Possessing 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 1960s 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," a single he recorded with his backing band the Range. An unexpected number one hit, "The Way It Is" kicked off a period where Hornsby straddled the line between heartland rock and adult contemporary pop, reaching the Top Ten with such singles as "Mandolin Rain" and "The Valley Road." Hornsby ultimately rejected the musical mainstream, disbanding the Range so he could tour with the Grateful Dead in the early '90s, then exploring a variety of adventurous musical fusions on his own that decade and with the Noisemakers in the 2000s. Along the way, Hornsby collaborated with everybody from bluegrass picker Ricky Skaggs to jazz musicians Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette while also spending time composing scores for Spike Lee, but his real revival arrived in the 2010s when Justin Vernon cited Hornsby as an influence and invited the pianist to play on Bon Iver's 2019 album I, I. Hornsby embraced the opportunities that arose with a series of electronic-inflected, unpredictable albums that ran from 2019's Absolute Zero through 2022's 'Flicted.
Bruce Hornsby was born and raised in a musical family in Williamsburg, Virginia. He played basketball as a teenager, but following his high school graduation he was pulled toward music. He joined his older brother Bobby in the frat band Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids, a group that played country-rock tunes with a special affinity for the Grateful Dead. After spending a year at the University of Richmond, Bruce attended the Berklee College of Music for two semesters before earning a degree from the University of Miami in 1977. After his college graduation, he returned to Williamsburg, where he played in local bars until he and his younger brother John -- who by that point was his songwriting partner -- headed to Los Angeles in 1980. Michael McDonald happened to catch a show by the Bruce Hornsby Band and the pair became friendly, a connection that helped the pianist get a foothold in the music industry. The Hornsby brothers wound up as staff songwriters at 20th Century Fox Records and, eventually, Hornsby branched out to work as a session musician.
Hornsby joined Ambrosia just in time to appear on their last album, 1982's Road Island. He then joined the supporting band for Sheena Easton -- he can be seen in the video for her 1984 hit "Strut" -- before forming Bruce Hornsby & the Range. During this time, he continued to write and record demos in hopes of becoming a recording artist in his own right. His work caught the ear of Huey Lewis, who wanted to record one of Hornsby's songs, but the songwriter declined the offer. Undaunted, Lewis continued to advocate for Hornsby, particularly after the keyboardist formed the Range -- a group that featured guitarist David Mansfield, ex-Ambrosia bassist Joe Puerta, guitarist George Marinelli, and drummer John Molo -- and began to shop demos to various record labels. Windham Hill expressed interest in signing Hornsby, which, along with the boosterism of Lewis, helped stir up interest in other labels, with RCA signing the band in 1985.
Lewis produced a handful of songs on The Way It Is, the 1986 debut album from Bruce Hornsby & the Range. Initially, Hornsby pursued an audience accustomed to the tranquil sounds of Windham Hill, but he wound up getting his break through album-rock radio, with "The Way It Is" making the leap from AOR to the Top 40 by the end of the year. An impassioned song about the state of civil rights and compassion in the Reagan years, "The Way It Is" became an unexpected number one hit, taking its parent album into the Top Ten along with it. "Mandolin Rain" gave Hornsby & the Range another Top Ten hit, with "Every Little Kiss" peaking at 14, the cumulative success establishing Hornsby as a formidable presence within mainstream rock -- a status cemented by the group taking home the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1987.
Scenes from the Southside, the second album from Bruce Hornsby & the Range, maintained the band's momentum in 1988 thanks in part to the Top Ten hit "The Valley Road." Hornsby could be heard elsewhere on the pop charts thanks to Huey Lewis & the News having a number one hit with "Jacob's Ladder" -- Hornsby's own version could be heard on Scenes from the Southside -- and Don Henley collaborating with the pianist on his Top Ten hit "The End of the Innocence." This would be the peak of Hornsby's pop presence. After 1990's A Night on the Town, which featured the Top 20 hit "Across the River," he'd no longer place in the Top 40.
This transition away from pop radio happened when Hornsby began to actively pursue avenues outside of the Range. He jumped at the chance to play on sessions from the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Robbie Robertson, and Bob Dylan; he also produced Leon Russell's 1994 album Anything Can Happen. The most prominent of these collaborations was with the Grateful Dead. He first jammed with the group in 1988, but after the death of their keyboardist Brent Mydland in July 1990, he became their regular keyboardist through that summer, and he'd continue to play with the group until 1992, by which time Vince Welnick filled Mydland's spot.
Bruce Hornsby officially went solo with 1993's Harbor Lights. Featuring contributions by Jerry Garcia, Branford Marsalis, and Pat Metheny, the album found the keyboardist moving in a jazz direction, an avenue he continued to pursue on 1995's Hot House. During the middle of the '90s, he circulated through the various Grateful Dead offshoots that surfaced in the wake of Jerry Garcia's passing, while also completing the sprawling 1998 double album Spirit Trail. Throughout this period, Hornsby's concerts became increasingly loose, experimental affairs where guests were welcome on-stage. He captured this vibe, along with his new backing band, on the 2000 LP Here Come the Noise Makers.
That album inaugurated regular live and studio collaborations with the Noisemakers. The first studio set recorded with the band was 2002's Big Swing Face, which ironically emphasized digital beats and synthesizers over live improvisations. Halcyon Days returned Hornsby to familiar musical territory in 2004, neatly teeing up the release of the retrospective box set Intersections (1985-2005) the following year. Hornsby stepped away from the Noisemakers in 2005 to record Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland, the pianist who hosted an NPR radio show of the same name. He continued to pursue extracurricular activities in 2007, recording a duet album with Ricky Skaggs (the aptly titled Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby), then the jazz album Camp Meeting with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette. Hornsby returned to the Noise Makers for 2009's Levitate, and the band were also showcased on the 2011 live set Bride of the Noisemakers. It was the first in a series of live albums, quickly followed by the Skaggs collaboration Cluck Ol' Hen and Solo Concerts in 2014.
During this period, Hornsby began concentrating on working as a screen composer. He often worked with Spike Lee, contributing to the soundtracks of Red Hook Summer, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and the television adaptation of She's Gotta Have It. This activity coincided with Hornsby's profile being elevated after Bon Iver's Justin Vernon cited the keyboardist as a pivotal influence. Vernon and Hornsby struck up a collaborative relationship. Vernon appeared on Rehab Reunion, then Hornsby returned the favor by appearing on Bon Iver's 2019 album I, I. That same year, Vernon guested on Absolute Zero, an adventurous, electronic-inflected record that was Hornsby's first solo album since 1998's Spirit Trail. His creative streak continued in 2020 with another solo album, Non-Secure Connection. A wide-ranging and ambitious set, it was led by the single "My Resolve," a duet with the Shins' James Mercer. Hornsby returned in 2022 with 'Flicted, a record partially based on film cues he wrote for Spike Lee and featuring cameos from Ezra Koenig, Blake Mills, and Danielle Haim.