STORY WRITTEN BY CHRIS CAMERON
For Digital First Media
Country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs and renowned pianist and songwriter Bruce Hornsby are back touring with Skaggs’ band, Kentucky Thunder on new material and bluegrass classics. The Grammy award winning pair share a love of mountain music, delivering a show full of high-lonesome sound, full throttle blusegrass picking, and improvisational piano.
In a recent email interview, Hornsby shared stories about his collaboration with Skaggs and other musicians and reflected on his career.
QUESTION: You and Ricky have been playing and recording together on and off for a number of years. What is it about your musical styles that complement each other?
HORNSBY: Ricky is a very open-minded musician, interested in a broad range of music. It was never a challenge collaborating with him. I don’t do just one thing, and neither does he, so it’s easy to explore lots of musical areas together.
Q: What’s the format for the show like?
HORNSBY: The set list is made based on tempo pacing and finding a good back-and-forth balance between the “Ricky” songs and the “Bruce” songs. It’s a beautiful blurry picture frankly because he sings my songs in some cases, and I sing his.
Q: Your songs blend a variety of styles, but since there’s definitely a heavy bluegrass influence with Kentucky Thunder, where did your appreciation for that style of music begin?
HORNSBY: I was a fan of bluegrass music in particular because bluegrass festivals were known to be the place to go during my college years where the most beautiful hippie girls congregated. That was the initial draw for me, but then I found that I loved the music. The tempos, the virtuosity, and the great songs drew me in, and I’ve loved the music ever since.
Q: Your latest album with the Noisemakers, “Rehab Reunion” was released just last year. Is it difficult to manage touring with the Noisemakers and Kentucky Thunder with just a few weeks between shows?
HORNSBY: No, not difficult, but they are very different areas of musical expression. For the bluegrass concerts I have to hit the woodshed intensely, setting the metronome to break-neck tempos and practicing for hours to get my chops to a presentable place that allows me to hang with the freaks of Kentucky Thunder (Ricky being the main freak!).
Q: Speaking of freaks, when you and Ricky recorded “Superfreak” on your initial collaboration it seemed like an odd cover choice, but as an amusing bluegrass cover it works. How did that cover come into existence?
HORNSBY: A great singer-songwriter friend named Mike Duke, who used to play with Delbert McClinton and wrote a couple of hits for Huey Lewis, sang the “Bluegrass Super Freak” to me one time years ago, just the first few lines. I arranged the rest myself, for better or worse. I always thought it was hilarious, so years later I threw it out there to Ricky, and he surprised me by being game to try it. And it was so great to be able to get one of our mutual favorites, John Anderson, to sing on it with us!
Q: I read that as a child you received music lessons in a funeral home. Did playing music at an early age help you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
HORNSBY: No, not at all. Maybe it was the less-than-inspiring funeral parlor milieu that cured me of piano lessons after a year or so. I was more of a jock as a kid, but always played music (mostly guitar), and became deeply involved in the piano at age 17.
Q: Did you feel pressure early on in your career to write hit singles or did you write what you wanted without focusing on whether or not the songs would become commercial successes?
HORNSBY: RCA Records, my label for eighteen years (1985-2003), was always very supportive of my musical evolution, and I was interested in stretching and moving to new stylistic places as an “artist”. Since I was going to experiment and work with different musicians through the years anyway, this situation was very nice for me, as I was left alone and allowed to do what I wanted. Lucky!
Q: A number of years ago you wrote the song “The Don of Dons” and performed it live. Has that song taken on new meaning with the presidential inauguration?
HORNSBY: “The Don of Dons” is a song about Donald Trump written about 2009. I sang it to him courtside at a Knicks game around that time, and he seemed to like it (and then gave me two of his business cards). I don’t sing it very often; some people mistake it to be a negative song about Mr. Trump, and I get nasty letters from them based on their assumption and uninformed idea of the song’s content.
Q: Your good friend Leon Russell passed away last year. How did his friendship and his music influence your craft?
HORNSBY: Leon was one of my true heroes as a young musician trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. I thought I could perform a good Leon imitation until I started hanging with him; I realized then that it was way deeper than I thought. I learned a lot from him, and will always cherish the time I spent with him — a great character, and a soulful musical presence.
Q: This is probably a broad question, but you’ve performed with so many musicians over the years, performed on tribute records and in some memorable concerts. Are there a few collaborations or performances that you look back on with fondness?
HORNSBY: There are, as you say, so many special events and moments that it’s difficult to single out just a few, but I’ll try. Last year’s “Fare Thee Well” Grateful Dead concerts were amazing, what a buzz to be part of the engine driving that incredible deadhead concert train, often transcendent. Playing on some special records like Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, Bob Dylan’s “Under The Red Sky”, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, co-writing Don Henley’s “End Of The Innocence”, working for years (1992-2017) with Spike Lee on his films, playing bluegrass with Ricky Skaggs for the last ten years, the Dead in the early ‘90s, recording with Sting, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride, working with Justin Vernon lately, and on and on.