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Bruce Hornsby - the 10 albums that changed my life: “It’s amazing how much impact one song can have”

Bruce Hornsby
(Image credit: Sarah Walor)

“It’s amazing how much impact one song can have,” says Bruce Hornsby. “More people know about you, so more people buy your records. Your face is on TV. Suddenly, this unknown guy from Williamsburg, Virginia is getting invited to the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Overnight, my life was completely turned upside down.”

Elton John burst into the room wearing a Tina Turner wig.

Hornsby is, of course, talking about his worldwide hit, The Way It Is. Charting first in the UK in 1986, it was a number one in the US and became the most played song on American radio the following year.

During that first visit to the UK, Hornsby and his band, The Range, appeared on Wogan - Terry Wogan’s hugely popular TV chat show. To his surprise, one of the other guests was very keen to meet him.

“I was sitting in my dressing room and I heard this voice coming down the corridor. ‘Bruce Hornsby. Where the fuck is Bruce Hornsby? I want to see him.’ It was the most surreal moment of my life. Elton John burst into the room wearing a Tina Turner wig. He threw his arms around me and told me how much he liked my music. Elton John is a fan! I couldn’t believe it.”

Bruce Hornsby’s early years were filled with music. His grandfather was a professional musician; his older brother, Bobby, introduced him to underground grooves like Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction; and the local Virginia radio stations were playing everything from Stevie Wonder to Peter, Paul and Mary.

“I realised very early on that I wasn’t just interested in one type of music,” explains 65-year-old Hornsby. “Didn’t matter if it was jazz, soul, rock, folk, country, schmaltzy pop. My appetite was voracious, and I loved the fact that music didn’t seem to have any boundaries. If you wanted to listen to Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis and Glen Campbell… hey, no problem.

“And that became even more important when I started writing my own songs. Let’s take a bit of this, a bit of this, some of that. My own songs were a sum total of all the music that I listened to.”

After graduating from college, Hornsby shuttled between Virginia and LA, joining various bands, offering his services as a session player and scoring soundtracks for 20th Century Fox. But his own songs started drawing ever-larger crowds and eventually landed him a record deal in 1985.

“Late starter, eh?” he laughs. “I was 30 when I finally got a record deal. Then we released The Way It Is and everything went crazy. What still intrigues me today is that the song wasn’t a typical Top 40 hit. It was about racism and homelessness, and it featured two improvised solos. Apart from maybe Mark Knopfler, you didn’t hear much improvisation on daytime radio.”

With a hit under his belt and some cash in the bank, it would have been easy for Hornsby to sit back and churn out endless variations on the same theme, but his 30-plus year career - his new album, Non Secure Connection, is released today - has been remarkably diverse.

There’s been an album with bluegrass legend, Ricky Skaggs. Sparse, Aaron Copland-inspired soundtrack work with Spike Lee. He was part of the Grateful Dead’s live band in the ‘80s and guested on albums by Bob Dylan, Squeeze and Crosby, Still and Nash. Pat Metheny and Brandford Marsalis slot comfortably into his jazz-tinged 1993 album, Harbor Lights. And last year’s Absolute Zero album featured Bon Iver, English folk trio, The Staves, and jazz legend, Jack DeJohnette.

“You can’t live in the past, making the same album time after time,” he says with a shake of his head. “It’s not interesting for the audience and it’s not interesting for me. I listen to a lot of different music and that makes me want to experiment with new sounds and styles. As a musician, I believe you have always got to be looking forward… moving forward. Embrace what’s out there.

Bruce Hornsby: the 10 albums that changed my life

1. Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection, 1970

“I was 17 years old and riding over to York Town, Virginia with my older brother, Bobby. He had an 8-Track cassette machine in his car, and he played me this album. Song after song, it kept hitting me… Amoreena, Ballad of a Well-Known Gun, Burn Down the Mission.

“I had piano lessons when I was a kid, but this was the album that took me back to the piano. I got serious. In the process of learning every one of those songs, I began to find my own style. This was where it all started.’

2. Leon Russell - Leon Live, 1972

“The first time I heard Leon was on the Joe Cocker album, Mad Dogs & Englishman. And I loved his playing so much that I became a huge fan.

“I could have picked any one of his albums, but this gives you so many of his great songs in one sitting. And the energy of the live show is unbelievable. If you saw Leon back in the early-’70s, it was out of this world.

“You can still feel Leon’s music reflected in my songs like Rainbow’s Cadillac, which we play in Leon’s style.”

3. Keith Jarrett - Facing You, 1972

“As I became a serious music fan, I started to pick up all the magazines… Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone. And I read a review of two new records by a pianist called Keith Jarrett. One was Expectations and the other was a solo piano record, Facing You. It was an import, so I couldn’t get it in my local store, but I found a copy in Boston when I was looking at colleges. 

“Up until that point, jazz wasn’t really on my radar, so this was an amazing step forward. It opened me up to a whole new box of harmonic knowledge and melodicism, but you also had this killer gospel/blues groove on tracks like In Front.

“This became a bridge from Elton and Leon to the more complex jazz like Bill Evans and my next album.”

4. Bill Evans - Montreux II, 1970

“So, I’m getting interested in jazz and I see this album in the record store. I didn’t know anything about Bill Evans, but I bought it on a whim.

“Bill was my introduction to what you might call a more traditional jazz sound, but it’s based on some of the great American standards like I Hear a Rhapsody. Maybe that was what drew me in.

“After hearing this album, I went headlong into the jazz world. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner. In my first year of college, I wrote Chick a letter and he actually sent me some sheet music. Later on, I got to know him, and we always used to laugh about that.”

5. McCoy Tyner - Song of the New World, 1973

“The thing about McCoy is that he had his own original take on jazz. Most people know him as the pianist for John Coltrane and he played on one of the ‘great’ jazz records, A Love Supreme.

“He recorded this with an orchestra - a small orchestra, I believe - but then you’ve got his intense playing on top of that.

“McCoy used quartal harmony; chords in the intervals of fourths. This was a completely new sound for me and, yet again, I was broadening my palette of sounds.

“I managed to sneak some McCoy-esque chords into The Valley Road, a single from our second album. Whenever I hear it, I always think, ‘How did I get away with that on mainstream radio?’”

6. Joni Mitchell - Hejira, 1976

“This is Joni’s road record. She wrote it on a long car journey, with just her guitar for company. It’s a record that speaks to you. It takes you to a beautiful, cinematic landscape and it holds you there for the entire record. I’ve never made an album like this, but it moves me every time I hear it.

“Can I add one more track from Joni? It’s off the following album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and it’s called Paprika Plains. There’s a middle section which is harmonically quite dissonant and that seemed to bother a few of Joni’s fans. Not me! That’s when it starts getting interesting.”

7. Rickie Lee Jones - Pirates, 1981

“Some might say that Rickie Lee Jones and Joni Mitchell are kindred spirits. They both have a jazzy side to their music and their lyrics are… well, they could stand alone as poetry. Yeah, you’ve got the big single, Chuck E’s in Love, but if you want to find the real Rickie Lee, try this album. There’s the powerful opener, We Belong Together; the doo-wop-jive of Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking.

“This album gave me chills 40 years ago, and it still does today.”

8. The Band – Rock of Ages, 1972/Grateful Dead - Europe ’72, 1972

“You gotta let me have two albums for this slot because I could not choose between them. Both of these are live albums and the performances are out of this world.

“Rock of Ages was the first Band record I owned and every time a friend was over at my house, this was the album I played.

“When you listen to The Band, it’s almost as if you’re reaching into America’s past. Some of these songs sound like they could have been written 150 years ago. And it’s the same with the Dead. Ramble On Rose… Tennessee Jed. What you’re hearing is old time American folk songs written in the modern era.

“There are a lot of Dead albums out there, but the period from Workingman’s Dead, through American Beauty to Europe ’72 is them at their absolute peak.”

9. Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Ligeti: Complete Etudes/Ursula Oppens - Oppens Plays Carter

“Sorry, guys. This needs to be another two for one. György Ligeti was a Hungarian composer and, for me, his Études are the greatest of the 20th Century. And Elliott Carter was an American composer who showed us all how to get deep into the music. Even though he lived till 103, this guy never stopped pushing the envelope.

“These are both what you would call modern classical and, yeah, I understand that this music doesn’t appeal to everyone. But I’ve always had a penchant for atonality and listening to these albums gave me the idea of introducing some adventurous, angular harmonics into my own music. Much to some of my fans’ chagrin!”

10. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music

“And here we are… full circle. A legendary compendium of gutbucket, spit ‘n’ sawdust field recordings. We started out with Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection, which pulled some of its inspiration from the deep well of traditional American music, and this takes us right back to the source.

“What have we got on here? Clarence Ashley; The Carter Family; Blind Willie Johnson; soaring gospel from the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers; skanky, old country blues from Dock Boggs. People call this the sound of old, weird America. And I am a big fan of the old, weird America!”