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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the May 25, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Bruce Hornsby on Twins, Radio, and Lowe’s
There is a kind of child-like energy to Bruce Hornsby’s piano playing.
So it’s fitting that many of the songs on his new album, "Halcyon
Days" (Columbia Records) concern childhood, particularly, his own
The veteran pianist, organist, composer, songwriter, singer, and
three-time Grammy Award winner makes a stop at McCarter Theater on
Tuesday, May 31. Triple A [adult album alternative] radio stations
like WXPN in Philadelphia and KGSR in Austin have embraced Hornsby’s
A recent television commercial for Lowe’s, the home improvement retail
chain, utilizes his track, "Gonna Be Some Changes Made." "Yes, I sold
out," says Hornsby. "And it is what it is; they called me, and it’s
not like it was for a great deal of money. It was sort of more on a
level to get the music heard. I do really well on triple A stations
around the country but that’s a relatively small part of the market,
so my (Lowe’s) decision really comes under the heading of wanting to
spread the word a little bit. The commercial is ubiquitous, but it
helps me be a little more ubiquitous."
In a phone interview from his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he
was raised and still lives with his wife and twin sons, Hornsby says:
"Some of the songs on ‘Halcyon Days’ come from worrying about my
12-year-old sons, and many of the songs on this record aren’t serious
songs," says Hornsby. "’What The Hell Happened’ is about looking at
photos of your parents and looking at yourself, and insecurity with
your own looks."
According to Hornsby, 50, he was "the emotionally disturbed middle
child" in a family of three brothers raised in Williamsburg. Since the
runaway, top 10 rock success of his 1986 song about race relations,
"The Way It Is," Hornsby has, like Mose Allison, straddled the lines
between jazz, rock, blues, and country music, all the while performing
in an ultra-fluid, bouncing, jovial piano style.
His father worked for a home heating oil company and later became a
real estate developer, "back when a developer meant good things,"
Hornsby says. His mom was a housewife who was "civicly involved" with
the Williamsburg Board of Education and other organizations.
"My younger brother used to write songs with me, and my older brother
played in a few bands with me," Hornsby says. "We had a band as early
on as sixth grade, where we played the Stones and Neil Diamond. I was
the guitar player in that group." Hornsby began taking piano lessons
as an eight-year-old but like so many other kids quit after a year. He
returned to the piano in high school and got serious about playing
during his junior year in high school, he adds.
"Music for me in high school was purely my own pursuit, I wasn’t part
of the high school band or anything like that," he says. "I was
inspired by Elton John and Leon Russell." Interestingly, the famed
British pop pianist sings on "Dreamland," a song Hornsby wrote for his
12-year-old son, on "Halcyon Days."
Odd how things have come full circle, he admits, "because Elton John’s
‘Tumbleweed Connection’ was an inspiring record, truly a great record,
that I listened to when I was in high school. He has been a big
supporter of mine since the late 1980s, and when I asked him to be on
my new record, he said, ‘I was wondering if you’d ever ask.’ In terms
of the big shot guests that are on the album, he’s my best friend,"
Hornsby says. Eric Clapton and Sting also perform with Hornsby and his
band on "Gonna Be Some Changes Made" and the title track, "Halcyon
Days." Clapton also contributes bluesy guitar treatments to "Candy
Elton John picked Hornsby’s "Lost Soul" as a song that changed his
life, says Hornsby, "when Elton was trying to stop drinking and get
off drugs in the early 1990s," and that was documented in the British
music magazine, Q.
Hornsby believes that things are different these days with radio, at
least in the United States. Despite the fact that he has received 11
Grammy nominations and won three Grammy Awards in the last 19 years,
Hornsby’s records still have problems getting airplay in some parts of
the country. Gone are the blockbuster, relatively unformatted FM rock
stations like the old WNEW-FM in New York, which championed eclectic
musicians like Hornsby.
Before and after his meteoric success in the late 1980s and early
1990s, Hornsby was a session piano player. He has collaborated on more
than 100 albums by artists including Bob Dylan, Don Henley, the
Grateful Dead, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt, Bela Fleck, and Willie Nelson,
among many others.
"We had sold more than 100,000 copies of ‘The Way It Is’ before the
album and stations like WNEW were all over us," he says, recalling the
times when his hit single began to break nationally in 1986 and 1987.
Asked how he might fare in today’s record business, with the state of
radio the way it is now, Hornsby admits it would be difficult, but not
impossible. "It would be a difficult situation now but it was a
difficult situation then, too," he recalls. "The record broke in
England and Holland before it came to America, and I was signed to a
recording contract purely because a guy named Paul Atkinson couldn’t
stop listening to ‘The Way It Is.’ They didn’t see me as this guy who
would be delivering ‘big hits’ on a regular basis," he says of his
first major label record deal in the late 1980s.
"It can still happen, just look at people like Nellie McKay and this
guy Jamie Cullum," he says. "It’s harder now, but the same scenario
applies: neither of them are on top 40 radio, but they’re both piano
players. What they do doesn’t sound anything like what’s current and
mainstream but it is still possible for them to get signed."
At his May 31 performance at McCarter, the audience can expect a
naturally eclectic set from Hornsby and his crack backup band, one
that covers the roots of American music, including elements of blues,
bluegrass, traditional country, classic jazz and pioneering rock `n’
roll. Hornsby will be accompanied by John "J.T." Thomas on keyboards
and organ, Bobby Read on saxophone, J.V. Collier on bass, Doug
Derryberry on guitar, and Sonny Emory on drums.
Thinking back to his radio success nearly 20 years ago in 1986, and
the continued success of his career in performing and recording,
Hornsby says: "I can’t believe that I got away with that long,
improvised solo in the middle of ‘The Way It Is’ on the radio. I was
really lucky in that way, and I’m still lucky."
— Richard J. Skelly
Bruce Hornsby, Tuesday, May 31, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91
University Place, Princeton. $38, $40, $42. 609-258-2787.
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