The way it is now: Bruce Hornsby strives for pop sophistication

By Mark Guarino

The best new artist category at the Grammys is thought of like this: it’s an honor to be nominated, but a curse to win. Just ask Toni Braxton, Paula Cole and Hootie & the Blowfish.

Bruce Hornsby won in 1987 after his debut album, “The Way It Is” (RCA) scored three top 20 hits and introduced the Virginia native as a piano songwriter who had a pop ear for writing story songs about his Southern upbringing. In the climate of hair metal and MTV eye candy, Hornsby stood out as a hit-making traditionalist.

Yet in the years to follow, Hornsby didn’t fade away or repeat a formula. Instead he gradually started making more adventuresome records that delved deeper into jazz with lyrics that reflected his personal obsession with Southern characters and attitudes. His melodies began showing up in rap songs. And, after being hired by a long list of collaborators including Pat Metheny, Bob Dylan and Chaka Khan, he earned what he considers the feather in his cap: an invitation to become a touring member of the Grateful Dead.

“I just think anybody who has followed what I’ve done realizes I haven’t been too concerned with fitting into people’s expectations of me,” he said recently. “I’ve always changed and I’ve gotten letters that say, ‘how dare you?’ There are some artists who make the same record stylistically over and over again and they remain very popular. Other artists do that and fall by the wayside because people get bored. So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So I just followed my instincts.”

Hornsby’s last two albums posed the biggest challenge for his fans. “Spirit Trail” (RCA) was a two-disc set in 1998 that wove together pop, R&B, jazz and hip-hop beats with considerable sophistication (“my hidden gem,” he says today). Four years later, its follow-up, “Big Swing Face” (RCA), does away with piano altogether in favor of drum loops and guitars with emphasis on New Orleans funk.

Although initially encouraged in the early stages — “Big Swing Face” was actually conceived by his A&R manager Dave Bendeth as a “Bruce Hornsby album with no piano on it,” Hornsby says — neither albums were promoted heavily by his label. “You get typecast,” Hornsby said. “You have your image. People think you’re this and when you try to do that, it’s not accepted.”

That experience led to his ninth album, “Halcyon Days,” his first album for Columbia and a return to straightforward piano songs. In stores Aug. 17 (he plays the Rialto Square Theatre tonight), the album is geared to please early fans — the first single “Gonna Be Some Changes Made” has a similar soulful piano part to “The Way It Is.” It also features pop grandeur with strings (“Circus on the Moon”) and comic ragtime piano songs in the style of Randy Newman (“I called Randy Newman up two years ago and said ‘hey Randy, I’m writing Randy Newman songs now and he said ‘be my guest’,” Hornsby says).

While past Hornsby albums have had rosters that have included top session players like Bela Fleck, Jerry Garcia and Wayne Shorter, this album features bonafide British rock stars like Sting, Elton John and Eric Clapton. “‘Bruce and the Brits’ is the informal title of this record, I guess,” he said, chuckling. “I always had these iconic friends pay me nice compliments through the years and who were supportive of my music. So I thought I’d call these iconic friends to see if they meant what they said.”

Hornsby, 49, was born in Richmond and grew up in Williamsburg, Va. After playing sports, he got serious about the piano in his junior year of high school. When a Rolling Stone review of a Keith Jarrett album stuck with him, he turned to jazz, ending up at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and later the University of Miami. After graduation, he was faced with the decision to either become a serious jazz player in New York or pursue his inclination towards pop. “I always liked jazz but liked songs more. I wanted to find a place for the virtuosity of the instrument in the songwriting,” he said. “Hence, ‘The Way It Is’ was a great single to break for me because it had not one, but two piano solos.”

As a lyricist, he discovered he was drawn to the eccentricity and conflicting forces in constant play in the South. “It was very poignant from the beginning,” he said. “I was always influenced by Southern fiction that had a very strong sense of place. My first five or six records, you could call them all ‘Our Town’.”

“The Way It Is,” a radio hit about enduring racism long after the civil rights era, became a favorite of rappers a decade later. It became most famously sampled in the Tupac Shakur multi-platinum hit “Changes.” “I loved that. I also loved the checks! It’s a beautiful definition of ‘money for nothing’,” Hornsby said. “To me, his was the best version. It’s a positive message and I’m really proud he was a fan enough to, in his own way, co-write a song with me.”

The other unexpected career path was his tenure with the Dead. In 1987, Hornsby and his band the Range were invited to open two Dead shows in California, completing a circle for Hornsby that started in the ‘70s when he and his brother Bob played Dead covers in a band at the University of Virginia. Jerry Garcia played on four Hornsby albums and invited Hornsby to join the band when Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland died in 1990. Hornsby hit the road with them for 18 months and, after Garcia’s death, later returned to join the remaining Dead players in the Other Ones in 1998.

“It really loosened me up. It opened me up to a new way of playing, the possibilities within the long approach,” he said. “It gives the songs the potential to be new every time.”

That tact coincides with Hornsby’s approach to making albums from the beginning. “I don’t consider necessarily what I do rock. I have rock moments and love the three or four chords but I get bored with it after a little while,” he said. “One of my interests I’ve had as a musician is to be a bit of a crusader trying to open people’s ears to different things. In my playing you can hear Bill Monroe as well as Samuel Barber piano sonatas. It’s been my goal to broaden horizons of people who hear popular music all the time.”

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