music / Columns

Jam Central Station: Bruce Hornsby

October 13, 2018 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski



When an 18 year old Bruce Hornsby attended his first Grateful Dead show in 1973, he very well may have pictured himself on stage jamming with the band. He was already playing guitar and piano, and he was a huge fan of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and other similar artists. However, it’s unlikely that he ever expected to actually end up on stage with the Dead or inducting the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, due to a little luck, a lot of effort, and plenty of skill, that’s exactly what happened. Bruce Hornsby turned a career that began with an adult-contemporary hit single into one that has explored jazz, bluegrass, folk rock, and has seen him share the stage with some of the most legendary musicians in the business.
Hornsby got his musical start playing in bars and clubs with his brother Bobby. They focused mainly on covering the folk and jam rock of the late 60’s and early 70’s. In the early 80’s he and his other brother John moved to Los Angeles to write music for TV and movies. Bruce garnered attention as a session and touring musician and became friends with Huey Lewis, who was hitting his prime. Hornsby wrote songs for a variety of musicians around this time, including Lewis, which helped him gain some more credibility. By 1984 he moved back to his home state of Virginia and forming Bruce Hornsby and the Range.
Hornsby’s connections and credibility helped get the band signed to RCA and they released The Way It Is in 1986. The title track ended up being a huge hit for the band, and they were able to tour extensively both as an opening act and as the headliner. The band won a Grammy as Best New Artist, and the album produced a string of successful singles. The band quickly recorded their second album and released Scenes from the Southside in 1988. It was also well received by both critics and fans and produced another run of hits. 1988 was also the first year that Hornsby appeared on stage with the Grateful Dead after opening for them at a show in Ohio.
Around his recording and touring schedule, Hornsby found time to serve as a songwriter, producer, and sideman for other artists. He co-wrote Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” and played on albums with Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills & Nash, Stevie Nicks, and, most notably on Bonnie Raitt’s hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” He also began exploring jazz and bluegrass, to the point where he won the Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Recording” in 1990 for a reworked version of “The Valley Road” that he recorded with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The Range released A Night On The Town in 1990 as well, a much more jazz-influenced album. After a short tour in 1991, however, The Range broke up to allow Hornsby to head off in new directions.
One of these aspirations was performing full-time with The Grateful Dead. He joined the band as a full-time member in September 1990 playing keyboards and accordion. His relationship with Jerry Garcia was a major influence on Jerry’s playing at this time. Jerry respected Bruce enough to allow Bruce to push and challenge him, creating a solid dynamic for this lineup. While this lasted only a short time (Hornsby left the band in 1992), the experience had a tremendous influence on his musicianship and he has continued his relationship with various Dead-related projects over the years.
Hornsby began his solo career with the star-studded Harbor Lights album. The album included dozens of guests, including major names such as Jerry Garcia, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Collins, Branford Marsalis, and John D’earth. The heavily jazz-influenced album meant that commercial success was unlikely, but the album was critically acclaimed. He also won a Grammy for a collaboration with Marsalis entitled “Barcelona Mona.” His follow-up album, Hot House, was an album that attempted to fuse jazz and bluegrass. To this end, Hornsby enlisted more (although fewer high-profile) guests, including Bela Fleck, Chaka Khan, and, once again, Jerry Garcia.
Between Hot House and his next album, Hornsby began working with a variety of Dead-related projects, eventually participating in the initial Furthur Festivals as well as The Other Ones. His next solo album, Spirit Trails wasn’t released until 1998, although it was a double album comprised of a wealth of material. Hornsby continued to expand his repertoire, drawing on a wide variety of influences and genres for the album. Lyrically, Hornsby continued his tradition of exploring race relations and social issues in his songs, with great success.
After a decade of recording as a solo artist, Hornsby put together The Noisemakers to serve as his band. The first album they released was a double live album titled Here Come The Noisemakers which served as a coming-out party for the newly solidified lineup. The album included some of Hornsby’s best-known songs as well as common covers and new tunes. He continued to experiment with his next album, Big Swing Face. It’s the only Hornsby album where he doesn’t play piano, instead focusing on keyboards and electronic loops. It’s a difficult album to classify, and certainly not a typical Hornsby album.
Hornsby returned to his classic form with Halcyon Days, a piano-driven album featuring collaborations with Eric Clapton and Elton John. He toured extensively behind this album, and sold soundboard recordings of many of his shows. His next release, a 4-disc box set, was much more than a “Greatest Hits” package. Instead, Intersections (1985-2005) included never-before-heard collaborations, live versions of well-known Hornsby tracks, and a variety of unreleased material.
Hornsby released another album with The Noisemakers in 2009 but was also splitting time with a pair of new musical projects. He released a collaborative album with bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs in 2007 that included re-workings of Hornsby tunes as well as traditional bluegrass songs. He also formed the Bruce Hornsby Trio and released Camp Meeting in 2007. This jazz project also featured drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Christian McBride and was primarily an album of jazz covers
In recent years Hornsby has continued to record and tour both with The Noisemakers and go out on solo tours. His solo tours often find him moving from his wealth of hit songs to classical piano pieces and back again. This allows him to keep his live shows fresh and show off his range of abilities on the piano. Hornsby also returned to the Grateful Dead family one more time for the Fare Thee Well shows in San Francisco and Chicago.

Since the 80’s, Hornsby has made some amazing, diverse, and exploratory music. He has explored rock, folk, jazz, and bluegrass in ways that no other artist has, and he’s done it all with some of the best songwriting around as well as a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. He’s known for taking audience requests and forgoing setlists during his shows. Overall, Bruce Hornsby is an example of a musician moving towards exactly where he feels the music taking him as opposed to where he feels he should be going.


WinterWonderGrass Tahoe announces lineup
The various WinterWonderGrass festivals continue to announce their lineups. Tahoe’s lineup came out, and, as usual, it’s looking good. Headliners include Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, and Leftover Salmon. Other names include Sam Bush Band, ALO, Fruition, Billy Strings, The Travelin’ McCoury’s, Dead Winter Carpenters, Jeff Austin Band, and many others. The event will take place from March 29-31 at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.

Greensky Bluegrass announce album/tour
Greensky Bluegrass will release All For Money on January 18 and will be touring in support of the new release. The band announced a series of dates in January and February that include Circles Around the Sun and Billy Strings opening.

Jan 10 – Albany, NY – Palace Theater *
Jan 11 – Philadelphia, PA – The Met *
Jan 12 – New York, NY – Beacon Theater *
Jan 16 – Covington, KY – Madison Theatre *
Jan 17 – Nashville, TN – The Ryman *
Jan 18 – St. Louis, MO – The Pageant *
Jan 19 – Atlanta, GA – The Tabernacle *
Jan. 22 – St. Petersburg, FL. – Jannus Landing
Jan. 23 – Charleston, SC – Charleston Music Hall
Jan. 24 – Knoxville, Tenn. – The Mill & Mine
Jan. 25 – Raleigh, NC – The Ritz
Jan. 26 – Charlotte, NC – The Fillmore Charlotte
Jan. 29 – Portland, Maine – State Theatre^
Jan. 30 – Boston – House of Blues^
Jan 31 – Jim Thorpe, Penn. – Penn’s Peak^
Feb. 1&2 – Washington DC – The Anthem^
Feb. 5 – Cleveland, Ohio – House of Blues^
Feb. 6 – Columbus, Ohio – Express Live^
Feb. 7 – Pittsburgh, Penn. – Stage AE^
Feb. 8-9 – Detroit – The Fillmore

* w/ Circles Around the Sun
^ w/ Billy Strings


Hillberry Music Festival
October 11-14
Railroad Earth, Trampled By Turtles, Sam Bush, Lettuce, The Wood Brothers, The Infamous Stringdusters, Billy Strings, Split Lip Rayfield

Suwannee Hulaween
October 25-28
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
The String Cheese Incident, Jamiroquai, Odesza, The Revivalists, STS9, Lettuce, Trampled by Turtles, Medeski, Martin, & Wood, Galactic, Turkuaz, The Wood Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead

Hangtown Music Festival
October 25-28
Placerville, CA
Railroad Earth (3 Nights), The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Trampled By Turtles, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe presents Eat a Bunch of Peaches, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, The Infamous Stringdusters, Billy Strings, Pimps of Joytime

Strings & Sol
December 7-11
Puerto Morelos, MX
Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon

December 12-16
Puerto Morelos, MX
The Disco Biscuits, STS9, Umphrey’s McGee, Lotus, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Ghost Light

Winter Wondergrass Vermont
December 14-16
Stratton, VT
Railroad Earth, Infamous Stringdusters, Keller & The Keels, Fruition, Billy Strings, Kitchen Dwellers, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys

Tropical Throe.down
January 10-14
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
moe., The New Mastersounds, Big Something

Jam in the Sand
January 15-19
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
Dark Star Orchestra, The Wailers, Green Leaf Rustlers

International Incident
January 25-28
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
The String Cheese Incident, Keller Williams

Panic en la Playa Ocho
January 25-29
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds Riviera Maya
February 15-17
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Phish in Riviera Maya
February 21-23
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Winter Wondergrass Colorado
February 22-24
Steamboat Springs, CO
Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Billy Strings, The California Honeydrops, Della Mae with Bonnie Paine, Jeff Austin Band, The Shook Twins

Winter Wondergrass California
March 29-31
Squaw Valley, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, ALO, Fruition, Billy Strings, Jeff Austin Band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s

Bender Jamboree
April 11-14
Plaza Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, NV
Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Billy Strings

Lockn’ Festival
August 22-25
Arrington, VA


Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!