Possessed of a breezy, nonchalant style that belies his technical gifts, pianist Bruce Hornsby writes powerful songs from the heart that touch on several distinctly American traditions: pop, jazz, bluegrass, and '60s soul. He worked for a while as a studio player and songwriter, and had his first hit in 1986 with the stirring and philosophical "The Way It Is." After that, he continued to release albums that honored his own muse rather than the marketplace, and put together various backing bands to suit the mood and style of the genres he works in. Hornsby has also maintained a close musical relationship with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead, having toured as a temporary member in the early '90s and collaborated on offshoot recordings and live shows.
Bruce Hornsby was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, and grew up in that combination college town and tourist center, later attending the University of Miami and the Berklee School of Music. He then spent years playing in bars and sending demo tapes to record companies. In 1980, he and his brother (and songwriting partner) John Hornsby moved to Los Angeles, where they spent three years writing for 20th Century Fox. There Bruce Hornsby met Huey Lewis, who would eventually produce him and record his material. Hornsby finally signed his band, the Range, to RCA in 1985. Their debut album, The Way It Is, was released in April 1986. It eventually produced three Top 20 hits, the biggest of which was the socially conscious "The Way It Is," which featured Hornsby's characteristically melodic right-hand piano runs. The album stayed in the charts for almost a year and a half and sold two million copies. Hornsby & the Range won the Best New Artist Grammy Award for 1986.
Hornsby's second album, Scenes from the Southside, was not as successful as his debut, though it sold a million copies and produced the Top Ten single "The Valley Road." Hornsby also began to make his mark as a songwriter for others: Huey Lewis had a hit with his "Jacob's Ladder," as did Don Henley with "The End of the Innocence." Hornsby's third album, A Night on the Town (1990), found him trying to break out of his signature sound into other areas. It was less successful than its predecessors but, along with the pianist's extensive session work, it signaled his determination to tackle new musical challenges. Hornsby worked extensively as a producer and sideman in the early '90s, notably doing temporary duty in the Grateful Dead after their keyboardist, Brent Mydland, died in July 1990, and producing a comeback album for Leon Russell, an idol of Hornsby's. He also became the father of twin sons.
He finally turned in his fourth album, Harbor Lights, for release in 1993. This solo album, which did not feature his backup band, the Range, went gold, and Hornsby toured the U.S. and Canada through the end of the year. He followed it with a similar effort, Hot House, in July 1995, returning three years later with the double album Spirit Trail. Here Come the Noise Makers was issued in fall 2000. Since that time, Hornsby has released a handful of albums including Big Swing Face in 2002, Halcyon Days in 2004, the jazz-oriented Camp Meeting in 2007, and Levitate in 2009. Hornsby's most impressive playing has arguably been in live settings, though, as illustrated by the two-disc set Bride of the Noisemakers (released in 2011 and featuring concert performances from Hornsby and his band the Noisemakers recorded between 2007 and 2009), which put the band's impressive ability to jam in styles ranging from rock to jazz and bluegrass on full display. A live set with Ricky Skaggs, Cluck Ol' Hen, appeared at the end of the summer in 2013. Another live album, a double-disc set called Solo Concerts, appeared on Vanguard Records in August 2014. In the summer of 2015, Hornsby reprised his role as keyboardist for the Grateful Dead during the group's 50th anniversary reunion shows in California and Chicago. A year later, he and the Noisemakers returned with their fifth album, Rehab Reunion. ~ William Ruhlmann & Steve Leggett