It’s no great concession for any but the most hardened cultural cynic, that most artists working in popular music eventually must explore the limits of their muse, or their abilities, or even the limits of what their audience will tolerate.
Some will walk away and turn to something else to make a living. But some choose to remain, like sharks chasing new waters. In pushing their limits, they either keep swimming or sink to the bottom.
Bruce Hornsby swims.
The pianist/songwriter has been working with his well-established band The Noisemakers in various configurations for almost 20 years. But that time has also been marked by Hornsby’s forays into jazz, soundtrack music, electronica, bluegrass and Grateful Dead-and-associated projects.
For most casual observers, Hornsby’s story starts in 1986, when his band at the time, The Range, released their first album, and the breakout single “The Way It Is” rocketed up the charts. With his crystalline piano and gently summoned Appalachian resonances, Hornsby lit up the AOR airwaves like a shiny dime in an otherwise murky puddle of fading electro-pop and jangly guitar bands.
The fact is, though, Hornsby had been working professionally for several years, both as a contract songwriter in L.A. (with his brother) and as part of Sheena Easton’s touring band. Still, celebrity in his own right came hard and fast, as he began opening for acts like the Grateful Dead, Eurythmics, Steve Winwood, Huey Lewis and John Fogerty. He also recorded with Willie Nelson and played on his TV special. To some extent, the fact that stardom hit at age 32 probably helped Hornsby get through it with all faculties intact, and some wisdom about the game.
“My ‘late bloomer’ status aided me in one very important area,” he says. “I had seen friends get signed and sign bad deals that hurt them financially, especially in the long term, so I learned what not to do, what to watch out for.”
Hornsby cites Colorado — and especially his sold-out night at Red Rocks in summer of 1987 — as one of those defining, early-stage milestones.
“I think Colorado is a special place for lots of musicians. For years it has shown a demonstrable, deep love for bluegrass, folk, Americana and Grateful Dead-inspired jam band music and supported all that music so intensely. There are several bands I know that play small halls and clubs around the rest of the country, and come to the Denver-Boulder area and sell out Red Rocks.
“Yes, I remember it well — our first really ‘big-time’ gig. I don’t remember if we had an opening act that night, but Crowded House had been opening for us in that time period of spring/early summer 1987, so it may have been them — great guys and band.”
He also credits Boulder radio station KBCO for helping break his original band.
It “was the first prominent station in the U.S. to play our music in a heavy rotation, and the subsequent reaction put us on the map. We broke biggest in England and Europe, but in the U.S.A. it all started with KBCO in Boulder.”
After a few follow-up hits with The Range, Hornsby drifted between production gigs and some sit-in shows with the Grateful Dead. (“I wouldn’t trade my time with the Dead for anything; it was a truly singular and often transcendent experience for me,” he says.)
Eventually, he ended up in a couple of jazz settings with the likes of Branford Marsalis and Pat Metheny. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as he had studied jazz at both the University of Miami and Berklee School of Music in the late ’70s. It’s something he’d return to with Christian McBride and apparently immortal drummer Jack DeJohnette in a trio setting in 2007. (He toured with this trio again earlier this year.)
And of course, there’s his on-again-off-again with Ricky Skaggs, which also first bloomed in 2007. In between, there have been solo piano projects, a lengthy residency at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California, Dead tributes/offshoots and album releases of both accessible and unexpected fabric, like the cheerfully disruptive Big Swing Face.
Hornsby’s seemingly bottomless capacity to absorb and personalize wildly disparate musical disciples hasn’t aged. The lead track from The Noisemakers’ latest album, Rehab Reunion, “Over the Rise,” drifts along with a distinctly Celtic vibe, delicately wrought with challenging and provocative vocal intervals. Hornsby makes it sound easy.
“I’ve always loved British and Irish folk music (Paul Brady is a true hero for me) and ‘Over The Rise’ definitely has those influences. I feel like incorporating that influence into my music is very natural for me because I’ve ingested it deeply over many years.”
Hornsby is now 63, and we couldn’t help but wonder if he, professionally restless, has ever really felt out of his depth in this dizzying array of musical pursuits.
“In both my bluegrass and jazz forays I’ve felt extremely challenged because I was out of my element on a virtuosity level. The virtuosic demands of those music styles forced me to really hit the woodshed and bring my playing to a higher level to be able to hang with these freaks with whom I was playing. I just played in May with Jack and Christian, which was great fun. But although I prepared diligently for two or three weeks, I still felt slightly inadequate in spots. And I think Ricky and I will always find time to play together; we did a week-long run of six dates last year.”
Maybe there’s one thing — maybe just one — that Hornsby has retreated a little from, out of deference to the years and the miles: his love of basketball.
“I don’t play real basketball anymore, haven’t for years — bad for the hands, among other things. My Achilles hurts these days if I jump too much, so have to watch that,” he says.
Still, he does find time to rebound for his son Keith, who played college ball at LSU and UNC-Asheville and has played for the last two seasons in the NBA G League for the Dallas Mavericks.
“So that’s challenging and fun — and we’ve been doing it together since he was 6 years old,” he says.
But as for settling down with the music, putting his calloused pedals up and just letting himself sink… nope.
“Keep moving forward and exploring — no chilling yet.”
On the Bill: Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Tickets are $43-$60.50 ($40-$57.50 concert members).
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 8, Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St., Denver. Tickets are $62-$67.