We've Got A File On You

We’ve Got A File On You: Bruce Hornsby

The '80s hitmaker and shape-shifting pianist on Spike Lee, movie cameos, the Dead, and more

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

There are some legacy artists that exist in a funny place. They became famous off a couple hits once upon a time, they had a hand in some enduring songs, but there’s a whole mountain of stories to their career that never touch the mainstream. Bruce Hornsby is a household name still, based off some pop singles that were big then and never really strayed from the radio. But as his committed fanbase knows, the real narrative of his career is far richer and more complex than most realize.

Yes, there’s “The Way It Is,” and his role in other people’s mega-hits, like Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” or Don Henley’s “The End Of The Innocence.” But those are almost a blip in Hornsby’s career. As he entered the ’90s, Hornsby began to push the boundaries of his music and his piano playing, delving into jazz and folk traditions and bluegrass and playing with the Grateful Dead. He’s still unfairly lumped into a kind of adult-contemporary idea of late ’80s/early ’90s pop, but his association with the Dead might be a more telling aspect of his work — his career has been multi-faceted, exploratory, with shows that might include contemporary classical works flowing freely into pop hits or blues standards.

Hornsby is also a prolific collaborator, with his list of credits including a pretty daunting array of songwriters. There’s the aforementioned Raitt and Henley tracks, but there’s also Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks. There’s his early days in Sheena Easton’s band all the way up to him working with a younger generation of artists, from Justin Vernon to Brandon Flowers. And outside of all that, he’s also built a close-knit relationship with Spike Lee, contributing songs or score to many of the director’s projects from the past 20-odd years.

There is way too much in Hornsby’s career to cover it all in one interview, even one that’s specifically intended to collect odds and ends from across an almost 40 year span. Earlier this year, Hornsby released his latest album, Absolute Zero; it had a list of collaborators that actually summed up a bit of the variety in his work. With Hornsby on the road promoting his new collection, we spoke about how he arrived here, and tried to touch on all the disparate places he’s appeared, and how they might still offer some throughlines for all his varied musical output.

“Voyager One” (2019)

STEREOGUM: This song features yMusic, one of many collaborators on Absolute Zero. You have all these different people involved in the album — Justin Vernon, the Staves, Jack DeJohnette, Robert Hunter — that happen to tie together all these disparate elements of your career over the decades. When you start to approach a new project this far in, do you set out to bring all that with you? Is it more happenstance?

BRUCE HORNSBY: Every record is different. In this case, it was a very different approach for me. It stems from the other hat I wear in my career, lately, in the last 11 years. I’ve been scoring movies for Spike Lee and his Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It. I’ve written about 230-plus different pieces of music for these many projects. These pieces can range from one minute long to four or five minutes long, and through the years I would always earmark certain cues as being special in the sense that they sounded like they wanted to become songs.

About a year and a half ago, I had my engineer make me a file of 14 pieces of music, film cues, that I thought sounded like songs. I wrote most of this record to film cues, which is a completely different way of working and composing than I’d ever done. It shows the symbiotic relationship, lately, between my singer-songwriter world and my film-scoring world, and how they can connect in a beautiful way, hopefully. I had all this lyric information, inspired by the books that I read, whether they are books about science or modern novels, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. I had this notebook filled with all these ideas coming from the reading I do, so my charge here was to, in some strange intangible way, meld the lyrical content with the music. It was a completely different way of working, and I think it yielded a different type of music. So this project is very different than anything I’ve done in that way. I think that explains why it has a different feeling and sound.

STEREOGUM: I had seen you mention DeLillo and Wallace. What draws you to those particular writers to the point that they provided lyrical inspiration?

HORNSBY: I think they’re genius writers. I’m moved by what they do. It’s always amazing for me to read a great writer’s description of a thimble, or a faucet. Something very quotidian, ordinary. They describe it in a way that makes you see something you’ve been looking at all your life in a different way. That’s very special, very difficult. It kind of crushes me in a beautiful way when I come across certain passages like this. I would earmark these passages.

Don DeLillo I can be very specific about. I had a song title I liked, “Absolute Zero.” I thought it was interesting, but I needed to find a way into what that would be about. This became clear to me when Don DeLillo released his book Zero K a couple years ago; absolute zero is minus 273 on the Celsius scale, or Zero K. I got ideas from that, and put them together into this cryonic fantasy that is the song “Absolute Zero.” That was specifically a DeLillo inspiration.

The “Wallace moment” on this album is the song “White Noise.” It’s a song about tax return examiners and CPAs as American heroes. I just thought that was a very interesting idea, and it comes from his great unfinished novel The Pale King. That’s my Wallace novel. I know the mainstream, Infinite Jest is the iconic work. But for me, The Pale King is the best. Musically, “White Noise” was originally a cue that was never used, and the cue was called “Eleanor Supreme.” I title my cues based on the inspiration for the cue, the musical inspiration. In this case, the cue I wrote was a string quartet cue and it reminded me of “Eleanor Rigby,” but the opening melody is from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. So I called it “Eleanor Supreme.” Beatles and John Coltrane. It’s a string quartet and my vocal and some John Cage prepared piano samples as percussion, so that’s another country heard from. I think of it as the Beatles meets Fleet Foxes or Crosby, Stills, & Nash. That’s “White Noise,” it’s David Foster Wallace meets John Cage meets the Beatles meets Fleet Foxes and CSN.

World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

STEREOGUM: So the premise of this movie, he’s got this kid who’s a jerk. And in an early scene he’s using these gay slurs to describe music, including that of Bruce Hornsby.

HORNSBY: They used Bruce Hornsby because Robin Williams selected me to be the artist whose music he liked. I’m all through it, sort of.

STEREOGUM: Right, later on there’s the cameo with you playing in the classroom.

HORNSBY: I was terrible at playing myself. I had two lines. I had a great time doing it, my wife and two sons had cameos as students and teachers in the school. Yes, that was quite an enjoyable affair. As they say in the credits, “And introducing Bruce Hornsby as Bruce Hornsby.”

STEREOGUM: When they first approached you about this, was it Robin who contacted you? Or did they send you the script?

HORNSBY: [The director] Bobcat Goldthwait got in touch with me through our mutual friend Tony Berg, a great producer who has worked with Fiona Apple and with Phoebe Bridgers. He’s a longtime friend of mine, and he’s pretty involved in this new record. Bobcat called me and said, “Robin’s picked you to be the music of which he’s a fan.” [Laughs] That’s how it got started. We went out to Seattle, they picked some old school somewhere to film these scenes. We had a great time and learned a couple great Robin Williams jokes from hanging out with him.

STEREOGUM: You never wanted to play yourself again after that?

HORNSBY: I think I can safely say I’m not going to get any acting calls based on that performance.

“Black Muddy River” With DeYarmond Edison For Day Of The Dead (2016), Robbie Robertson’s “Go Back To Your Woods” (1991), “Cast-Off” With Bon Iver (2019)

STEREOGUM: Over the course of this decade, you’ve had this kind of surprising emergence as a luminary for some corners of the indie world. Obviously, Justin Vernon is a major figure with that. You’ve performed together a bunch, including old songs you played on like “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “The End Of The Innocence.” You’ve worked together a bunch, too. How did this partnership first start up?

HORNSBY: In the early part of this decade, maybe 2012 or ’13, I started getting these Google Alerts where this guy Bon Iver was shouting me out as being an influence. I took note of this and investigated and heard the song “Holocene” and just loved it. Then in 2015, he reached out to me through the channels and asked if I would do a duet with him for a massive Grateful Dead tribute record that was being put together by the National. He was a big fan of my version of the great Garcia-Hunter song “Black Muddy River,” which was on our live record Here Come The Noisemakers. He asked me to come out to Eau Claire and work in his studio. I was playing some solo concerts in Iowa, then had an easy two or three hour drive to Eau Claire. We spent a couple of great days.

I met him there, working with his old high school band [DeYarmond Edison], including both Cook brothers, Brad and Phil. We cut “Black Muddy River,” and just had a great hang together. The next year, I asked him to sing on the record I was finishing at the time, Rehab Reunion; I had two great guests, Mavis Staples and Justin. He sang on the first song, “Over The Rise,” which is maybe the best song on that record. He asked me to play at his Eaux Claires festival in 2016. The Grandpas of the bill. Mavis was playing, so I guess she was the Grandma. I also sat in with Justin for his set.

He considers his song “Beth/Rest” to be one of his Bruce Hornsby songs, quote-unquote. He reinvented that using the groove from my old 1990 song “Barren Ground.” I loved what he did with it, and we played that. The next day I sat in with different groups, and just had a beautiful time. That’s where I met yMusic and the Staves. You meet interesting people from moving outside of your ordinary zone. In this case, the Staves and yMusic were playing together right before us. Then the Justin thing kept moving from there.

STEREOGUM: There are the people who know you from the pop songs. Of course, your career has been a lot more diverse than that, digging into all these different folk traditions.

HORNSBY: I feel like I had the hits, and then the music got interesting. [Laughs] That’s what I really feel.

STEREOGUM: All these years later, to be embraced by this younger generation and to be seen as this adventurous artist: Was it cool to find yourself enmeshed in this new community decades on?

HORNSBY: It’s a wonderful gift, to have these younger musicians who I think are just fantastic, to have them shout me out as an influence or someone they admire. Who wouldn’t like that? Look, I’ve spent my career collaborating and getting calls from amazing people. There was the Dead, maybe the single most amazing collaboration. It was a beautiful, often transcendent experience to do that, and maybe especially earlier with Garcia. I wouldn’t trade anything for that. I was so influenced by them as a songwriter. Obviously, the younger generation of forward-thinking musicians feels the same way, hence this several CD Grateful Dead compilation that was put together.

A perfect example of this [collaborative tendency] was Robbie Robertson. He and I wrote a song for his second solo record, back in the early ‘90s. We recorded it in New Orleans with the Meters, went up to Woodstock, recorded just the two of us. We went to SNL and Seville, to a guitar festival.

That was an amazing situation, where I was able to step into his world and see his process, to see how he creates and how he puts together music in the studio. It was so educational. I did this before my record Harbor Lights. This is one of many other situations I was involved with from the late ‘80s up until the time I was making Harbor Lights, which was ’92. Consequently, that record was a much broader musical affair than what I’d done before. This recent phenomenon, where I’ve been working with Justin and his Bon Iver coterie, that’s the same thing. I consider Justin to be a great record-maker. He makes interesting records and paints these incredible soundscapes on which to sing. It’s so beautiful for me to be able to enter into it, just like with Robbie Robertson or whoever else earlier on, working with Justin in the studio and seeing how they do things. It’s just educational. I’m always looking to learn, grow, and evolve.

STEREOGUM: I love this idea of you going away to other people’s worlds and taking things away with you. So Justin was on Rehab Reunion, but he also appears on Absolute Zero, including “Cast-Off.” You go into other people’s worlds, that keeps you exploratory. But how does that work when you let them into your world? How did you and Justin work on this together?

HORNSBY: I was in Eau Claire for a few days because we did a gig together. I came bearing gifts, quote-unquote. I had selected about 25 pieces of music I’d written for Spike films, most of which had not been used. I selected several I thought Justin might like as starting points. So we listened, and he picked about 10 of them, and we worked on six or seven. Some of these will see the light of day in the future, several of these that have not been heard now will be heard later.

The reason it was titled “Cast-Off” is because I was sitting here in my studio trying to make new music out of thin air, as one does, and I’m thinking about the film I’m working on, thinking maybe I need to write one of these classic end-title sweeping epic-sounding pieces. So I went on YouTube and said, “Let me find a mainstream movie and listen to the end title pieces.” And so I did. I listened to the end title from the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. I’ll get an inspiration, but what I write ends up sounding not really anything at all like the inspiration. Through the years, one thing I’ve developed is my own way of doing things musically, my own sound, so to speak.

I wrote this piece and, like “Eleanor Supreme,” I called it “Cast-Off” for Castaway. We started working on this piece and started thinking about lyrics and he says to me, “I think ‘Cast-Off’ is a pretty good title. How about taking off from that?” I said, “OK, that’s my charge here, the challenge.” So I ended up writing it about someone who’s being rejected and acceptance or even gratitude in the face of that rejection, humility and egolessness. It seemed like a different type of lyrical idea, so I went with that, and we kept working on it. It’s so great to have all those Bon Iver-ians hanging out. It was a big combo platter. I had the lyric ideas, so I did some in the vocal booth, so that inspired Justin to go in and add his two cents lyrically, so this became a duet and a co-write. That’s basically what produced “Cast-Off.” A bunch of guys in a room in Eau Claire working off a movie cue inspired by Wilson the volleyball. [Laughs]

Brandon Flowers’ “Between Me And You” and “Never Get You Right” (2015)

STEREOGUM: It kind of seems like Brandon Flowers was drawing on you for a different reason than Justin, really going for the ’80s pop piano.

HORNSBY: I got a call from Ariel Rechtshaid, the producer. He talked about hearing my sound on a couple of these songs. Look, that was easy. I’m a fan of the Killers. It was a quick yes for me. They sent me the files. I feel like the best music I played on those songs didn’t end up on them. When you play on a record you kind of cede the director’s chair and the final version to what they want. They didn’t use that much of what I did, but I was happy to do it. And you should hear what they didn’t use! [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: Brandon was doing a pretty streamlined thing there. I figured you might’ve initially played some more experimental parts.

HORNSBY: A lot of the parts with a little bit more harmonic or conceptual gravitas were left on the cutting room floor. That’s the best way I could say it. That’s what happens. That’s why I don’t play on many records anymore. But I don’t care, I’m happy to be on that record. I think they did a beautiful job.

STEREOGUM: What you were just saying about not being on as many records —

HORNSBY: I say no a lot.

STEREOGUM: You get asked by other younger artists that you don’t want to work with?

HORNSBY: The younger artists, I tend to be more interested in working with them. Because I find the music to be more interesting, more challenging, more forward-thinking, more adventurous. But if I get asked by an older group and they send me something kinda simple and there’s not much to do on it but play a few very ordinary triadic chords, then I would say no because I don’t feel … I want to be able to express what I do on a record. For many years I’ve felt this. There were lots of times in the old days where I’d say yes a lot more. And I’d go in there and play on a record and I’d try to do something I thought took the music to a different or more interesting place and they would go, “Yeah, that’s OK, but can you do something a bit more like ‘Mandolin Rain’? Give us more of an ‘End Of The Innocence’ thing.”

Most people who are making records,they’re trying to make something that’s commercial. And I’m not that guy, I never was. “The Way It Is” was obviously not an attempt at a hit. A song about racism with two improvised solos on it is hardly the formula. I was never trying to do that. At the end of the session I’d say to them, “You could’ve had anybody do this thing you had me to do here, just to be honest. You could’ve gotten a thousand and one guys to do it but, hey, thank you for the opportunity.” I’d be nice about it but I’d leave the studio going, “You know, I don’t need to be doing this anymore. It’s not fulfilling.” The aim there is not my aim, the aim is to do something that will sell. That’s not why I’m doing this.

Tupac’s “Changes” (1998) And A Bunch Of Other Samples

STEREOGUM: So in the last 10 or so years, there’s the indie world. But there was another time, a trend in which you were sampled in a lot of different rap songs — the most famous example being Tupac. When that was at its peak, were you aware of it? Were you sort of curious that your music was appearing in this totally different genre?

HORNSBY: I was absolutely aware of it because in virtually all cases they needed to come to us to negotiate publishing, the material business of it, because I was now a co-writer on their new songs. I would say that it wasn’t just a ’90s phenomenon, it continued into the 2000s, all the way up to 2013 or 2014. In the ’00s, Snoop Dogg sampled a different part of the song, I forget which one — maybe the verse chords, and the sound, just taken straight from the record. That happened then, and it was a fun story.

They didn’t get in touch with us, it just appeared and was brought to our attention. I was making a record in about 2008, called Levitate. And I was using a drum sample, a loop sample, from Snoop Dogg’s song “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” You know? [Sings “Drop it like it’s hoooot/ Drop it like it’s hoooot.”] I loved the record, I loved the groove. I thought I’d do something a little odd and write a sort of old folk-y dulcimer song over that loop. The song is called “Prairie Dog Town.” It’s a fairly popular song with our true fans. It turns out we kind of traded clearances on that. We said, “OK, you do that for free, and I’ll do this for free.”

Then there was Akon, a great artist from this current decade. He did a song [with David Guetta] called “Change Comes.” It was really good, I thought it was a great record that he made, and there was a clear lift of “The Way It Is.” That’s one where they came to us and we said OK. So, it’s been going on — to my knowledge, it started as early as 1991. A British rapper named MC Buzz B did a song [“Never Change“], that was the first one. And then there was E-40, then there was Mase, then there was the big daddy of them all, Tupac’s “Changes.” That was the one of which I’m most proud and which is the most well-known. Obviously Tupac is such an icon, he’s sort of the Jimi Hendrix of rap, the esteem in which he’s held. So it’s been going on. Obviously the Tupac thing was the most well-known, and made the biggest dent in the pop culture zeitgeist.

“The Way It Is” (1986)

STEREOGUM: You said something interesting earlier, about how “The Way It Is” was not really meant to be a pop single. It’s about racism, it’s got these improvised solos. It wasn’t built that way —

HORNSBY: None of the songs were. “The Valley Road,” a song about a girl who gets pregnant. This is almost a folk song, the lyrical idea was hardly pop.

STEREOGUM: So what did you think when you started to see this pop success happen? Were you confused, or pleasantly surprised?

HORNSBY: I wasn’t confused about it. I’d seen moments like that occur, for years. The one I always compare it to was “Sultans Of Swing” by Dire Straits. Like “The Way It Is,” it’s a song including a lot of improvised instrumental sections, with Mark Knopfler’s guitar soloing there or my soloing on “The Way It Is.” “The Valley Road,” a couple years later — it’s like McCoy Tyner being on top 40 radio. My aim was always true. But then it became successful and I spent the next many years trying to sort of combat the image that had put across regarding me. Basically, “Oh, get this guy, he’s a top 40 guy.” We were not that at all, we never were.

That birthed my resolve to not play in that space, which I was never going to anyway, but then it became “OK, fuck this and fuck you,” you know? [Laughs] “This is not who I am and people will see that very clearly in the fairly immediate future.” And to be real honest about this: We celebrated quote-unquote the 30th anniversary of The Way It Is, I think this was back in 2016. Some people made a big deal out of it. I basically said, “Look, I’m going to be honest, I’m not a big fan of all that.” I don’t think it ages well. I didn’t really like it that much then. I’m proud of the songs but I’m not much of a fan of that singer who was singing those songs. I think it’s pretty mediocre, at best. It’s just different. It just doesn’t sound anything like what I sound like now, on virtually any level other than the fact that I play the piano.

But I wasn’t confused about it. I just thought, “OK, this is happening.” And look, it’s pretty nice. You don’t want to make your music in a vacuum. It’s not like I’m trying to be a successor to Schoenberg here. I’m not trying to be a successor to Stockhausen, you know? In order to be that, I’m trying to write a song that I think is a strong song, in the pop sense, but with hopefully a little gravitas and a little meat on the bone. There’s my answer.

Don Henley’s “The End Of The Innocence” (1989)

STEREOGUM: There’s one more thing I’m wondering about the pop years. When we talked a couple years ago for the 25th anniversary of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” you did mention how you incorporate some of these tracks into your setlists, stuff you played on or wrote for someone. So, that includes something like “The End Of The Innocence.” How do you select the ones you’re still OK with playing for everyone?

HORNSBY: We don’t have a setlist, I’m just winging it in the moment. Last year, for instance, we played 105 of my songs. It’s quite a high bar, on a memory level, for the band and for me. I play all those songs here and there. I play every song that was popular on a mainstream level. Some of them I play fairly true to the original record, and “The End Of The Innocence” is one of them. The ballads tend to be more true. “The Valley Road,” on the other hand, is not true, there’s been seven or eight incarnations — it’s a very malleable, simple song. It’s been a bluegrass song with semi-wide renown. It won the bluegrass Grammy and the undying enmity of the bluegrass purists. [Laughs]

One song didn’t age well for me at all, I didn’t play it for 15 or 20 years — that’s “Every Little Kiss.” One night at Wolf Trap up in northern Virginia, I was sitting in my dulcimer chair with the washboard next to me, playing some old-time back porch music of my own and some old traditional songs. And someone yelled out “Every Little Kiss.” I’m sitting there with my dulcimer and I thought, “Well, I haven’t played this one in years, I don’t care about it.” But just on a spontaneity level, I started playing it on the dulcimer, and I’ve played it that way ever since. When I play it on the piano, it’s in the dulcimer key and dulcimer version. So, now, I can say that every one of them — “Every Little Kiss,” “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain,” “The Valley Road,” “Look Out Any Window,” “The End Of The Innocence,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Across The River,” “Fields Of Gray,” all of them — I still play them. Some more than others — I don’t play “Fields Of Gray” all that often, although Justin Vernon and I did recently play “Fields Of Gray” together.

But I do play them all. I’m not trying to be unswervingly obtuse, or unkind to the softcore fan. I play between two and five of those songs every night. So, I’m not being mean. But I feel like the people to whom I’m being mean, they don’t care that much. They haven’t really followed what I’ve done. They’re just there for a nostalgia night out. And I’ll throw bones to them, but not so many. That’s not why I’m there. I feel what I owe my audience is what I’m most passionate about. I’m not some guy out there regurgitating. If I’m out on the road to play the “good old songs,” quote-unquote, then I’m not doing my job. There are a lot of people who come to my shows who would hate if we did that. And I’m more interested in placating that group, the ones who have followed the journey and are interested in the music in the moment, the current music than, again, going to your concert for a stroll down memory lane. But, the memory lane strollers, I do throw them bones.

Years Of Spike Lee Collabs — From “Love Me Still” With Chaka Khan (1995) To Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It (2017-now)

STEREOGUM: You’ve developed this long-running relationship with Spike Lee over the years. It goes from the song with Chaka Khan all the way up to BlacKkKlansman and the Netflix version of She’s Gotta Have It. That’s a unique thing, to have this sort of close partnership between one pop musician and a director over so many years. How did you and Spike first meet, and how did it develop over the years?

HORNSBY: We met in 1992 through our mutual close friend Branford Marsalis. Me and Branford were doing a lot of hanging and playing back then, we did a song for the 1992 Olympics, “Barcelona Mona.” He called me up and said, “Hey, Spike would like to meet you,” so I said, “OK, well vice versa.” So I met him in New York City, had dinner, and I said, “Hey man, I’ve got this song, I’d sure like you to make a video for me.” It was called “Talk Of The Town,” it’s a song about the first interracial romance in my hometown here in Williamsburg, Virginia and all the consternation it caused among the mostly conservative white people. He said OK, so we did that, and that was the first time we worked together.

Then, in 1995, for Clockers — he called me and asked if I would write and perform an end titles song. Chaka and I were working on this song, she had gotten in touch with me and asked if I’d write a song with her. She came to Williamsburg, and we geared it to Spike’s direction. Then, we were just friends. I would go to Knicks games with him. He asked me to do another end titles song in 2001, for Bamboozled. It was “Shadowland.” So it kept just moving on and on and our friendship endured and it grew. The last 11 years have been very involved.

STEREOGUM: This has opened up a whole different part of your creative life, right? Writing in that capacity is very different, even before it influenced the new album.

HORNSBY: Yeah, it forces me to be creative. Spike calls me and says, “OK, here’s this project, are you in?” And I don’t think I’ve said no to him yet. There’s my assignment. I have to compose between, I don’t know, 30 and 40 pieces of new music for any score. So that’s a full load. That’s a lot of music to write. So I just dive into it. He’s the only person whom I work for. Of course I’ll play on somebody’s record or I’ll write a song with somebody. I just did a song with Justin Vernon for the new Bon Iver record, “U (Man Like).” There’s that or playing on the aforementioned Brandon Flowers record.

But that’s a quick one, I’m sort of in and out. They send you the file — no more sending you tapes — they send me the file and we make sense of it. But this film composing assignment is a way deeper level of involvement, output, and production. So, again, it forces me to be creative, which is great for me, I love that. Then I have all of this music and some of it ends up sounding like songs to me and that informs my singer-songwriter area of my music. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

“They Love Each Other” With The Grateful Dead (1991) And Fare Thee Well Shows (2015)

STEREOGUM: In your early days, in the ’70s, you were in what was essentially a Grateful Dead tribute band with your brother. Then all these years later you wound up playing with the actual Grateful Dead a ton. That’s sort of the dream story from the novel or movie, the guy from the tribute band who gets to play with the actual band. Obviously that became a really big part of your musical expansion over the years. But when it started were you like, “How did this happen?”

HORNSBY: I was talking before about the [first] record breaking around the world. We had become headliners with nine songs, because our first record was nine songs. So we started playing some covers, and we started playing the Band’s version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and we were also playing “I Know You Rider.” I don’t know if that’s how they came to know about us, for the Dead to know about me and my band, but I know they became fans of the record. So we got a call out of the blue, in I guess January or February of 1987, from the Grateful Dead asking us to open two shows for them. Ry Cooder, and my band. Two days at Laguna Seca racetrack in Monterey. It was another moment, like the record breaking on BBC Radio 1 in London. It was just sort of “Whoa, well all right then, bring it.”

And of course it was an instant “yes” and that started the relationship. They asked us to open for them a couple times more in ’88 and ’89. It just kept going. Then, all of the sudden, sadly Brent [Mydland] died. They asked me to join them. I couldn’t see a way of joining them because I had my own thing going at a pretty strong level at the time. But I told them I’d help them through the adjustment they needed to go through. It was just a growing relationship that culminated in me joining them for 100 shows or so in the next 18 months. So that was amazing. Painting yourself into the mural you were looking at as a kid.

My brother’s Dead cover band, Bobby Hi-Test And The Octane Kids, played grain alcohol parties for hippie fraternity parties near UVA. Three layers of dancers: people dancing on tables, the normal dancers, and people doing the dying cockroach on the floor, also known in Southern parlance as “gatoring.” It was the wild and woolly old days, around 1974. I was old Brucey Hornsby playing Fender Rhodes and singing lead on “Jack Straw,” etc. So yeah, [later playing with the Dead] was and has been amazing. I don’t know what else to say about that. It’s sort of not believable.

But once again, these are all calls that came to me. These are all about people calling me because they were interested in or moved by what I was doing, some music I was making. It’s all very gratifying. And also really fun. I wouldn’t trade my time in the Dead for anything. They’re family to me. They think of me as Cousin Bruce. I mean, they have one of the great bodies of work on a compositional level. To me, it’s right up there with the Stones and Beatles. The songs sound like they could’ve been written 100 years ago. Garcia and Hunter were so deep into the old-time traditional music, and that really informed their writing, so it gives it that deep gravitas that that old music had. I was very influenced by that. It went hand in hand with the Band and old-time music. I still have it, it’s on the new record. It’s reflected in the crazy song “Echolocation,” which is basically an old-time folk song with a crazy-ass production on it, John Cage-esque production. Which kept Spike Lee from using that cue! It was too weird.

“Columbus Stockade Blues” With Ricky Skaggs (2013)

STEREOGUM: The Dead was one way you moved away from how people perceived you in the late ’80s. Then there were jazzier and bluegrass-oriented experiments, other projects like working with Ricky Skaggs. Generally speaking about the ’90s, was there a transitional period, where some fans were really confused and you had to kind of accrue new ones?

HORNSBY: I think I’ve been confusing people and pissing people off almost ever since my second record, certainly the third. I’ve been getting nasty letters ever since my second record, “Oh, how dare you change.” I’ve turned off a lot of people who wanted me to sound the same. I understand that. Lots of musicians basically make the same record for their entire career on a stylistic level, and they retain early fans because the fans know what they’re getting and a lot of those fans want to spend the rest of their lives listening to the music of their youth. I get that, I understand that, I’m not trying to naysay that. Just, for me, that notion is anathema to me. That would be such a creative prison. There’s so much out there, and I’m so interested in music, from Jimmie Rodgers The Singing Brakeman to Olivier Messiaen, the French avant-garde composer. That’s just what I like. I don’t apologize for it. I was always doing it for me.

You mentioned changing the perception by playing with the Dead. No, I played with the Dead because I loved the Dead. I play bluegrass because I love bluegrass. Same with jazz. I made a jazz record because basically I grew up as a jazz major in college and loved the four, the Mount Rushmore, of modern jazz piano, which is Chick, Herbie, Keith, and McCoy. That’s the Mount Rushmore to me. Again, my aim has always been true. Perceptions … they’re gonna be what they’re gonna be, man. I was never trying to plot my career on a career-building level, you know? I think I probably did the opposite of that.

The perceptions … that’s for the self-appointed arbiters of taste. I’ve been fairly lucky with the critical community. There’s always been detractors who looked at me as this adult-contemporary guy, because that’s where the music could reside on the radio. But it’s always been, I feel, for the right reasons. Just: I want to do that because I love that.

Same as the bluegrass community, right? Say someone is drawn to me by my bluegrass music and they come to see a solo piano concert. Well, most likely — not in all cases of course, there are lots of bluegrass fans who love all kinds of adventurous music — but there are a lot of people who love bluegrass and folk music and that’s what they love and they come to see me because the Skaggs/Hornsby records, to see me play a solo piano gig, and I open with the Charles Ives piece “Study #22″ which is completely atonal and dissonant and they’re going “What the fuck is this!?” I tell them, I feel their pain and I’m sorry. But, hey, maybe open your ears. Or don’t come back. It’s OK. [Laughs]

Sheena Easton’s “Strut” (1984)

STEREOGUM: Before all of this, you were briefly in Sheena Easton’s backing band.

HORNSBY: And the videos are quite hilarious.

STEREOGUM: Including the one for “Strut.” Were you already thinking about all this back then? Like, sitting there saying, “I have all these other things I want to try, and not be here in this backing band.”

HORNSBY: You know, if there’s ever a book written about me it should be called Slow Learner. I was in my mid- to late-20s, but I still hadn’t arrived at my own area that felt unique, musically, to me. It took me a while but by the first record, I felt like I did. Whether you liked the record or not, you knew it was my record. It didn’t sound like other people on a stylistic level. Most people responded to the piano, the voicings. Mostly, [in Sheena Easton’s band], I was just trying to pay the rent there.

I was scuffling, man. I got a deal with 20th Century Fox as a staff songwriter in 1980, I had it for two years, and they threw me out. I thought I was going to get a record deal, and David Geffen was interested in me, and all this activity was happening. But none of it ended up coming to fruition, so they dropped me and I needed a job. I was scuffling around LA and my friend Joe Puerta, who ended up being the bassist in the Range, he called me up and said, “I’m going to do this gig with Sheena Easton, do you want to be the piano player?”

So, yeah, I’m laughably found in “Strut” and “Sugar Walls,” a great song. And I’m pretty hilarious. My son Keith, he played basketball at LSU, he’s a pro now, and he had a tough Saturday-midday-live-on-national-ESPN game against Texas A&M. We’re sitting in the hotel, and I said, “You know what I’m going to take you out of this funk right now and show you a video on YouTube where your dad just looks like a clown.” And sure enough, he watched that, and just watched it again, and Texas A&M receded out of his mind. [Laughs] As a dad, you do what you need to do to help your kids. It has served me well, that “Strut” video.

But yeah, at that time, I was in the middle of arriving at my own style. I was trying to find my own voice. I was with her in ’83, ’84. A year later, I made this demo tape — it had “Mandolin Rain” and “The Red Plains” on it, and that’s what got me signed. The least commercial tape I made was the one that got me signed. Which is also a good story for people trying to come up and get signed. But that’s a different article.

Absolute Zero is out now.