If you remember Bruce Hornsby only for his 1986 adult-contemporary smash “The Way It Is,” you would have been mighty surprised by the scene at Wisconsin’s Eaux Claires festival in August. Backstage, a host of indie rockers greeted the amiable Hornsby like visiting royalty. Onstage, he sat in during the high-profile live debut of Bon Iver’s new album 22, A Million, then later with the National, Jenny Lewis, Will Oldham, Phosphorescent, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Lucius during a Grateful Dead tribute set.
Those are just some of the artists who have aligned themselves with Hornsby lately, finding new inspiration in both his pop balladry and his more freewheeling later work, which encompasses jazz, bluegrass and his role as the Dead’s touring pianist. “He gathers from jazz and Keith Jarrett, from flow and the Dead, from soul and Sam Cooke. He just has it all,” says Vernon, who sings on Hornsby’s 2016 album Rehab Reunion and frequently salutes his influence on Bon Iver during interviews. “Plus, he loves basketball as much as music, which makes total sense to me.”
Ryan Adams also drew on Hornsby’s bright Eighties folk sound for his upcoming LP. “Without him, I would not have found myself in my music, now in my forties, finally settling in to the idea I can be myself without having to throw so much against the wall,” he tells Rolling Stone.
“They’re not just copying me or sampling me,” says the Virginia-bred Hornsby, who still tours frequently with his band the Noisemakers. “I think they’re channeling a certain aesthetic and finding their own way to express themselves within it. I’ll take it! I’ll accept the love with great graciousness and appreciation.”
The mainstream radio success of “The Way It Is” and its album of the same name won the artist an immediate audience, but it never quite made sense to Hornsby. “We were trying to be a newer version of the Band,” he says with a laugh. “Our record was all about fiddles and accordions and mandolins.”
Deep down, Hornsby is a “lifelong student” who has always been driven by “growing and evolving and changing.” That philosophy has certainly contributed to renewed interest in his eclectic catalog, but it can also frustrate fans who climbed aboard when “The Way It Is” first blew up: “It’s funny – at a concert of mine, half the people are there to hear six or seven songs from 1986 to 1991, and half the people wish I would never even play those.”
On tap next for Hornsby is a classical collaboration with Michael Tilson Thomas and scoring duties on a Netflix series based on Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. “It’s a broad musical world out there. I’m always engaged, and you can probably hear it when I talk,” he says. “It’s still exciting to me at 61, from Shostakovich to Leadbelly. I love it all.”