Bruce Hornsby is a baller. Really — he beat a high school-aged Allen Iverson one-on-one in basketball. He's also director Spike Lee's friend and go-to guy for scoring films like Red Hook Summer and the ESPN documentary, Kobe Doin' Work.
It was around 2009, while sitting courtside with Lee at a Knicks game in Madison Square Garden, that Hornsby spotted Donald Trump, a story he recounted for the City Paper over the phone last week.
"I said, 'This is my moment.' I walked up to him and said, 'Hi, Mr. Trump. I'm Bruce Hornsby, and we're writing a musical and we have a song about you. Would you like to hear it?"
"Sure, go ahead," replied Trump.
"It was a surreal moment," Hornsby recalls. "I sang this goofy song about him and he seemed to quite like it, and he reached into his wallet and pulled out not one, but two business cards. For years since, I've kept those cards in my wallet and whip them out and say, 'Hi, here's my card,' to mess with people."
This basketball-swishing, Spike Lee-scoring, Trump-serenading Hornsby is the same pianist who performed over 100 shows with the Grateful Dead, (and rejoined them in 2015 for their Fare Thee Well reunion). He's a friend, colleague, and recording partner with everyone from Don Henley to Branford Marsalis, Bonnie Raitt to Justin Vernon, Mavis Staples to Phil Collins. He's as well-connected and well-respected as any modern musician.
When we mention that his voice on the title track of his latest release, Rehab Reunion, is reminiscent of the country song, "Straight Tequila Night," he immediately confirms a connection. "'Rehab Reunion' is my John Anderson moment, or my attempt at that. I love him. We're old friends," says Hornsby. "Ricky Skaggs and I got him to sing on our version of 'Super Freak.'"
These Kevin Bacon-esque degrees of connection add to Hornsby's musical legacy. He hints that note-taking for a loose memoir is in progress ("Most likely it will be a book of humorous anecdotes") where he'll finally share his backstage stories of Woody Harrelson sitting in with the Dead. "It's a classic," he promises.
At face value, Hornsby is an '80s pop star who hit it big with his debut album and title song, "The Way it Is." Dead fans dig a little deeper and consider him a favorite among the band's late-career keyboardists. But keep digging and his life reads like a rambling Winston Groom novel, with a story inside every chocolate in the box. Hornsby is the Forrest Gump of music.
But he's no savant, haphazardly lucking into adventures. Most everything Hornsby has accomplished has been carefully manifested, including the decision to put the piano aside and record a dulcimer album.[event-1]
Rehab Reunion finds him foregoing the piano for the entire album. "It was by design," he explains. "I had this epiphanous month where I wrote four songs. Some of it gave me chills and some of it I just thought was funny." Those songs include the album's leadoff track, "Over the Rise," a song that it's easy to imagine Jerry Garcia lending a lingering lead to (it doesn't hurt that the Noisemakers' guitarist is Gibb Droll, a Virginia-bred bandleader who built his own following on the college/jam circuit in the '90s).
"It has that old feeling — that slow, shuffle-y feeling — that the Grateful Dead was so great at and is so great at," Hornsby agrees.
Adding "Tropical Cashmere Sweater," a collaboration with Garcia's lyricist Robert Hunter, and "Celestial Railroad," a duet with Mavis Staples, to the mix, Hornsby realized, "I'd really created a situation where the dulcimer was crying out to be featured."
The freedom to record whatever he wants — be it a solo piano concert album or a bluegrass collection — wasn't immediate in Hornsby's career. For his first five albums, in the '80s and early '90s, he sought to maintain a consistent sound and lyrical, geographic sense of place, drawing inspiration from his southeast Virginia home.
"All of them were different versions of Our Town (Thornton Wilder's 1938 play)," says Hornsby of his early work. "I was trying to create what Bruce Springsteen had in New Jersey, or John Mellencamp did in Indiana or Randy Newman did in New Orleans and L.A."
"After a while, I felt like I'd mined that enough, so my fifth album, Hot House, was really just a rumination on the bad old days of playing in bars and at parties and of bands being fired and trying to get away with adventurous music and the disdain of the audience."
At 62, now 30 years beyond his Best New Artist Grammy Award in 1987, Hornsby, the baller, has earned the right to play whatever he wants, sans disdain. On his last trip to Charleston (a private gig on Kiawah Island in 2014), Hornsby performed solo on piano, which he calls "a very fragile area of concertizing."
For Sunday's gig with the Noisemakers at the Music Hall, he claims the opposite is true.
"We're always looking to have an adventurous, joyful night of music making, and we want the crowd to go along with that. We don't want them to just sit there — they can jump up on stage and dance if they want to," says Hornsby. "We like the crowd to be rowdy. That's my request for the Charleston audience."
The invitation is there, ripe for the next chapter of Bruce's wild story.