In 1986, a young musician living in Los Angeles named Bruce Hornsby achieved what so many young musicians hope for: a hit. It was hardly a barn burner, but with a catchy piano hook and a certain topicality about racism -- this was not long before Tawana Brawley -- “The Way It Is” gained significant air play and even made it to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 40. The album it anchored went platinum several times over.
In the couple of years that followed, Hornsby and his band The Range had a few other chart successes, pop-rock ditties that harked back to Hornsby’s small-town Southern upbringing with titles like “Mandolin Rain” and “The Valley Road.” Though many of the songs had the kind of pop melancholy that, say, a certain teenager who was not yet a journalist responded to, they didn’t leave much of a cultural mark.
And so in 1990, after 10 years in Los Angeles and three major-label albums, Hornsby dissolved the band and left L.A., moving with his wife back to their native Williamsburg, Va. He never had another Top 10 hit.
That would seem to be the end of the story. Except Hornsby -- whose latest musical foray, a soundtrack for Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer" released last month -- was just getting started.
In a time when many pop musicians come in two varieties -- tween-friendly auto-tuners and ageless rockers who’ve been playing the same hits since the first Nixon administration -- Hornsby, 57, is continually embarking on new sonic adventures, dipping into jazz, bluegrass, blues and gospel, while working with an A-list collection of musicians (Branford Marsalis, Chaka Khan, Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs, Wayne Shorter and Eric Clapton, to name a few).
Most improbably, he’s developed a close relationship with Spike Lee, contributing songs to or scoring nearly a half-dozen of the director’s films. (He’ll do so again on Lee’s upcoming remake of “Old Boy.”)
“The story of my life for many years now is ‘I had no idea,’ ” Hornsby said. “You know, like ‘He does that? I had no idea.’ ”
Hornsby is having lunch at the restaurant of the historic Williamsburg Inn, a hometown boy at one of its most famous landmarks. I sought him out because I’d followed his career intermittently but interestedly over the years -- the radio success, the reinventions, the experiments that often, though not always, worked. I was curious about what makes someone keep piling up creative identities (the latest, as film scorer, as I learned more about for a story I’d done about Spike Lee) and what it means to do so with only a modicum of commercial recognition.
Hornsby had an easy manner as he talked about various Virginia personalities he knows, like Allan Iverson, whom he referred to by his local nickname “Bubba Chuck,” or Lawrence Taylor, who graduated from Hornsby’s high school a few years after him (“He was a little scary even back then”).
A steady stream of former schoolmates came up to the musician to reminisce. Hornsby is hardly famous these days; he’s not even the music world’s most famous Bruce. But to talk to him is to touch on some charged issues -- what makes a successful person decide to retire something that’s still working, what are the consequences of a musical culture based on fads, what happens when a man who sings about a forgotten past, as Hornsby often does, becomes part of one himself.
The reinvention began simply enough. As Hornsby approached 40, he saw other musicians falling into a trap -- “They weren’t involved with their instruments on a deep level,” as he put it. Hornsby had a dilettantish side even earlier in his career: He co-wrote Don Henley’s mega-hit “The End of the Innocence,” toured with the Grateful Dead, and that’s him on piano in the Bonnie Raitt tearjerker “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” But then he really began to mix it up.
Drawing on a music education at the University of Miami and the Berklee College of Music, he began trying various piano and keyboard tricks, and sprinkled in to his songwriting everything from the hymn book to modern classical composers like Benjamin Britten. In 1993, he released a solo album called “Harbor Lights.” With its jazz and blues influences and guest musicians such as Marsalis and Pat Metheny, it was a departure from the slickly produced pop that preceded it.
A swing-flavored album called “Hot House” followed in 1995. And then in 1998 came an opus of sorts, an ambitious double-album, “Spirit Trail.” One CD was a rambunctious piano-driven jazz record he produced himself; the other was a more straight-ahead pop album he recorded with several veteran producers. There were experimental jags and hummable anthems, intimate stories and lyrical abstractions, many of them with Hornsby’s brand of socially conscious storytelling that came from growing up in the South in the early days of integration.
In the 14 years since “Spirit Trail,” Hornsby has put together a new band, the eclectic Noisemakers, with members as adept at flute and accordion as bass and guitar. He recorded a bluegrass album with Ricky Skaggs. On live albums and at performances -- which are enthusiastic free-for-alls driven by audience requests -- he’s turned his own hit songs into everything from black spirituals to dulcimer-based covers. Most people still have no idea.
And how does he feel about that?
Accepting, he said. Well, mainly. Hornsby likes to cite a lyric from his 1995 song “Changes” about the death of jazz as a popular art form: “Nobody cares, and why should they?” and says that he’d hardly be the first musician to be pigeonholed by a hit and forgotten soon after.
“You have to look at these other examples. Bobby McFerrin is a great musician and everybody knows him from ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’ To the masses Randy Newman is known for ‘Short People.’ He added: “That’s just the way music is listened to these days. I try not to get too worked up about it.”
Yet it clearly still nags. Hornsby spoke ruefully about the fact that it’s hard to get more than a few hundred people to his Noisemakers shows, forcing him to resort to festivals to win over new fans.
And he described the early songs -- the ones that many people come to his shows for -- as “unlistenable,” practically shuddering even when a compliment is paid them. Most of those tracks he won’t perform anymore or, if he does, he plays them in a radically different style.
“I don’t want to be a nostalgic vehicle for people’s night out,” he said. “There’s a guy me and the band like to call Stockbroker Stan. You know who he is, the one who wants to hear ‘80s hits because that was what was playing when he made out with his wife for the first time. I’ll play them sometimes. I try to be nice about it. But the idea of spending much time in it is, to me, a creative prison.”
Ironically, it’s something Hornsby didn’t do that most broadened his audience.
Shortly after the slaying of Tupac Shakur in 1996, Hornsby received a cassette in the mail. It was from Shakur’s mother, and it was a hard-core version of a rap song about the struggles faced by young black men. Shakur had used the piano riff from “The Way It Is” and built a whole new version.
Where Hornsby was singing about the de facto discrimination that existed in the post-Jim Crow South (“They passed a law / Back in ‘64 / To give those who ain’t got / A little more / But it only goes so far”), Shakur had turned the song’s musical and lyrical ideas into something edgier. (“Cops give a damn about a negro? / Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero / Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare.”)
Hornsby went on to watch as his radio-friendly pop song from the Reagan era became a street anthem. Since then, pieces of “The Way It Is” have popped up in songs from hip-hop artists ranging from Snoop Dogg to E-40.
But of all Hornsby’s creative partnerships, perhaps none are as surprising as his collaborations with Lee.
The two met two decades ago through Marsalis, and formed a kind of Bert ‘n’ Ernie director-composer relationship. White and black, Southern and Northern, tall and short, “a real odd couple,” as Hornsby said.
Lee’s scoring process can be unusual: He’ll ask Hornsby generally for ideas, Hornsby will send them off to the director, and Lee will slot many of them into the movie where he thinks they’ll fit without ever consulting the musician. Ever the laid-back Southerner, Hornsby said he doesn’t mind. Most of the time.
Lee can also be demanding. The two might be attending a Knicks game in New York, and Lee might say, “Hey, maybe send me something?”
A week later he’ll send Hornsby a friendly but hectoring text asking if any ideas have popped into his head. If he knows what’s good for him, Hornsby will send over some new compositions. “Spike is open to new ideas. You just have to make sure it’s not too harmonically adventurous,” he said, laughing. “He told me once that something was too ‘Hitchcockian.’ I think he thought that was a bad thing.”
Lee will also make offhanded suggestions he expects to be taken seriously.
“I was sitting there with Spike at his apartment in New York when he was cutting ‘Red Hook Summer’ and he said, ‘You know you should really put some lyrics to this.’ And I thought he meant it on the level of ‘Sometime, you know, it might be fun’. Then the next week he calls me and says, ‘So have you put lyrics to that yet?’”
Hornsby did, and the result are the two final tracks on the “Red Hook” record, an up-tempo blues number “Spirit Rising” and the haunting spiritual “Hymn in C,” both standouts. (The overall melancholy tone of the score is key to the film, giving it a sweetness that an otherwise disturbing coming-of-age-movie might lack.)
On this day, Hornsby is set to go to the gym and shoot around with one of his twin sons, a budding college-hoops star at University of North Carolina at Asheville. Basketball, which Hornsby played in high school, has long been a musical preoccupation, as evidenced by his concert-favorite “Rainbow’s Cadillac,” about a playground legend. As one of the people mentions Keith Hornsby’s roundball abilities, Hornsby offers the kind of expression that says he might be infinitely more proud of “father of a Division I ball player” than, say, “guy who had a bunch of radio hits.”
But Hornsby is the sort of person for whom music and career are never far away from his consciousness. “There are very few people who can have a long career,” he said a moment later. “James Taylor can, but he hasn’t really changed his sound.” He paused. “I don’t know. I think it all comes back to ‘Nobody cares, and why should they.’ I try not to get too bitter about it.” Another pause. “Or maybe I’m just telling myself that.”
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