A look back at Spirit Trail – the build-up

Beginning our look back at the release of Bruce Hornsby’s Spirit Trail in 1998. Come back throughout October as we regurgitate reviews, newsletters, interviews and the old “newsgroup”…

Fall 1996 Bruce Hornsby newsletter:

The New Album

Bruce is currently at work on his sixth album, as yet untitled, which will likely be released in the spring of ’97. Dennis Herring is co-producing the album. The band (John Molo on drums, J.V. Collier on bass, J.T. Thomas on keyboards, John D’Earth on trumpet, Bobby Read on saxophone, and Debbie Henry, vocals) has been recording in Bruce’s studio in Williamsburg in November. Bruce will be recording in New Orleans in December at Herring’s request and will return to Virginia for more recording in January. Song titles include “See the Same Way”, “Sad Moon”,”King of the Hill”, “Preacher in the Ring”, and “Resting Place”.

November 8 1996:

Daily Press: Bruce Hornsby Heading Back to the Studio

After a year of intense gigging – much of it solo – has Williamsburg’s resident rock star Bruce Hornsby eager to make tracks.

Last week, the 41-year-old piano man said he will soon begin laboring on his sixth album at his home studio in James City County.

Hornsby’s last few releases have revealed a steady shift away from rigid pop formulas in favor of a more improvisational, jazzy approach.

But now signs suggest a greater departure.

Hornsby hopes to complete the album over the next few months, which would be quick by his standards. His albums are typically highly polished projects that require painstaking craftsmanship. The next one is likely to be more raw and immediate.

The Bruce Hornsby newsgroup:

June 13 1997

Elizabeth J:

“According to the updated “Official” Bruce Hornsby Webpage, the tentative release date for Bruce’s sixth album tentatively titled, “Spirit Trail” is early 1998″. 

Spring/Summer 1998 Bruce Hornsby newsletter:

Double Album

Bruce has basically completed work on his sixth record – and in the end, it has become his sixth and seventh record – a double album containing twenty new songs. CD1 contains the first record Bruce and the band recorded, with major contributions from other musicians such as John Leventhal, guitar; Matt Chamberlin, drums; and John Pierce, bass (the latter two being the rhythm section for the New Orleans Kingsway Studio sessions). It generally includes longer, looser musical approaches, as opposed to CD2, recorded from October to December 1997 in Virginia and New York, which deals with shorter, tighter songs. The double album should be released sometime in late summer (barring last-minute artistic paranoia and freak-out) with a short tour to coincide with the in-store date.

August 21 1998 interview with Kink FM (transcription by Miguel Danielson):

Bruce Hornsby talks about his forthcoming double CD “Spirit Trail” in an exclusive interview with Jeff Clarke.

Jeff Clarke: It’s a heck of a Monday to you on Kink Fm 102. It is a …
Bruce Hornsby: It is a Monday?
JC: Is it already?
BH: I don’t think so. Isn’t it Friday? (laughs)
JC: The days just went by. Best of a Friday afternoon to you. Did I say Monday?
BH: I think you did. Yeah.
JC: Oh boy.
BH: Someone can call in and correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought you said it was a heck of a Monday afternoon. I’m thinking to myself, “Wait a minute, I’m not sure about that.” Anyway, whatever.
JC: Must be overwhelmed by the presence of one of my favorite musicians.
BH: (laughs) Oh wow.
JC: It is indeed an honor to…
BH: You’ve made me speechless…
JC: Could you stay that way for a second so I can finish introducing you?
BH: Oh, excuse me.
JC: Bruce Hornsby, thank you very much for stopping by. I want to welcome you back to Kink. This about the third or fourth time.
BH: Always a pleasure.
JC: It’s a pleasure for us. Bruce Hornsby and his band doing a concert out at Sokol Blosser Winery tomorrow night…
BH: Yeah, what kind of place is this? I’ve never been out there.
JC: It is set in the beautiful, spacious, rolling green farm hills of the lower Willamette Valley, not too far from Dundee. I think it may bring out some of the best in your musicianship.
BH: Well, you know, we’ve got some new players in our band now and we’re just breaking them in. We’re having a great time with them. There’s a great spark going on with our band. A lot of new things happening. And we’re playing a lot of our new songs from our new record, which is great fun also.
JC: I wanted to ask you, who is in the group now, Bruce?
BH: Well, we’ve got a new drummer named Michael Baker, who use to play with Wayne Shorter.
JC: Top jazz cat.
BH: Yeah, he’s a great player. I’ve got a new guitar player with the Ben & Jerry name of Doug Derryberry.
JC: That’s catchy.
BH: Yeah. And there’s a lot of guitar on my new record. A lot more than ever, really. Almost all of it played by John Leventhal, who was most of the sound of the latest Shawn Colvin record. Leventhal is a great arranger, producer, and parts player.
JC: Is he in the band tonight?
BH: No, Leventhal is not, but this other guy Doug Derryberry is playing his part. As I was saying, I needed a guitar player now because I’ve got so much guitar on the new record
JC: Gotcha You’ve done a couple of albums that featured very little guitar that were very keyboard dominated.
BH: Well, that’s right, but there’s actually quite a bit of guitar on them but it’s not rock guitar, it’s jazz guitar. Pat Metheny is really the star guest of my last two records, “Harbor Lights” and “Hot House.” He played on five or six tracks on each record. But it’s not guitar as we know it, standard rock, pop, world music. Pat was just up there blowing on the records.

JC: He’s such a great player, period. Bruce, your forthcoming record, “Spirit Trail”, let’s talk a little bit about that. It’s quite an ambitious undertaking. It’s, in a way, your sixth and seventh album.
BH: That’s exactly right. I wish RCA would give me credit for that. (laughs)
JC: Fullfill your contract. Is it your “Exile On Main Street” your “White” album?
BH: I don’t know what the hell it is. All it is is sort of the record of my work for the past three years. What happened was, I had almost finished the first record. It was just going to be a single record. I didn’t have the grand ambition. But I was not quite finished with it when I had to go on the road last year with the Further Festival, the post-Grateful Dead thing.

I was on the road for two and a half months and there is a lot of time on your hands on those gigs. You play for an hour and then you sit around and wait for the obligatory jam at the end of the night. So I started using my time wisely. I started writing songs and by the end of the tour I had about seven or eight things that I thought were pretty good, pretty strong.

I felt good about them so I thought, “This is stupid not to record these. Who knows.”And so I hadn’t finished the first record and I started recording a second record. When it was all done I really felt that they were two very different entities, two very different types of records.

The first record was more about a band playing live in a studio. A lot of piano, a lot of stretching out with seven minute songs. The second record was very much about tight song structures. Not a lot of soloing. It had loops, more sort or two guys working in the studio. Sort of the way a lot of records are made now.
So I really didn’t feel like I had to pick the best five from each record and create one record. I didn’t really think they went together. So it became the double record. Have you seen the cover?
JC: No, I have not.
BH: It’s a picture of my uncle Charles at a party in 1966 (laughs)
JC: Interesting looking cat.
BH: I’m showing him the cover. Uncle Charles.
JC: His eyes seem to be popping out just a little bit.
BH: He’s got a cigarette coming out of his ear.
JC: Having a good time
BH: It’s sort of the life of the party picture.
JC: Where’s the lamp shade?
BH: Yeah, exactly. That was the next move, I guess. You’ll definitely know the record. It’ll catch your eye in the store. It’s different for me. I had some less-than-serious covers before, but this is certainly the least-serious of all.
JC: We happen to have in our possession a couple of tracks off the CD. Is the song we’re going to play from volume one or volume two?
BH: Volume one. From the first CD, this features John Leventhal and the great Canadian violinist, Ashley McIsaak. He was the guy who was wearing a kilt on the Conan O’Brien show, and the kilt came flying up to reveal…..nothing but skin underneath.(laughs)
JC: He wore it in the traditional fashion.
BH: Exactly.
JC: I believe we play a tune off one of his solo albums here on Kink, I forget the title. Let’s do this song from the forthcoming album by Bruce Hornsby, “Spirit Trail.”

(Plays Great Divide)

JC: Kink Fm 102, we’re very proud to be one of the first, if not the first radio station in the country to unveil Bruce Hornsby’s new double CD set.
BH: Almost two months ahead of time.
JC: Yes, it comes out on October 15th. Make a notation on your calendar. That one called, “Great Divide.” Bruce, in its exploration of Americana, is the new album another version of “Our Town?”
BH: Well, all my records are that. But this is maybe a little more pointedly so. More musically, anyway. It’s a very Southern record, not so much of a jazz record on this one. It’s more coming from gospel and blues, funk, and folk music.
JC: I was going to say, Southern encompasses a very wide range of styles.
BH: Absolutely. Actually, there’s a good bit of New Orleans, sort of second line groove in there. We recorded about half of that first CD in New Orleans at Daniel Lanois’ house down there. So there is a feeling that you get from being down there. Something in the water down there.
JC: You’ve got me yearning for Professor Longhair now.
BH: Well, me too. There’s a sort of Longhair-esque on the record. Definitely some kind of Bo Diddley kind of groove. In fact I wish this song called “Pete and Manny,” was on that sampler of my new album you have.
JC: What’s that about?
BH: Well, it’s about a bunch of guys sitting around, me and my friends, laughing about other people, only to realize in the end that the joke was on us.
JC: That’s usually the case.
BH: It certainly was my experience. One of the verses goes, “Jimmy went and joined the gym, his posing was a sight. We thought he looked like a clown in tights, but we were the ones home alone at night.” (laughs)
JC: I can’t wait to hear the whole album, I’m sure we’ll be all over it.
BH: Well, thanks, I really appreciate it. There’s a lot of variety on the record. All types of things.
JC: Well, maybe it is your “White Album” in a way. (laughs)
BH: It could be. Who knows? There’s nothing on there quite like “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” Although I do have a line, “Getting coffee for the big stick, hand in his pants at the skin flick, leisure suit thinks he’s slick, etc., etc., so there are a few lascivious sort of left field moments on the record.
JC: Bruce Hornsby, the boy can turn a phrase. Bruce, of all the keyboard playing songwriters, you, for me, have always been maybe the most accomplished at playing the piano. But, you’re not entirely satisfied with your keyboard work. You want to take it to another level? What’s the next level?
BH: The next level…I’ve been working on the next level for years. There are a few instances on this record, once again, not on the sampler that we have here. But there are three or four piano moments that really illustrate my best use yet on a record of two handed playing.

I’m really developing a strong left hand and independence of the hands. It’s very hard to describe it in layman’s terms, non-musician terms. It’s all about getting a groove happening in your left hand. It’s a very solo piano concept. The left hand, when you’re playing by yourself is the band. So, it’s about getting that going and then being able to play rhythmically, very freely on top of that and still keep it solid.
It’s very difficult to do. It was sort of a door to pian- playing that I would open up and go, “This is too difficult. I don’t want to deal with it.” And I would close it back up again.
JC: Would this be an analogy or tell me if this is dopey. The right hand is the song and the left hand is the back up.
BH: Yes, that’s right. And when you have a band playing and another guy soloing that’s a lot easier because the soloist can do whatever he wants rhythmically and the other guys are going to be right behind him. But, when you are one mind trying to do both things it gets a little crazier.

I’m really pursuing the more intensity in my playing the last three years. I hope to some time come to Portland and play a solo concert and then you would really see what I’m talking. On the new record there are three or four moments where you hear that. The band goes away and it’s just me…for the first time on any of the albums that I’ve done.
JC: Your most recent gig. Before the one coming up tomorrow night was with the Atlanta Symphony. How do you like playing in that setting?
BH: I love it. There are certain songs of mine, especially the ballads, that really take to the orchestra accompaniment. Certain more folky songs, “Road Not Taken,” “End of the Innocence,” “Lost Soul” that I did with Shawn Colvin … there have been times when I’ve played with different orchestras where the sound and sonority of the strings section playing behind me is so intense I’ve forgotten the words.’

I do about one symphony concert a year. I’ve played with maybe five orchestra so far and it’s something that I’ll continue to do. It’s a nice way to grow old gracefully.
JC: Segue into it, a smooth transition. There’s a cue for the Oregon Symphony. Are you listening?! Bring Bruce Hornsby in for a gig.
BH: We get a lot of offers from around the country and I’m certainly interested in doing it. I’ve got about fifteen charts that we do. We need to update and get some of these new things. Speaking of that, the next song we’re going to play will make a very good orchestra piece.
JC: Our preceding rap might be a good lead in to this tune which is titled…?
BH:”Line In The Dust”

(Plays “Line in the Dust”)

JC: Bruce, I think you’ve got a winner on your hands.
BH: Thank you, you’re too kind. All I can say is I did my best. I tried my damnedest and that’s all I can do.
JC: Always striving to get better. The new album will be out October 15th. It’s refreshing that you don’t have any problem functioning as a sideman. You have recorded with, last I heard, seventy different artists. Quite an impressive line up. Are these sessions good for learning experiences?
BH: Some of them are. I wrote a song and played on a song on the new Randy Scruggs record, so it’s very country. And then I wrote and played on a record for a friend of mine Levi Little, who used to be in the group “Black Street” Talk about polar opposites.
JC: So you’re running the gamut but being a little more selective about it?
BH: Yeah. I’m doing it for friends of mine. You’ll generally find, when you hear me on records now, I really get to do what I want to do. It’s really a substantial contribution. That’s really what I want to do. I didn’t do it on his last records but I played on the last three Bela Fleck records just because I know that Bela is a good friend of mine and I know that he’s bringing me in there for the right reasons. He wants me to come in there and really play rather than…for several years, I said “Yes” a lot.

And, often I found that the people really wanted me there for the wrong reason. Meaning that they would want a name on a record. I would come away from it going…”You could have gotten anyone do what you had me play.” It was so perfunctory.

So I became more selective for that reason and also in 1995 my wife and I had twin boys and I didn’t want to be gone so much. I wanted to make my contributions count. There are a lot of records that I played on that I’m so proud to have been on…some of them as proud as I am of my own records. People like Bonnie Raitt, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” It’s just such a great song, I was just proud to be a part of her great performance.
Robbie Robertson wrote a great song for his “Storyville” album. We’re going to make a live album called, “The Other Ones.” Sort of a post-Grateful Dead, as close as you could get to the Dead in 1998. We had such a great time doing that during the month of July.
JC: Who’s on lead guitar? Nobody can really take Jerry’s place, but I’m sure you’ve got a fine picker in there.
BH: We replaced Garcia with two guys. Mark Karan and Steve Kimock. Have you heard of the band Zero? Steve Kimock plays for the band Zero and Mark Karan is a friend of the drummer in the group Zero, who is from L.A. So they sort of traded back and forth. I guess they felt like they couldn’t replace the big man with just one guy.
So, who knows what the future of The Other Ones will be, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did it again. It was truly big fun. The crowds came, the Dead Heads came back.
JC: I bet there were some magic nights.
BH: There really were. Some wonderful moments. When I played with the Dead in the early 90’s, at that point there were many more times when I would get the chills than when I was playing with my existing band, The Range. There weren’t quite as many moments like that this last time but there were certainly several. The Dead has so many great songs, “Wharf Rat”, for instance comes to mind, that I was fortunate enough to be the lead singer on. There were many times when I would get the chills playing that. Or “Scarlet Begonias.” So many great ones.
JC: I like “Tennessee Jed.”
BH: That is another one of my favorites. That one got to me a couple of time, too. I can’t say enough about what an enjoyable experience it was. I think nobody really thought it would go so well. There was a time in late May, when we were rehearsing with the four principle players, sitting around going, “I don’t know if we should do this? I’m not sure if this is good enough?” But luckily the addition of Steve Kimock at the end really helped us gel and brought the whole thing together.
JC: I sure wish you would send me some tapes.
BH: Well, you know, you’ll get them. These tapes, we’re trying to get this going for Christmas or a January or February release. Now, come on, you know there are tapes available. They’re floating around.
JC: Now, you were a member of a Grateful Dead cover band, “Bobby High Test And The Octane Kids.” Did you ever in you wildest dreams…
BH: Well no. Actually, that was my brother’s band. He was a big Dead head. My older brother, Bobby, who is a great bass player.
JC: Lyricists, too?
BH: No, that’s my younger brother…
JC: I’m getting your brothers mixed up.
BH: Yeah, it’s easy to do. There are three of us and I’m the middle. Bobby is the older brother and he’s the big Dead head and my younger brother, John is the one who’s written songs for me. So they both had their time playing music with me or making music with me in some way.
But my older brother turned me on to the Dead. He was one of those guys who in college would just roll to Atlanta from Virginia, or go to Boston and make a big party out of it. So I became familiar with the Dead and a fan of theirs. Then thirteen years later, they asked us to open for them. They had heard our first record and were fans. So Ry Cooder and my band, The Range, played two days at Monterey, CA and every year after that they would ask us to open two or three shows for them.

Then I started sitting in with them and this was all so amazing to all of us. It’s sort of like painting yourself into the mural, into the poster that you had on your wall as an 18-year-old. It was a beautiful thing and I never would have imagined so many things that have happened to me.

Leon Russell was one of my real heroes and he produced one of my records. Elton was a big hero of mine, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett. And these are all people that I know now, people that have become friends of mine. I don’t really know Keith Jarrett, but he’s an acquaintance. But otherwise, these are people that I know. I’m a very lucky person. It’s really special to become friends with people that you’ve admired for so long. Excuse my voice, but I haven’t had much sleep for days.
JC: Better give your voice a little rest tonight. Maybe a little hot water and honey.
BH: Yeah, or maybe just shutting up!
JC: I’m going to make you talk just a little bit more. The new album will be out October, 15th. In the last ten years or so a lot of outstanding musicians have emerged from Virginia, Dave Matthews, originally from South Africa, but he’s spent a lot of time in Virginia. Also, The Agents Of Good Roots.
BH: Oh yeah! You know them? They’re great guys. They opened for us some last year.
JC: In Virginia, is there something in the water or what’s the deal?
BH: Well, you’ve got to realize that this is a recent phenomenon. For years it was just me and a few other guys who would get deals but didn’t really have the fortunate situation where their records broke through. But, in the last three or four years, it has really come around. The band Cracker, they aren’t really from Virginia but they live in Richmond now. So it’s much more of a scene now. It’s never been a real hot bed. Before me, the last Virginian to have a hit record was Bill Deal and the Rondells. “What Kind of Fool”…beach music.
JC: Bruce, it’s always such a gas to talk with you. Want to wish you continued success. You’ve had so many accomplishment, so many satisfactions. What would you like to do that you’ve not done?
BH: Well, I want to make a bluegrass record, a solo piano record maybe from my solo concerts that I’ve been doing over the past two or three years. I want to make a jazz record, a record with an orchestra, a Christmas record…there’s four or five records right there.
JC: That ought to keep us hopping for a while.
BH: There are lots of places I want to go and those are just some of them.
JC: Well, we’re going to go there with you. Thanks for stopping by. We’re going to play one more from “Spirit Trail.” What’s the name of the track?
BH: It’s called “See The Same Way” and once again features John Leventhal in a big way. There’s a verse about the Million Man March, there’s a verse about the survivalists in the Ozarks or wherever they may be, and there’s even a verse about Jesus in there.
JC: Well, that covers most of the bases so we’ll check it out.

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