‘The Way It Is,’ a candid talk with Bruce Hornsby

Many know pianist songwriter Bruce Hornsby for his ‘80s hits "The Way It Is" and "Mandolin Rain." Many may not know that he co-wrote one of Don Henley's biggest hits, "The End of the Innocence."

Hornsby’s career has taken him from rock star to side man (as keyboardist for the Grateful Dead) and from pop to jazz to bluegrass.

He calls his path a natural progression. While there have been mistakes along the way, Hornsby has gotten to live his dream.

His openness and grounded nature made him one of my favorite interviews. The following are highlights from a conversation we had a few years back. 

Gene: You’ve said being a pop artist didn't seem to be a viable way to go for you because few pop artists have longevity.

Bruce: I had to make a choice. Our first record came out and broke in England on BBC Radio 1 with the song "The Way It Is." Then it broke in Holland and then throughout Europe and then throughout the rest of the world and then in the United States and then all of a sudden we sold about 100,000 records just on the old rock radio...We were doing just fine at that point. But all of a sudden this thrust us into this Top 40 world. Then we kept on having hits. Two on that record and two on the next record and another one on the next record. We became sort of typecast as that.

Gene: Did you try to dismantle that typecast or did you ignore it?

Bruce: I didn't react or dismantle it. I just went about my own merry musical way working with artists who wanted to work with me and then calling people up to have them work on my record. I was a musician—not just in the rock world. I started moving into other areas, most notably, of course, the jazz and the country worlds. So, I started making bluegrass records.

Gene: When you were young whom did you look to and say, "I want to do that!"?

Bruce: If you came into my room in high school when I started getting into the piano, which was late, junior year of high school, the posters you would see on my wall would have been Leon Russell, Elton John, The Band, Grateful Dead, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea. Those would've been the people you would've seen in it. So what's so beautiful about it all these years later is, I ended up, as my younger brother said, I ended up sort of painting myself into the mural that I was looking at as a kid. Because all of these people—with the exception of Bill Evans who died in 1980—I ended up either being friends with or working with.

Gene: So how did you wind up working with the Grateful Dead in the 90s?

Bruce: We got a call out of the blue from our booking agent saying, "The Grateful Dead wants you to open for them at two shows in Monterey, California at Laguna Seca Racetrack. May of 1987, if you went to the concert, the Dead show, you heard Ry Cooder, my band and the Dead. That was two days in ‘87, and then the next year they asked us to open some more shows. But then they asked me to sit in with them after we'd open. Then the next year, ‘89, they got us to open some more shows and I'd sit in with them a little more. Then I started sitting in with them when I wasn't opening for them. We just became friends with just a growing relationship.

Gene: Did it feel surreal to you?

Bruce: Well I think it probably did a little bit. I started with them winging it at Madison Square Garden with no rehearsal, just came in off the street and started playing with them. They were buying me out of gigs so I would play with them. Garcia and I were good friends. I think if you saw us play, saw me play with the Dead, you could see that it was a real palpable connection—easily seen between the two of us. It was surreal. I think it was more surreal to the people who had followed our old Grateful Dead cover band, the Octane Kids. It was probably more surreal for them to see me now 16 years later playing in that group at the Garden. I think that was certainly surreal for them.

Gene: Was there something that you learned from that or took away from that experience?

Bruce: I learned so much from them. I learned so much from Garcia. He was a walking encyclopedia of folk music. I learned a lot about that whole area of music that I hadn't been so knowledgeable in. I've always loved their songs. I think they're underrated as songwriters, because I was influenced as a songwriter by their songwriting, also their approach to playing songs, which made it possible for the songs to become new and grow and evolve. Those two elements were the most influential elements on my music.

Gene: All these different roles that you've had, whether it be in a jam band or as a songwriter or as a solo artist—is there one role that you feel more comfortable in than another?

Bruce: Comfortable, no. They are such different pursuits. Songwriting is the most difficult—to try to write a song just out of the air that you think really resonates and really moves people, that's really hard. Also, the recording process, I've never been good at it. I don't consider myself to be a good record maker. I try hard, but it's always been difficult for me. So I think probably the area that comes most naturally for me is playing live. I think that's what I consider myself to be the best at.

Gene: If you could go back and give yourself advice at any point in your career what would you tell yourself?

Bruce: Oh, I have lots of regrets, lots of records that I've made that I think could have been better. It's hard to have a perspective on your music when you're writing, in the middle of it. I guess I would tell myself to try to work harder at having that perspective. I've always been a pretty tough self critic and I think that's the way to go, frankly.

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