“I went to L.A. for 10 years — ’80 to ‘90. I got what I went there for and got the hell out,” Hornsby says, speaking by phone from his home. “My music was always based, lyrically, in this area and based on experience here. I always wanted to have a strong sense of place in my music like the Southern fiction that I love. So, I thought I’d come back here and get more story ideas and, sure enough, I became more prolific when I came back.”
On Friday, Nov. 13, Hornsby will return to Birmingham when he performs at the Alys Stephens Center. The 8 p.m. show will find Hornsby in a solo piano setting.
Though his singles including “The Way It Is” and “The Valley Road” have landed him on Top 40 radio, Hornsby’s career has been primarily defined by what he has avoided — categorization. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that no artist in the last century has collaborated with a more diverse list of artists than Hornsby. To date, he has recorded and performed with Ornette Coleman, Ricky Skaggs, Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Chaka Khan to name only a few.
“I’m a lifelong music student and I’m intellectually curious musically and in other areas, so I’m always interested in broadening my horizons. My interest in bluegrass and jazz music is longstanding. I was interested in those when I was 18 and now I’m almost 55. Friends of mine would call me out of the blue and say, ‘I’d like to work with you’ — that’s usually how it happened. It’s been a very natural process. It’s not something I was setting out to do. I wasn’t trying to be the great collaborator. People would call me — whether it was Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt or Bob Seger — because they liked what I do and they were moved by it and they wanted a piece of that feeling in their music,” Hornsby says.
In September, Hornsby released Levitate on Verve Records. The 12-track collection finds him backed by his touring band, The Noisemakers. In addition, Clapton joined Hornsby for the recording of the track “Space Is The Place.”
“It’s always hard for me to make records, so I’m relieved it’s behind me,” Hornsby admits. “I’ve never considered myself to be really very good at it — I always struggle with the record-making process, but most of my friends do too. I don’t mean to whine about it, but I like having the new songs to play. It’s a completely amorphous, nebulous and ever-evolving process. There’s no one answer to it and it does happen that the songs evolve through the process. Most everything is cut the old-fashioned way with a bunch of guys just playing in a room. There are a few songs cut just with loops, so every song requires a different casting. I tend to cast the songs like a film director would — who do I think would sound amazing playing on this song? I’ve been doing that ever since I disbanded the Range group and gave myself the freedom to bring in friends like Clapton, Pat Metheny, Bela Fleck and Chaka Khan. That’s always been an enjoyable aspect of what I do — I call them and up and they just come.”
In addition to releasing Levitate, Hornsby has added some new dimensions to his career. Earlier this year, he made his acting debut with a cameo appearance in the Robin Williams’ film World’s Greatest Dad. He is also scoring a prospective Broadway musical titled SCKBSTD with Chicago director Kathleen Marshall. Like many of his past musical endeavors, the SCKBSTD project came to Hornsby unexpectedly.
“I was approached in 2005 after the Halcyon Days record by a group called Playwrights Horizons in New York City that develops plays. They sent me a letter out of the blue that said, ‘The three songs in the middle of sound like Broadway music and we would like to commission you to write a play.’ I had no designs or ambitions in this area — it’s just like when I got the call to play with the Dead or Ricky [Skaggs]. I called them back and said, ‘I’m interested in this as long as it’s fun — when it gets to be a grind or a drag, I’m out.’ So far, it hasn’t become a grind and we’re pretty far down the road. Eight of the songs [from Levitate] are from the musical, but we have another 11 or 12 that are about done. There are some deals being made to have the play’s first run in Norfolk, Va. and Pasadena, Ca. I don’t have great expectations, but I do like where it’s led me songwriting-wise,” he says.
True to the improvisational nature that he has displayed throughout his career, Hornsby still enjoys the spontaneity of live performances. Shunning predetermined set lists at his shows, he also prefers to reinterpret the songs in his catalog.
“It wouldn’t stay fresh if I felt bound by the original recording. The standard scenario is to write and record a song and play it that same way for the rest of your life. That, to me, is such a creative prison and I could not do that, so I play the songs but I’m always changing them. If I play ‘The Valley Road’ in Birmingham, you’ll recognize the song but it’ll be very different from the record and the same with ‘The Way It Is.’ It’s obviously the song in every way, but it’s not tied to the record. I don’t approach songs like museum pieces like so many people do. I approach them like living beings that can grow and evolve and change and so they do,” he says.
Bruce Hornsby performs at the Alys Stephens Center at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13. Tickets cost $32-$52 for adults and $20 for students. Call (205) 975-2787 or visit www.alysstephens.org.