Late in our conversation, singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby wants to clear something up: “I want people to know that I have not beaten Lebron James in one-on-one; it was Allen Iverson.”
The encounter has become legendary, documented in the Iverson biography Only the Strong Survive. In 1993, Iverson, then a senior at Bethel High School in Hampton, Virginia, and already being touted as a rising high school basketball star heading for the NBA, found himself in hot water after being caught with a group that got into a chair-tossing brawl at a local bowling alley. Hornsby, a fellow Virginian and big hoops fan, heard about Iverson’s troubles and reached out to Iverson’s coach at Bethel High, Mike Bailey, and asked him if he could help out.
Iverson ended up at Hornsby’s house where the pair ended up going one-on-one after a bit of chit-chat. There were rules — guarding against any potential injury to Hornsby’s hands, the person with the ball would get one shot with subsequent rebounds signifying a change of possession. Iverson wasn’t a fan of the rule and found it hard to find consistency and perhaps as a result, with a unique flavor of home field advantage, Hornsby emerged as the winner. But there were no hard feelings — it was the beginning of a friendship between the pair that remains intact.
While Hornsby might not be planning a similar one-on-one matchup with LeBron, there’s a good chance that perhaps his son Keith might one day take that challenge. The younger Hornsby has been making college basketball headlines in recent years, starting his college career at University of North Carolina at Asheville prior to transferring to Louisiana State University. Jimmy Jones, his new coach at LSU, is a big fan, calling Keith, “the hardest working player I've ever been around in my 34 years in Division I basketball.”
The strong work ethic runs throughout the Hornsby clan, with the elder Hornsby acknowledging that it’s been a struggle to balance his musical life with the family commitments that he cares deeply about.
“It’s sort of the never-ending guilt feeling when I’m hanging out with the family, I feel guilty I’m not working on the music and vice versa, when I’m working on the music, I feel guilty about being the absentee dad. So I’ve always tried to find a balance,” Hornsby says. “I’ve loved being a dad and the boys are great guys — they’re both in college playing Division I sports — scholarship athletes, I’m proud to say. It’s very difficult to achieve what they’ve achieved and they’re doing it.”
These days, he structures his touring schedule so that he can be around to watch his kids (his other son Russell runs track for the Oregon Ducks) continue to develop their talents and he says he’ll be on the road through mid-November with a break coming after that to follow their progress.
Next year will bring a fresh wave of activity, with a new compilation coming out, The Essential Bruce Hornsby, which will collect many of Hornsby’s most well-known songs, with “several unreleased live versions of old and newer songs” rounding things out. He’s also working on a new album with his band, the Noisemakers. For fans who have enjoyed Hornsby’s solo dulcimer performances during his concerts in recent years, he has good news for the lovers of “the dulcimer moment.”
He says that his upcoming album, set for release next year, is “a record of all the dulcimer music I've been writing for the last couple of years. The Noisemakers band convened at the beginning of September for three and a half intense days of tracking. So this will be the next studio record, and will be your long-awaited ‘dulcimer record!’”
The new album will include “Tropical Cashmere Sweater,” one of his latest co-writes with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and also “new songs about airport security as a sensual experience, someone fleeing their dead-end job in the Northeast to disappear in Miami, the psychological and mathematical aspects of tipping in restaurants, and ‘Rehab Reunion,’” one which he calls “self-explanatory.”
At the moment, he’s on the road promoting a new collection called Solo Concerts that goes far beyond the usual scope of a traditional live album that might simply collect a series of tracks from various concerts. Instead, with Solo Concerts, Hornsby paints a very distinct narrative and the way that the material is laid out, sans any sort of dialogue between the songs, makes it clear that Hornsby had an aim to assemble something that would play properly as an album, taking its listeners on a specifically curated journey.
In the liner notes for the collection, he explains that “my solo concerts are an ambitious attempt at deep musicianship rooted in basic American forms like blues, boogie, modal folk, New Orleans piano and the hymnal. Several songs and performances are heavily influenced by the chromatic harmonic and melodic language and techniques of modern classical music (twelve-tone music, pointillism, bitonality and atonality).
Coloring outside of the lines is nothing new for Hornsby, who notes that “for years, my musician friends couldn’t believe what I was getting away with on radio, most notably on lengthy solos in ‘The Valley Road’ and ‘The Way It Is.’”
At the edge of the ‘90s, he began to branch out further, releasing A Night On The Town, which would be his final album with his longtime band the Range, featuring a wide range of guests including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Shawn Colvin and Bela Fleck. With the release of his next album, Harbor Lights, in 1993, he launched a 20-year journey that has included plenty of side trips, including a jazz collaboration with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette that was released in 2007 on the Camp Meeting album.
Summarizing where he’s at today, he says that “the continuing search for inspiration, challenges and new vistas has led me all over the musical map through the years. In the end, it is all simply a search for inspiration and transcendent moments; moments that give you chills, make you cry, laugh or make your head move. Mostly it’s about the chills.”
And if you’ve seen one of Hornsby’s live shows, like the one he’ll play this week during a return visit to the Kent Stage, that’s what it’s all about — an evening of music that aims to offer a bit of education while triggering a wide range of emotions. Light-hearted stage conversation from Hornsby in between each song ties it all together and the unpredictable nature of each show makes it a night on the town that’s well worth venturing out to see.
Bruce Hornsby, 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $55-$68, kentstage.com.