Bruce Hornsby’s Joyful Noise

Virginia native Bruce Hornsby is performing at the Wolf Trap August 28. We talk with the Grammy Award winner about bluegrass music, his favorite records, and what it's like to play in his home state.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Bruce Hornsby is a lot more than his biggest pop hit, “The Way It Is”—he loves bluegrass.

Editor's note: As of press time, Bruce Hornsby is still scheduled to perform on Sunday. To check for cancellations, contact the Wolf Trap at (703) 255-1900.

Virginia has a lot to be proud of—Thomas Jefferson, Ella Fitzgerald, country ham. And Bruce Hornsby. The Grammy-winning Williamsburg resident, best known for his 1986 hit “The Way It Is,” performs at Wolf Trap August 28 with his band the Noisemakers. Here’s a conversation with the singer/songwriter.

You’re playing this show with Punch Brothers. . .
That’s one of the aspects of the show I’m most excited about, playing with those guys. Chris Thiley, one of their members, used to be in Nickel Creek. I met him years ago at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and he came up to me and said, “Spirit Trail [my sixth record] is my favorite record, and I’ve transcribed the whole thing.” And he started playing the songs on his mandolin right then and there. He’s a freak of a musician, such an amazing player, as are all the Punch Brothers. I’m hoping Chris will sit in with us because he seems to know the territory.

How long have you been a fan of bluegrass?
I graduated from high school in 1973, and right about that time, bluegrass festivals were springing up all over the place. It was just in the air. The Allman Brothers and The Band were firing on all cylinders, and a lot of their music had a country and folk influence, with a little bluegrass too. Even though I played an instrument that had nothing to do with the bluegrass scene, I just loved the music, and one of my favorite records was Will the Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In the late ‘80s they decided to make a second record, volume two, and they asked me to be a part of it. I instantly said yes, and put together a breakneck tempo version of a song I’d had a hit with called Valley Road, and the record ended up winning the bluegrass Grammy in 1989 and pissing off all the puritans who thought Bill Monroe should win every year. I love Bill Monroe, but I was very proud of that record.

You have an endowment at the University of Miami for songwriters. What advice do you give to people you mentor?
Follow your instincts and try to find your own voice. You can copy others to learn about what they do and broaden your palette, but in the end, nobody wants to hear your Joni Mitchell impression. And don’t follow the trends, because one you figure out one trend it’ll be on to the next one, and you’ll look back on years of always being late to the game.

What are you working on at the moment?
We’re working on our musical, SCKBSTD. It had its first run at the Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk in January, and now we’re fielding offers and interest from other companies around the country. We were picked up by the New York Times magazine last month as one of the edgy new plays in the Book of Mormon territory which has a good chance to hit Broadway. And we have our Bride of the Noisemakers record coming out, which is a sequel to the first record, Here Come the Noisemakers, from ten years ago.

What’s the experience of playing at Wolf Trap like?
Our first show there was in 1990, so I think we’ve been playing there for 21 years. It’s a beautiful setting, especially on a nice summer night, and we always enjoy playing there. I just hope this time we can persuade people to dance in the aisles. Our band is all about exuberant, joyful music onstage, so it seems a little nutty when you’re playing the funkiest groove and people are just sitting there, looking at you.

Apart from Punch Brothers, what other contemporary music are you impressed by?
I love Mumford and Sons. We were just playing at Bonnaroo, and I saw them there and they just tore it up.

Your song “The Way It Is” has been sampled and covered so many times. Do you have a favorite version?
Oh, sure. I love Tupac Shakur’s version. It’s called Changes, and it was a huge hit, and I love the checks. No, I really liked his version. It’s a positive message, and it’s flattering to know that such a fantastic, creative mind was interested in my music. There have been tons of people using it, double figures. It never ends, for some reason.

Tickets ($25 to $42) at 877-965-3872 or wolftrap.org.

A version of this article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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