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Concert preview: Bruce Hornsby plays it all
Date published: 7/26/2012
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
From 1986 to 1991, Bruce Hornsby was one of the most popular musicians in America. Don Henley enlisted his help in writing "The End of the Innocence." Bonnie Raitt recruited him to play piano on "I Can't Make You Love Me." Hornsby had his own hits, too, including "Mandolin Rain," "The Valley Road" and the chart-topping smash "The Way It Is."
His success helped popularize the so-called "Virginia sound," a hybrid of rock, folk, jazz and bluegrass. It didn't really matter that Hornsby, a Williamsburg native, put a photo of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on the cover of his debut album. You could hear the bay in his music, in his lyrics, in the way every piano flourish seemed to conjure up images of Tidewater.
Then, after dominating the charts for half a decade, Hornsby began to move in a different direction. He ditched his mainstream sound, dived into more experimental music and joined the Grateful Dead's touring lineup. His commercial success took a dip, but according to the songwriter himself, it was the right move to make.
"The old music was much more regionalist in its bent," he said, "which was exactly what I was going for. My first four records were all a different version of 'Our Town,' filled with stories emanating from Williamsburg and the larger area where I grew up. I kinda moved away from that, though, because it started to feel confining."
So what kind of music does Hornsby play now? "I write odd songs about having great-looking parents," he said with a laugh, "and how people look at a picture of them, glance back at me and say, 'Hey, what happened to you?'"
To be fair, he does a bit more than that.
Thanks to his association with the Grateful Dead, as well as an ongoing collaboration with Dead co-founder Bob Weir, Hornsby has become a veteran of the jam band scene. He's a jazz pianist, too, willing to throw dissonant chords and complex, chromatic scales into his songs. He's also a bluegrass musician, a colleague of Ricky Skaggs and the leader of several different bands, all of whom cater to one or more aspects of his musical personality.