Hornsby, a mind-boggling piano virtuoso who runs the gamut stylistically from jazz to bluegrass, didn’t actually start playing the keyboard until he was about 17 years old — although he does confess that he and his brothers did actually take piano lessons for about a year when he was seven. “My brothers and I all took lessons, but we took lessons in a funeral home. Which was a situation that didn’t make you want to go to the lesson very much, walking by these caskets and things (laughs). So we bailed on that pretty quickly. We were just your typical kids who would rather be out playing baseball or basketball than inside practicing the scales.”
Later he started playing by ear, picking songs off of records. “I really got interested because I loved the Joe Cocker records with Leon Russell on them which led me to the later Leon Russell solo records. And Elton John’s first few records I loved. Obviously they were very piano-oriented records with Leon and Elton, and it made me want to play along with them. So I started fooling around on our piano that we had at home, just got into it by ear and gradually got more serious about it later.” He got so serious about it, in fact, that he ended up getting a degree in Jazz and Studio Music from the University of Miami before setting off to make music his career.
To celebrate Bruce’s birthday today, here are a few excerpts from an interview in the Performing Songwriter archives. Happy birthday, Bruce!
At what point did you begin writing your own tunes.
It started much later. My focus was totally playing for about the first five years from when I started playing piano. So I really didn’t start writing until I was out of college. I ended up getting my degree in music from the University of Miami. It wasn’t until after that that we came back and started a band around here and realized that we weren’t going to get too far just being a Top-40 band, and I started writing songs at that point. So at about age 22 — once again I was a late starter in the songwriting area also.
Do you think that your degree in music helped make the odds a little bit better for you?
The odds of making it in the pop music world? No, I’d say it doesn’t really make those odds better at all. Because really making it in the pop music world isn’t about knowing who Paul Hindemith is or knowing who John Coltrane is. So I don’t think going to music college gives one a leg up, necessarily, as far as making it in the pop world. But, for me, it’s totally influenced my whole musical life, and anyone who listens to the records knows. My songs and the approach to the playing of those songs — a lot of soloing — it owes a lot to music other than pop music. So for me I was exposed to so much in music school, and I’m still drawing on all of that. I mean I could go three lifetimes and not really ever completely deal with all the things that I was exposed to in my three or four years of music school.
Is that when your diverse interests started showing up, or were you already interested in the various forms of music?
I was interested in jazz in high school. You know, “rock piano” is a very limited idiom (laughs). Dr. John is a truly great player, and obviously Leon Russell and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis — I mean I love that. And I don’t profess to be a master of that but I certainly know how to do it…I know the area and I like it. But just on an intellectual level I was restless. I wanted to get into more areas of the piano than just the three or four chords. Because the piano literature is obviously so much deeper and broader than that. So jazz was the first place I went to that was outside of rock. I mean I was into blues music very much, into Dr. John and Otis Spann — Muddy Waters’ great piano player — and Professor Longhair who influenced Dr. John. I could go on for a long time about all of these great players that I was into. But I got into jazz in high school just from reading about it and getting some records and being sort of blown away by the sound.
So you really pulled from all areas.
Pretty early, because at the same time my younger brother was really into bluegrass music, and I was influenced by him in that way. There were lots of these bluegrass festivals in the area at the time, and we would go to them and I loved that, too. So it was a wide cross section of things I was getting into.
After school, you then started to write your own songs?
Yeah, and songwriting is something that I basically learned totally on my own, just sort of trial and error and just sort of following my own nose. When I started writing — it sort of makes sense coming from where I was coming from — the pop music we were into was, you know, Steely Dan – very jazz influenced. And Michael McDonald’s Doobie Brothers era, more of a white R&B thing which had a little bit of that Steely Dan-esque element to it in his chord structures. So I basically would emulate that at first. I think it’s pretty standard that when you first start doing something you’re basically trying to emulate things that move you, and that’s basically what I did. The first few years I wrote what I’d call very derivative songs in that style, mostly in the Michael McDonald style. And it’s interesting to note that he’s the guy who really discovered me.
Yeah, Mike McDonald heard us in a bar in Hampton, Virginia and we were playing our own music and he really got into it and helped us out. He was sort of our first contact that we made, and it was a great one was because he’s such a good guy, and he was doing so well at the time and he was very generous because we went out and crashed on his floor in his house for about 11 days. This was back in 1979.
I’d finished my degree in 1977 and came back to Virginia and put together a band and we gradually got into playing my songs that I was writing. And we’d developed that to a point and got a local following where we could just basically play our own songs and make a buck at it, which is a pretty good trick. It was easier then, though, than it is now because the drinking age was 18 and there were a lot more clubs around available to you.
So then we basically saw Mike McDonald out in a hotel lobby when The Doobie Brothers were playing Hampton Coliseum. We were playing the local Steak and Ale bar, he came out and liked us and helped us out.
Is there a way that a song most often will begin for you?
It really is either a musical idea or lyrical idea — I write both ways. And I like it that way because I think it gives some variety to the songwriting. For instance, I don’t think “Rainbow’s Cadillac” sounds a whole lot like “Mandolin Rain”, or “Spider Fingers” doesn’t sound a whole lot like “The Way It Is.”
What’s the hardest part of a song for you?
Just finishing it. I always get caught up in a few lines where I’ve boxed myself into a corner. Like I’ve written backwards sometimes and I’ve got this for a bridge and this and this for a chorus. And I know I have to say a certain thing, and I don’t have much space to say it in. It’s kind of like when I don’t work from top to bottom, which is really actually often. A lot of my songs are story songs, so I know where it’s going. I really love old folk songs — the old storytelling tradition. And a lot of my songs are just sort of my version of that. I also always loved Robbie Robertson’s writing with The Band, and his writing now. And Dylan’s old songs, and the early Elton and Bernie Taupin story songs like “Burn Down The Mission.” So I guess it’s me in my own way emulating my heroes, you know, people who I think do it really great. So I sort of know the story, and it’s just about telling it right. And so that’s often the hardest part for me, just filling in the blanks when I’ve boxed myself into a corner.
How did you end up co-writing with Don Henley?
Well, he called me up out of the blue. I guess that was the year where we were sort of the new “this year’s model”, you know. We’d broken real big and we were one of the hot new things of the year — and I say that cynically because you know how it goes. The big hype train gets rolling and you sort of become something that you’re really not. We never thought of ourselves as a big Top 40 thing — “The Way It Is” is hardly your standard “Top 40” formula song. But it just broke in England, sort of a fluke, and then it broke from there on around the world, including America. So, we were getting pretty well known there.
So, for whatever reason, he called me up in 1987 right around then and asked me to write with him. I was really flattered by it, and I loved his solo work especially. I thought “Boys of Summer” was just great and “Sunset Grill” and “Dirty Laundry.” So I was instantly in for this, and he was the first “big shot” who called me to write. So he came over to my house, and we sort of instantly became friends, and I gave him this track that I’d had lying around. I’d written a song with this music but I didn’t think it was great, so I gave him the track and it seemed to spark something in him right away. He left the house and he was listening to the cassette in the car and I think he called me down the road. And “End of the Innocence” is the outside collaboration that I’m the most proud of.
I think the story of your struggle for success could be a real inspiration to songwriters who are trying to make it today.
It’s a story that illustrates a really important point which is, at least in the pop music world, that you shouldn’t follow the trend, and you should just try to find yourself and create your own voice and work at that rather than hearing the radio and going, “Maybe I should write a song that sounds like this.” I think if you do that, you end up looking back on years of chasing the trend. Because once you’ve figured it out, they’re on to the next one. And you’re always behind the time. And it’s unfulfilling anyway. It’s just much more meaningful and much deeper to find your own thing, even if it takes a little bit longer.
—By Lydia Hutchinson
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard