Although Bruce Hornsby is known primarily as a singer and pianist, he says he's not afraid of trying new things. This summer he'll release an album that has no piano and features him playing an unusual folk instrument.
It’s been more than 20 years since Bruce Hornsby bought his first dulcimer. It happened when he took his family to the Annual Old Fiddlers' Convention in Galax, Virginia. Although his wife vowed never to return and his children were only interested in taking in all the sugary sweets they could find, Hornsby couldn't resist picking up one of the stringed instruments at the Goose Acres booth.
"I just loved the ringing sound of it and the modal sound of it," Hornsby says. "There are no thirds in the instrument, at least in the tuning. It's all fifths."
He points to "Over the Rise," the opening track on Rehab Reunion, his new album with the band The Noisemakers, as an example of what he first heard in the dulcimer.
"It was that hypnotic thing that pervades the track," he says.
The instrument is not new to his recordings. He first used it on "Shadow Hand," a track from the 1998 release Spirit Trail, and dulcimer has long become a staple of his live shows with The Noisemakers. He has continued to write with it in hand since the 1990s, finding its limitations—four strings and precious few notes—inspiring.
"Those limitations force me to write simple music, and that's never a bad thing," he says. "When I play the piano, I'm interested in virtuosity on that instrument. But since I'm not good at the dulcimer it's not about virtuosity. It’s about songs. I'm always interested in writing a song that moves me and hopefully moves other people whether at a soulful, deeper level or at a comedic one."
Over time, he was able to stockpile a series of tunes that were right for a dulcimer-centered album. Fans will get their chance to hear that album on June 17 when Rehab Reunion hits stores. There’s a new version of Hornsby’s classic “The Valley Road,” a piece originally from his 1988 album, Scenes from the Southside. Another track, “Celestial Railroad,” was written in the 1990s but has remained unreleased until now. Reminiscent of The Band’s “The Weight,” “Celestial Railroad” was written with The Staple Singers in mind.
"Through Bonnie Raitt I got the song to them," he says. "They liked it and started to work it up and started to record it but then never finished it."
He adds that he was surprised when, a few years ago, he ran into Mavis Staples while playing in Chicago.
"I was opening for Bonnie and Mavis saw me. She walked up to me and started singing the song," he says. "That was a great moment."
He tracked the song in late 2014 and invited Staples to sing on it. She said she’d be more than happy to lend her talents to the tune, so Hornsby flew to Chicago and spent an afternoon in the studio with the R&B and gospel legend.
"It was so easy for her," he says. "Most of the time we sat there, cracking up, just making each other laugh. We had an instant musical connection and an instant personal connection, too."
He adds that aside from that session, his greatest personal satisfaction came from her reaction to the finished cut.
"She sent me this beautiful email," he says, "full of exclamation points."
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver also appears on Rehab Reunion, and both men are featured on a new Grateful Dead tribute album, Day of the Dead, which was spearheaded by the band The National. Hornsby's participation in the tribute project seems only right given his track record as a touring member of the Grateful Dead. Not only did he perform extensively with the band during its final years, but he also participated in 2015’s Fare Thee Well shows, which marked 20 years since the Dead’s final gigs with guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia.
His relationship with the San Francisco band was a fruitful one, Hornsby says, and not just musically. After his first few runs with the group, he started attracting a new fan base. He recalls hanging out with Garcia after he’d been on the road with own band for a spell.
“I said, ‘We’ve got a lot of Deadheads now at our shows.’ He said, ‘Yeah, man, you’ve got the curse now. They’ll never leave,'" Hornsby says.
It seems appropriate then that the record should feature a song co-written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The track, "Tropical Cashmere Sweater," marks the fourth collaboration between them even though they've not set eyes upon each other in nearly two decades.
"I've loved his lyrics since I was in high school, and I'm so lucky to be on the list of people he may be interested in writing with," Hornsby adds.
Well over 20 years after Hornsby played with The Dead for the first time, there are those who remain critical of the move. He says he’s aware of those who were eager to cast him as a Top 40 act who didn’t belong. Still, for many, he quickly proved himself a welcome addition to the Dead camp, adding a certain fire to performances at a time when the unit was drifting musically. Later, Hornsby worked extensively in the jazz and bluegrass idioms. Sure, he says, “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain” became staples of popular radio in the 1980s but, in many ways, they didn’t belong there.
"Those songs that were hits, but that wasn't Top 40 music," he offers. "Our first hit was a song about racism with two jazz piano solos—not one but two improvised solos. They were so not the formula. It was a wonderful accident that they got on the radio," he says. "But, a whole lot of people typecast you when you have hits, and you're instantly dismissed by them. But if you just listen to the music you can say, 'This doesn't sound like Top 40 music.'
"Yeah, I've moved in lots of different directions," he adds, "but you could see those directions in those first two singles."
He points to his subsequent work with Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Ricky Skaggs and, later, Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette.
"It was all there at the beginning—just not as well-developed as it became later," he says. "But I can't expect other people to see it as clearly. I'm a musician. I'm deeply involved with this. I can connect the dots and see the evolution and the origins. I shouldn’t expect other people to be able to do that."
Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers appear at The Orpheum Theatre Tuesday, May 17.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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