Despite garnering his fair share of hits in the ’80s, singer-songwriter and pianist Bruce Hornsby never bowed to commercial interests.
From his early work in the ’80s with Bruce Hornsby and the Range, which spawned some of his most well-known hits, such as “The Way It Is,” to his later experimentation with everything from bluegrass to hip-hop collaborations, he has always done whatever he’s wanted to musically with little interference from record labels or industry bigwigs.
“I was never in this to be commercial, even when we were having big hits,” he said from his home in Williamsburg, Va. “Those songs that were hits, they weren’t standard Top 40 fare at all — ‘[The] Way It Is,’ ‘Mandolin Rain,’ et cetera, they just weren’t. The subject matter, the instrumentation, the amount of improvised soloing that was going on — it was hardly the pop formula at all.”
Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second St., Troy
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
How Much: $45, $35, $30
More Info: 273-0038, www.troymusichall.org
In fact, he’s managed to avoid outside pressure until recently. Since 2008, he’s been working on a musical with childhood friend Chip deMatteo handling lyrics, and Clay McLeod Chapman writing the book. When they announced their initial title, “SCKBSTD” (a stylization of “sick bastard”), producers balked. So when the play debuted at the Virginia Stage Company in January 2011, it was called “The Stranger.”
“Look, in my experience, the word ‘bastard’ is off-putting to people of a certain age, say 70 or over, like my mom,” Hornsby said. “My mom was not a fan of the title ‘SCKBSTD’; now she’s OK with it. But ‘bastard’ for a certain generation was like a four-letter word. But that’s not at all the case now.”
“The Stranger” was the musical’s title for roughly 10 months — the promotional website is still strangerthemusical.com. But recently, Hornsby and company had a change of heart — the play is once more titled “SCKBSTD,” and Hornsby is much happier that it is.
“I bowed to that feeling, much — against my nature and against my will, sort of, and we changed it to ‘Stranger’ for a while,” he continued. “It didn’t matter, and it didn’t mean anything. We just realized, you know, we shouldn’t do this — we should sink or swim by what we like, and not cater to someone else’s notion, misguided or not, of what will be, quote, ‘commercial.’ ”
When Hornsby performs solo at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Saturday night, part of a series of weekend shows he is closing out the year with, he’ll include many of the songs in the musical. Currently he is looking to get the play on Broadway, but it’s “very difficult.”
“If you know much about the Broadway scene, you know what I’m talking about — it’s extremely difficult to raise the large sums of money that are needed to mount a production,” he said.
The pianist won’t be ignoring his back catalog at the show, which will undoubtedly be quite different from his last appearance at the Hall, a bluegrass duet with mandolinist Ricky Skaggs. He described his solo performances as “a very ambitious attempt at deep musicianship.”
Basic american forms
“It’s really rooted in basic American music forms, like blues, boogie, folk, the hymnals, stride piano, New Orleans piano,” Hornsby said, “but also influenced by modern classical music and even musical theater.”
He’s aware that many audience members are only interested in his hit singles, and he will deliver those. At times he’s taken requests, and will also answer audience questions.
“We have our different areas where we have sort of attained a very devoted following of deeply interested people — and then there are other areas that I’ll go to where it’s more what you’d call a soft-core audience, that really just knows about five or six songs,” he said. “And that’s fine; like I say, I’m fairly nice about that. I placate that. But in my own way — I hope you recognize the songs.”
Although nothing is off-limits at a solo show, according to Hornsby, his song list for solo shows is different from the one he draws from with his main band, the Noisemakers.
“There’s very little that I’m not interested in playing. There’s some songs that don’t really work so well solo, they’re more band songs,” he said.
“It’s funny; the band song list, which is about 100 songs long, is very different from the solo song list, which is about 60 or 70, 80 songs long. Lots of times, they’re very different repertoires, oddly enough.”
At least one of his hits has dropped off the live song list, though.
“I think like anybody who’s had a long career, there’s some songs that age well and some songs that don’t,” Hornsby said. “For instance, I don’t play the song ‘Every Little Kiss’ — it was a big hit for me in 1987, but I don’t care about it now. It doesn’t resonate with me now, so I don’t play that, for instance.”
As usual, he is keeping busy with plenty of projects. Last year, he released his second live album with the Noisemakers, the double CD set “Bride of the Noisemakers,” documenting the band’s 2007-2009 touring. He also composed the music for the 2012 Spike Lee film “Red Hook Summer,” the latest in a line of projects he has collaborated with Lee on. Next year, Hornsby will release his second collaboration with Skaggs.
“We may come back and play the Troy Hall again next year, with the bluegrass band,” he said.
Right now, getting “SCKBSTD” off the ground is a primary focus. The story focuses on a small-town high school football star, Jim Reynolds, turned family man, who is haunted by his brother’s death in a car crash years before. A stranger comes through town, stirring rumors and anxiety in the townspeople, until Reynolds confronts him and in the process faces his own demons.
The idea first came from Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mike Raphael of development company Playwrights Horizons.
“Out of the blue I got this letter on Playwrights Horizons stationery, saying — the short version is, ‘We’ve heard your latest record’ — which was ‘Halcyon Days,’ my 2004 record,” Hornsby said.
“This was 2005, this was seven years ago now. And they said, ‘We think there’s three songs on here that sound like, sort of a nod to Broadway musical stylings, and we think you should be writing a play.’ So that got this whole thing started, and maybe about 2008 we came up with the idea for the play as it exists now, ‘SCKBSTD.’ ”