If you know Bruce Hornsby only from “The Way It Is,” his chart-topping 1986 single with the Range, you don’t know Bruce Hornsby.
In the 35 years since, the singer-songwriter-keyboardist has toured with the Grateful Dead; produced Leon Russell; appeared on albums by Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Brandon Flowers of the Killers, Bob Dylan and Sting; and composed music for Spike Lee films. He’s also delved into other genres, including bluegrass with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Ricky Skaggs, and jazz with Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden and Marian McPartland.
“I’ve never been one to stand still creatively,” Hornsby says.
Most recently he’s turned to younger musicians, such as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Jamila Woods and James Mercer of the Shins, for inspiration and collaborations. Hornsby’s 2020 album, Non-Secure Connection, features those artists as well as music veterans such as Vernon Reid and the late Leon Russell.
“I’m in a groove,” says Hornsby, 66. “This is one of the most beautiful times in my career — a time of great validation and affirmation for some of the strangest, most adventurous and, in some cases, weirdest music of my career.” Much of the music on his last few albums, Hornsby says, has started as music cues for Spike Lee films.
He readily admits that the first single from Non-Secure Connection, “My Resolve,” was influenced by the Shins’ “Split Needles,” a song on the band’s 2007 album, Wincing the Night Away. “It had this angular synth line,” Hornsby says. “I decided to make mine a little more angular than theirs, but the same idea.” Since Mercer’s song was the inspiration, Hornsby contacted him and asked if he’d like to collaborate on the track. “He heard the song and said yes, so it was as simple as that,” Hornsby says. “We sent him the files. He performed his version and slotted it in. It was very simple and very natural. We’ve actually never met in person, but we’ve become great phone friends.”
While Hornsby has recently worked with younger artists, back when he was trying to break through in the early ’80s he was the new kid on the block, turning to more experienced musicians for help. “I learned so much from stepping into their worlds back then and with all their amazing experience and record-making and studio expertise.”
Born and raised in Williamsburg, Virginia, Hornsby attended the University of Miami before relocating to the San Fernando Valley in 1980 with his younger brother and collaborator, John. Initially, the pair wrote music for 20th Century Fox. By 1984, Hornsby had formed the Range. “On my first record, stylistically, we were trying to do our own version of what the Band did,” he recalls. “That’s why it was so much fun when I [later] reached out to Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Rick Danko. That was really fulfilling to work with those guys.”
While with the Range, Hornsby came to the attention of the Grateful Dead. He says the Dead was impressed by the way he and the Range were able to work their way up to headline shows with one nine-song album, stretching out their set with choice covers. In 1987, the Dead invited Hornsby and the Range to open a two-night stand in Monterey, California, and they continued that arrangement for five years.
Eventually, Hornsby went on to sit in with the Dead at least six times, and when keyboardist Brent Mydland died in 1990, Hornsby got the call to tour with the band, leading him to play more than 100 dates with the Dead.
“A lot of my more mainstream friends didn’t understand why I wanted to play with them,” he says. “I just kept telling my songwriter friends, ‘You don’t understand. They have 15 songs that are just transcendent songs, as good as any I’ve ever heard.’”
Some might say the same about Hornsby. The appeal of his biggest hit, “The Way It Is,” which famously references the Civil Rights Act of 1964, might be best illustrated by the fact it has been rerecorded and incorporated into several hip-hop tracks, including 2Pac’s “Changes” in 1998, Snoop Dogg’s “Can’t Say Goodbye” in 2008 and last year by Polo G in “Wishing for a Hero.” The pair joined forces late last year for a performance at Bonnaroo’s Virtual ROO-ality live stream. “Polo G and grandpa playing together,” Hornsby jokes, before getting serious for a moment. “It just keeps on being reinvented, which adds so much life to the original song. I’m proud of all of them.”
Guest Playlist by Bruce Hornsby
Throughout his more than 35-year career, Bruce Hornsby has turned to collaborators — both young and old. In this playlist, he picked his favorites, ranging from his recent work with James Mercer of the Shins and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to older faves, including his collaborations with Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley and Bob Dylan.
Read about his picks here, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
My Resolve, performed with James Mercer
“For this Sisyphean tale of the ups and downs of the creative life I asked the great James Mercer from the Shins to duet with me; I’ve loved his music for years but never met him. He said yes and here’s the result, from our new record, Non-Secure Connection.”
Bright Star Cast, performed with Jamila Woods
“Also from the new record, this second duet features Jamila Woods, a young woman of great gravitas who, along with Vernon Reid on guitar, really moved the song to a higher place.”
U (Man Like), performed by Bon Iver
“Wrote this song with Justin Vernon, the visionary leader of Bon Iver, for their latest record, i,i. Like the last song, it was written from a piece of film music I had written for longtime collaborator Spike Lee.”
Celestial Railroad, performed with Mavis Staples
“I had written this song originally for the Staples Singers in 1994, and they had worked on it but never completed it to Pop Staples’ satisfaction. Years later (2015) I decided to finally record it myself and asked Mavis Staples to sing with me, flying out to Chicago to record her. What a joyful experience!”
Cast-Off, performed with Justin Vernon
“Justin and I wrote this song (from 2019’s Absolute Zero) at his studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 2018, and recorded it with his very strong local coterie of musicians, featuring Sean Carey, Brad Cook, Mike Lewis, JT Bates and Jeremy Ylvisaker.”
Go Back to Your Woods, performed with Robbie Robertson
“Robbie and I wrote this song for his second solo album, Storyville, recorded it with the Meters in New Orleans, made a video there, played it live at the Seville, Spain, Guitar Legends festival, and brought it out again on Saturday Night Live — an amazing ride.”
I Can’t Make You Love Me, performed with Bonnie Raitt
“My big sister in music Bonnie Raitt asked me to play on this record that I consider to be her iconic hit song. Recorded quickly at Ocean Way Studios in L.A. with Don Was producing, this is a truly special song sung by one of the great singers.”
T.V. Talkin’ Song, performed with Bob Dylan
“Also recorded at Ocean Way under the helm of D. Was, this truly memorable session yielded this spontaneous performance, created and performed off the cuff during a between-songs jamming moment.”
Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse, performed with Warren Zevon
“Warren asked me to play accordion on this great old-time folky song he’d written, along with a song called “Piano Fighter.” He liked the idea of having me play on a song with that title and not play piano!”
Radar, performed with Chris Whitley
“I loved Chris Whitley, one of my all-time favorite artists. He called me out of blue to give compliments on my [then-]recent live record Here Come the Noise Makers, and told me he had just finished a record. He said he wished he’d gotten me to do something on it, and I told him to send me the already-mastered record and I’d play over it. They wild-synced this piano ‘coda’ I played onto the completed master and then put it out!”
Love Me Still, performed with Chaka Khan
“Chaka called me asking if I’d write a song with her, and flew down to Virginia to collaborate. Around the same time Spike Lee reached out asking for an end-title song for his upcoming movie Clockers, so I sent him this duet and it fit the bill for him. We made a video in Harlem in which he wrapped various surrounding buildings à la the artist Christo.”
The End of the Innocence, performed with Don Henley
“Out of the blue I received a call from Don asking to write a song together. I recorded a track of this musical idea that had not been fully realized. He came to my house where I played it for him, and he called me from his car (he had one of the early giant cellphones) to exclaim that he seemed to be writing half the song in his car on the drive back from my house to his!”
Cluck Ol’ Hen, performed with Ricky Skaggs
“My time playing with my country soul brother R. Skaggs is one of the most special, enjoyable chapters of my career. This live album captures our collaboration and the spirit and virtuosity of Ricky and his amazing band.”
Camp Meeting, performed with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette
“My only ‘jazz’ record. Making music with these titans of the music was a daunting, challenging and extremely fulfilling experience. Opening with an Ornette Coleman song he had taught me in 1995 at his studio in Harlem, we created a stylistically varied program in which I attempted to find my own stylistic approach and point of view.”
See instructions below on how to add the playlist to your phone or tablet.
GET THE PLAYLIST
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your device. Here's how:
- Download and open the free Spotify app on your phone or tablet.
- In the app, tap Search.
- Click the camera icon.
- Scan the barcode above, then tap the arrow to listen.