in the early '50s, was a waterman until he got an oyster tong through his foot one day and said the hell with this, and told his brother Red Hornsby to take him to Yorktown," Hornsby says. There, they started Hornsby Heating Oil, which became the family business. Hornsby's dad became a real estate developer and played saxophone in his brother's band, Sherwood Hornsby and the Rhythm Boys.

"I had great parents," Hornsby says. "The romantic story is the terrible childhood, you know — scuffling and turmoil at home. ... It's not my story. I had a great childhood with great parents. And I guess confidence was instilled in me."

Music flowed through the family genes. Hornsby's maternal grandfather, Paul Saunier, was a former music supervisor for Richmond Public Schools. He played organ at the Mosque (now the Landmark Theater). "If you'd go to the state Jaycees convention, he was the guy playing 'Turkey in the Straw' over in the corner," Hornsby says. "They have tapes of me singing 'Hound Dog' at age 3 or 4, my [older] brother singing Ricky Nelson, my younger brother singing 'Charlie Brown.'"

Hornsby wasn't much for music lessons, though. He took piano for about a year at age 7, but found other interests. "I was a real jock as a kid — football, basketball, baseball." Still, his mom got him and his brother into singing with Up With People when they were little, he says.

"I was little Brucie Hornsby writing these songs at age 12, 13, and playing guitar. I didn't start playing piano till I was 17, other than that one year." He discovered that he could hear a song and pick it up.

The family lived on Indian Springs Road in Williamsburg, across Jamestown Road from Phi Beta Kappa Hall. As a townie in a touristy college town, Hornsby enjoyed harassing preppy students at the College of William & Mary.

One method: water balloons. "We would only pelt guys who were really dressed up nice with their dates," Hornsby says, laughing. "We would just blast those guys."

One law school student didn't appreciate the joke, and flagged down the police. They took Hornsby and his posse to the station, and brought in their parents. Commotion ensued. "This guy was saying, 'Your kids are terrible, total hooligans, and they should be punished.' And some of the mothers were just, 'You're right, I can't believe that my son…' And my dad finally said, 'You know what? Enough of this! They did this, they shouldn't have done it, but it's not that damn big a deal. I've heard about enough out of you and I'm done, I'm outta here.' And this guy was totally taken aback."

Much of the Hornsby lyrical canon comes from true stories — things he did, people he knew, stories he's heard of goings-on in his hometown.

"I always thought I would come back," Hornsby says. "Lyrically, I wanted my music to have a strong sense of place, so I always wrote about this area. I thought if I came back here I might become more prolific, and I was."

Take "White Wheeled Limousine," for example, about a groom who gets caught in the bushes on his wedding day. It actually happened — kind of, Hornsby says. "In the song, she finds out about it and it breaks up. But in reality, they actually got married; she never found out."

Then there's "Sneaking Up On Boo Radley," he says, "a combination, obviously, of ['To Kill a Mockingbird' author] Harper Lee and the fact that we grew up here with Eastern State Hospital, where there were patients walking around town all the time that we would make fun of. We knew a lot of them. My mom, liberal Lois Hornsby — 'all are welcome' — we had a lot of patients come to our house. They would hang out … there'd be a knock on the door, and there's Welford Thurston looking for a handout.

"Race and religion, that's such a rich area. I've always been influenced by Southern writers. Lee Smith, I love her writing. I always loved William Styron; 'Sophie's Choice' is one of my favorite books — hilarious and horrific at the same time. I always wanted my songs to reflect that same feeling."

Last week, RCA Legacy released a four-CD/one-DVD box set called "Intersections (1985-2005)." It's an impressive summary of Hornsby's musical career. But it is hardly a traditional "greatest hits" collection — there's already one of those out there. Most of these old songs are presented in new, expanded live versions, some solo, some with the current band.

"Most people approach their songs like museum pieces," Hornsby says. "'This is the way we recorded it, and it's the way we're going to play it for the rest of our lives.' I think of our songs as living beings that grow and evolve. So the box set is not meant to be a retrospective. It's an artistic statement in the present. This is what I've become."

He says he finds some of the old records impossible to listen to — mostly on the vocal level. "I feel that through the years I've just loosened up so much, it's miles beyond to me. I wanted a document that existed so that if someone didn't know what I did, I could say, 'Here, this is what I do.' Where else would you have a duet with Ornette Coleman, a song with the Grateful Dead and a couple of bluegrass records, jazz tunes with Mardi Gras horns and Branford Marsalis, and Spike Lee movie songs? It's such a broad range, it's the only way you could have it in one place."

It's a powerful personal statement, one of the most adventurous box sets ever put together by a popular musician. Unlike some performers, Hornsby's continued to grow as an artist, to expand his horizons. He has refused to fit into any formula, yet he has built a fan base that keeps coming, willing to follow wherever his muse leads.

Today that muse is leading him in new directions too. Hornsby is writing a Broadway musical.

The idea was sparked during Hornsby's visit with Broadway actor Brian Stokes Mitchell. "He was a big fan of my last record," Hornsby says. "There's a little three-song area that is sort of solo piano — 'Hooray for Tom,' 'What the Hell Happened' and 'Heir Gordon.' He thought it sounded like Broadway, and he thought that I should be writing a Broadway musical."

Sitting at his Steinway, Hornsby plays a humorous new song written for the musical with childhood friend Chip DiMatteo. Then he plays some rough mixes from an upcoming jazz album recorded this spring with bassist Christian McBride and legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette.

The next day, July 6, he was scheduled to fly to Colorado to begin a three-week swing through the West with his band.

"I've never been busier on a recording level," Hornsby says. "I've certainly been busier on a touring and performance level — before my wife and I had our sons."

Hornsby had six hits from 1986 to 1990. Then there were the songs he wrote for others — "Jacob's Ladder" for Huey Lewis, "The End of the Innocence" with Don Henley. "So we had a real strong presence for a good five years on the radio," Hornsby says. Then he started getting calls to work with others. He was inspired, wanted freedom and broke up The Range.

"That was the end of my radio run, because I didn't want to be tied to always having to fit that mold…," he says. "If I'd continued to play it safe, or play it the way most people do, I don't think I'd have an audience now.

"My musical life since that hit period has been about the pursuit of musicality and finding new ways to be inspired, just trying to be creative."

Over the years, Hornsby has honed his piano style, creating a unique sound that combines the free-flowing jazz sensibilities of Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner with the folksy Americana of composers Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.

Ives is the American composer who first captured Hornsby's interest, and still does. Hornsby plays an Ives étude that he adapted for his new jazz album that's remarkably complex in its seeming abandon.

He says he worked hard during the construction of his home in an effort to ease off later, playing with his band and the Grateful Dead, recording records, producing Leon Russell, writing with Robbie Robertson. "In 1990, I was home for eighteen days — I was gone 347 days," he says. The next year he was home only 30 days.

"I was getting all these great calls," he says. "It was hard to turn 'em down. I [also] got a lot of calls from people who no one had ever heard of, new artists. I think people started realizing that I was a cheap date.

"Consequently, a lot of things I did were not enjoyable. I would get to a session and try to play something that I thought was unique, interesting and different." Invariably, he says, producers would ask him to simplify, creating something that in the end sounded generic. "I would say, 'You know you could've gotten anybody to do that.'"

With the birth of his twin sons, now 14, he started to slow down in an effort to find balance between career and fatherhood.

Has he succeeded?

"You'll have to ask them when they're grown!" Hornsby says with a laugh.

Hornsby seems to be hardwired for happiness. Remember seeing his big smile playing the piano behind friends like Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt on televised award shows in the late '80s and early '90s? Or watching him walk out on Virginia stages with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or Crosby, Stills & Nash?

He appears to be the epitome of optimism, not only excited about his own projects, but also interested in the person he's talking with. He loves to discuss music and has stayed plugged in to contemporary trends.

"There's something I like about it," he said of rap and hip-hop. "The minimalist aspect — there's no harmony. It's not what I'm about, but I like it. The most clever hip-hop is incredible lyrically. It's really happening."

He has a room in his house filled with awards, gold and platinum records, pictures and mementos that he calls his "ego room." The walls and bookcases are filled to the ceiling. There's literally no space left for any more honors.

But there will surely be more to come. It's clear that in his 52nd year, he's finding new inspiration, still generating creative sparks. Besides the box set and the Broadway musical, he has two other CDs coming out this year — the smokin' jazz trio disc and a bluegrass album with Ricky Skaggs. In many ways, he feels like he's bringing his musical career full circle from the old days playing in local bands. "Everything I'm doing now," he says, "there are seeds that were planted years ago around here." S

Bruce Hornsby plays the Charlottesville Pavilion Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $17-$47 and are available online at or by calling (877) 272-8849.

About the writer: Jim Newsom is a jazz flutist, guitarist, vocalist and bandleader in Norfolk who leads the Jim Newsom Quartet. His most recent CD, "Jazz on the James," was recorded at the October 2004 jazz festival of the same name in Richmond. He's a regular contributor to Port Folio Weekly in Hampton Roads.

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