Almost three decades ago, he was pegged as a pop singer/pianist with the mainstream breakthrough success of “The Way it Is.”
But Hornsby is not a pop star. Never has been. Never will be.
He’s an artist, a musician, a guy capable of putting his remarkable piano skills to work with the Grateful Dead. And with Spike Lee soundtracks. And with jazz players and his Noise Makers and Ricky Skaggs.
This year he’s doing a few shows with Skaggs. Then he’ll tour with the Noise Makers. As well as Pat Metheny. And then Bob Weir.
See a pattern here? No? That’s because there is no pattern.
Hornsby, 59, is joyfully diverse about where he brings his talents, which on Tuesday will be Symphony Hall for a show with Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.
He is also as laid-back, self-deprecating and wryly funny as ever when he calls from his longtime home in Williamsburg, Va. — “My next move is into a pine box,” he jokes — to talk about bluegrass, set lists and Jackson Browne.
Q: You and Ricky have been working together for several years now. What do you think you bring out in each other?
A: I think we'll play together for as long we live. He's my country soul brother. I think (Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder) like it when I come around because I change things and I'm always looking to make it new. That's just my standard approach to making music in a spontaneous way. What I get out of them is the joy of playing with freaks, with incredibly virtuosic players.
Q: The piano and bluegrass aren’t typically synonymous, but you seem to have made it work.
A: No, but if you hear it, it's very natural. This is not new for me. Back in '89, I (ticked) off all the bluegrass purists by winning a bluegrass Grammy (best bluegrass recording for "The Valley Road" with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). I did the Telluride Festival in '89 with New Grass Revival and in the mid-'90s, I recorded the title song on Randy Scruggs' record, "Crown of Jewels." I've been making these brief forays into the bluegrass world for years, but this live record ("Cluck Ol' Hen," the Skaggs/Hornsby collaboration released last year) is the first time that the traditional bluegrass community, from what Ricky tells me, has really embraced it, and gone, OK, this really is something special.
Q: How flexible are these shows? Do you typically stick to a similar set list?
A: This is probably the gig I do that has the tightest set list because there are so many guitar tunings and capo settings, it's hard to just wing it. With my band, we haven't had a set list since 1990.
Q: You recorded “I’m Alive” for the Jackson Browne tribute album (“Looking Into You,” out April 1.) Why that song?
A: Well, I started a music program at my old school, University of Miami, about five years ago. I got Jackson about two or three years ago to come do a concert for us and he said, "I'll do it if you'll play with me some." He came to this show at UM and I brought my dulcimer. He had sent me a live record of his that he did in Spain and it opens with "I'm Alive." This version, I just loved it, so I said, "Hey, can we do 'I'm Alive'?" I know every harmony, I can play it in my own half-assed way. It worked out great. We did it again in Newport News (Va.) after that, so it was totally obvious which one I would do (for the record). It's very simple, very folky.
Q: What’s on deck for you the rest of the year?
A: As usual, there's lot of projects. Later this year we're doing a solo concerts record, culling the best performances really from the last couple of years. When you have a laser sharp focus on something, you realize, at least for me, you know what? I'm really not very good at this. I've done about 60 solo concerts in the past few years and I don't use much material from the first 30 or 40. If you're a tough self-critic, you listen and you go, "No good." My life is keeping the self-loathing at bay (laughs).