Bruce Hornsby: 'Having a laugh or 20 is an enjoyable and healthy way to live'

Fame came belatedly, but then the singer/songwriter found himself in the Grateful Dead and being sampled by Tupac

Bruce Hornsby

Photo: Sarah Walor

Bruce Hornsby took a while to find fame, but after the worldwide success of his 1986 single The Way it Is he became one of the biggest stars of the Eighties.

He then carved out a great career for himself, that resulted in him joining his heroes The Grateful Dead, becoming an inspiration for rap artists like Tupac Shakur and collaborating with filmmaker Spike Lee.

His new album, ‘Flicted, is out now. It speaks of the world that Covid has created, but is nonetheless upbeat, and includes collaborations with the likes of Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Danielle Haim.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, he talks about his lengthy route to the top, and how his story is a classic example of how you should never give up on your dreams.

Bruce Hornsby and The Range
1987: With his band The Range. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

At 16, I was the happy-go-lucky nut always goofing. I was also a jock, totally immersed in basketball. That may have made me a bit cocky and slightly insufferable. Or more than slightly in certain situations. I’d tell my younger self to retain your frivolous prankster ways as you get older. Having a laugh or 20, as you have already figured out, is a healthy and enjoyable way to live. 

Every little white kid in the world wanted to be a guitar player when The Beatles came out, then the whole British invasion. I had a band when I was 12 but I was never serious about it. I’d tell my younger self not to worry that you’re a late starter. You can catch up if you’re willing to do the work. I didn’t start getting serious about the piano, didn’t really start playing it intensely until I was 17. That’s late in the game.

It was a young British pianist and a young piano player from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I heard Amoreena by Elton John from the Tumbleweed Connection record in the summer between 10th and 11th grade. My older brother played it for me. I just loved it. And Leon Russell. Very specifically, those two musicians got me totally immersed in it. I didn’t play the piano but it made me think I want to do that.

Try to stay upbeat in the face of massive amounts of rejection. Think of it as a constant learning and growing process. I was beating my head against the music business wall for a good seven years after I got out of college. I probably got turned down by the labels a good 70-80 times. “Yes, almost, but not quite, son,” was the answer. So, try to stay upbeat. 

That said, be a tough self-critic. But not so tough that you become depressed and hence creatively inert. When record stores existed, you’d go in and there would be the young, self-appointed experts and arbiters of taste, sitting around just talking about how terrible the new Sting record is, or the new Peter Gabriel record. You always wanted to tell them: well, let me hear what you do. You’re criticising these titans of the music world. Let’s hear what you have. Be as tough on yourself as you are on others.

Don’t let anyone make you feel that striving to be ‘elite’ is an idea to dismiss. The pursuit of high-level ability and knowledge is an extremely worthwhile endeavour, creating much satisfaction and fulfilment during the one life you have to live.

My younger self should be patient. I didn’t get signed till I was 30. My first record came out when I was 31. And of course, you’re starting to get to 27, 28, 29, you think, well, I guess this is not going to happen. It’s hard for any artist to find their own voice. Obviously the biggest hit is The Way It Is. That’s a song about racism with two improvised solos, one in the middle and one at the end, which is never heard on pop radio. Still not the formula for pop success. My musician friends couldn’t believe what I was getting away with. But I felt like I finally found who I was. 

I’d seen a lot of my friends get record deals, make one album that would go nowhere and then they were dropped. So I learned a lot about what not to do. I also learned on a business level – the worth of publishing in the songwriter world. That’s something I wouldn’t have known had I made my first record at age 20 rather than 30. 

Out of the blue in 1997 I got a cassette from the Shakur Foundation. It was about a year after Tupac had been assassinated in Vegas. They’d been going through the voluminous files and recordings he’d made. They were going to release a lot of this and everyone involved thought the star song was Changes that he’d made using The Way It Is. The song has continued to be sampled. Just a couple of years ago the great young Chicago rapper Polo G made a beautiful record called Wishing For A Hero. And it’s also not bad for the pocket book. 

Don’t freak out when you hear amazing musicians and songwriters, don’t be intimidated and entertain feelings of wanting to quit, which is very natural. Choose to be inspired. It can be difficult to recognise what ‘good’ sounds and looks like. These people are present in your life to show you the way and illustrate clearly the special euphoria that can come from a deep commitment to your work.

I’d tell my younger self: don’t worry about the ladies and your sad lack of success with them. I got a lot better looking when I got into a popular band. That said, I was a pretty bad pop star. One reason was, again, we didn’t take it very seriously. Our early videos, they were an excuse to put our friends on TV. We made some of the worst videos in the MTV era. They were cures for insomnia. 

Don’t be afraid of collaboration. It can be emotionally tough, mostly when you don’t think your new partner is coming up something special. Your new partner may feel the same about you. The rewards of successful collaboration can be where what’s created rises to a higher level than either partner has achieved. A melding of minds that makes something completely original, better than each of you.

I didn’t want to be tardy to that session [in 1991, Hornsby played on Bob Dylan’s album Under the Red Sky]. I was very excited to be a part of the record. Dylan walks in and introduces himself to everyone. Then he goes over and takes a bunch of paper out of various pockets – from his jacket, his pants – puts all these pieces of paper with various bits of lyrics on a table. He then came over to me and said, “Hey, Bruce, come here. Let me teach you a song”. He taught it to me and I taught it to the rest of the band. Then we took a little break. The great drummer Kenny Aronoff went in the room, started playing drums. Then the rest of us, Robben Ford, Randy Jackson and I, went in and started jamming along. And then Bob comes in. He’s standing there, nodding his head listening to us. Then he goes to the table, looks around at the pieces of paper, picks one, walks to the microphone and starts singing. Absolute spontaneity and that became, TV Talkin’ Song.

You go to a Bob Dylan concert and it’s ever thus. The people who want to hear a concert where you hear nothing but old record replications are going to be aghast because he’s trying to be creative in the moment. He’s certainly taking great liberties with the songs, playing them in different tempos, keys, different grooves. That’s who he is. And that’s how I am in my gigs. I’m probably not as extreme as Bob in that way, but I am one to inflict modern classical, astringent, dodecaphonic twelve-tone chromatic pain on my poor unsuspecting audiences.

Bruce Hornsby and Grammy in 1994
1994: Winning a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Photo: Sonia Moskowitz/Globe Photos/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

It was a Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. The classroom had an intercom where they’d call the buses. They put the microphone up to the TV where we heard someone, maybe Walter Cronkite, saying President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Almost every kid in the class cheered. I was shocked because they cried, “Hooray, now Nixon can take over!” Our teacher, Miss Nimmo, excoriated the class. And I think Miss Nimmo was a reasonably conservative woman, but she had great empathy as well. That gives you a sense of the air in my town, Williamsburg. 

Virginia lives in the past. The lightbulb joke is – how many Virginians does it take to screw it in? Three. One to screw it in and two to talk about how good the old one was. But I grew up as liberal Lois Hornsby’s son. My father, Robert Hornsby, grew up around these attitudes. It was beautiful for him that he married his beautiful wife, my mom, who was from the northeast. We were influenced by her and that helped me in being, to my mind, more enlightened than the average person in our town.

In Virginia, our politics have really changed. It’s gradually gone from being a seemingly eternally red state to now where it’s referred to as either a purple state, or a virtually blue state. So that’s a plus. Most of the pols explain it away by saying it’s all about Northerners coming to the the Upper South for more clement weather. And that’s very possible. But hey, whatever works. We’re, we’re not a red state anymore.

I’d like to relive two moments. One, when I cracked a high note on Saturday Night Live. Embarrassment in front of millions. It was late January ’87. I was the new cash cow at RCA Records and they were milking the shit out of me. I’d been on the road for months. I usually had that high note. But I was so fried. I went for it, just cackled it out and had a moment to be forgotten. I’d like a do-over. 

Bruce Hornsby onstage
2021: On stage in Fort Lauderdale. Photo: Mpi04/Media Punch/Alamy Live News

Then there was playing with the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden in 1990. Some context. The ’60s, to me, started when JFK was assassinated and lasted all the way until about 74-75, maybe when Nixon resigned. My older brother had been a big Grateful Dead fan. He started a cover band called Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids. The spring of 1974 was a real hippie time and I was Brucey Hornsby playing Fender Rhodes piano. Fast forward to spring of ’87, we get a call from the Grateful Dead asking if we would open for them. Then next year, we played two concerts with them again. I started sitting in with them. This culminated, actually very sadly, with the death of Brent Mydland [of a drug overdose aged 37 in 1990] and them asking me to join. So imagine all those people in 1974 following the Octane Kids. Now, 16 years later, they come to watch little Brucey with no rehearsal winging it with the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden. That was a truly amazing transcendent moment, so I’d go back and experience that. 

If I could have another conversation with anybody it would be Jerry Garcia. In 1995 they would fly me to play with the Grateful Dead. He was flagging on energy and really struggling physically. I called to check on him in late June or early July and they’d just talked him into going into Betty Ford [rehab clinic]. We talked, I said, “Good luck, blah, blah.” And he went on his way.

I checked in about two-and-a-half weeks later. I called the house just to get a report, see how he was doing. Well, he answers. He’d left early because he thought he had kicked it. He thought he was good. He regaled me with stories about his two or three weeks at Betty Ford, all the people he’d met – some man who had known Django Reinhardt back in the 1920s in France.

We were talking about plans for what we wanted to do the next fall. And then four days later he was gone [Garcia died of a heart attack aged 53 on August 9, 1995]. So I would like to talk to him again. I miss him a lot. 

Bruce Hornsby’s album ’Flicted is out now

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