Pop-rocker Hornsby emerges as an inventive pianist

Published March 1, 1999

A DECADE AND A HALF ago, Bruce Hornsby brought back to contemporary music a niche – a brand of pop rock with piano as a lead instrument. Every aspect of his style has matured through the years, and the latest document of this is his double album, Spirit Trail.

Hornsby first made his mark with hook-filled pop that led to early hits like Mandolin Rain and The Way It Is. A variety of circumstances, not the least of which was a tenure as guest pianist with The Grateful Dead throughout the 1990s, have moved Hornsby to a richer blend of music that borrows from jazz, bluegrass, R&B, gospel, and New Orleans.

People who have only heard Hornsby’s voice as the smooth tenor on those hits from his 1986 debut album The Way It Is, will also be struck with a broader palette of vocal style in the late 1990s. His vocals are now grittier – tougher – and more evocative – all the while maintaining the pure tone of his natural voice.

They will also be impressed by the depth of Hornsby’s piano playing. He always was a nice player, but where early jams often veered into languid noodling, the Hornsby piano work of today is consistently inventive and virtuosic.

Most especially, listeners will be touched by Hornsby’s social conscience. Always present, be it an expose of the class system inThe Way It Is (1986), or a lament for environmental chaos in Look Out Any Window (1988), it is the lifeblood of this double album. His Virginia roots are often part and parcel with these pieces. For example, race relations, personified in the flip sides of the coin of bigotry and tolerance, are often addressed by Hornsby, such as on Resting Place, Line In The Dust, and the album’s lead single, Great Divide.

As for organized religion, Hornsby is sadly turned off the whole matter by fundamentalists. He addresses this with candor in the two part song, Preacher In The Ring. The song’s first person narrator is visiting a friend. “Sunday morning came (and) he was in my face,” we learn. “(He) said I’m going to take you to a place (and) put you in a state of grace.” The only problem is that the focal point is a “man in a reptile suit with a rattling sound.” Not convinced, our song’s character concludes “(You) say you got the answer, but how do you know?”

As such, the Christian listener can listen to this album to be entertained musically and challenged ethically. In the process, one can re-examine how they present their faith to others, being aware that an aggressive, confrontational approach is not only ineffective, it is also the antithesis of God’s grace.

Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


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