A look back at Spirit Trail – September reviews

Some of the Bruce Hornsby “newsgroup” chatter and more early reviews of Bruce Hornsby’s Spirit Trail, 25 years ago…

The Bruce Hornsby newsgroup:

September 11 1998


“Got my promo copy of the “Great Divide” today. The first single from “Spirit Trail” makes a great first impression with some impressive and “hooky” fiddle lines from Ashley MacIsaac. If you’ve been enjoying Bruce’s most recent travels in music, this won’t disappoint, but you folks looking for more piano oriented “Way it is” vibe will be disappointed. No piano prevelant in the mix at all.Still a great choice for a first single, good groove and 
hook…can’t wait for the advance full CD! Plain brown CD sleeve, lyrics inside with a single and album mix.”

Billboard – Monday, September 14, 1998

Hornsby taps ‘Spirit’

NEW YORK (BPI) — Bruce Hornsby’s sixth album, “Spirit Trail,” is an ambitious two-disc, 20-song set, dealing with sober themes like race, religion, tolerance, bigotry, judgment — and Hornsby’s frankly acknowledged “personal struggle with these issues.”

So why the cover picture of the bug-eyed old man with a cigarette sticking out of his ear?

“It’s ironic to use an inane cover, because it’s a fairly serious record,” says Hornsby of the album, due Oct. 13 on RCA Records. “It’s a life-of-the-party picture of my Uncle Charles Hornsby from 1966. For the first time in several albums, I didn’t have a clear idea of a cover concept, and I thought I might go with one of those ECM [label] kind of covers where you just had the name of the record and the artist on a blank background. Then I found this hilarious picture of Uncle Charles and as a joke showed it to the [RCA] art people.”

But then Hornsby started thinking. “Has there ever been an album cover for artists in my area of music — ‘singer/songwriter,’ whatever — that was this ridiculous and silly?” he asks. “It’s always a serious picture of the artist, the standard brooding singer/songwriter. And I thought about it and said, ‘…. Let’s make this the cover,’ because people who go to my shows know I’m a fairly frivolous guy, but otherwise people don’t know that this is very much part of my personality.”

Musically, “Spirit Trail” also departs from Hornsby’s more recent fare. “This is a very ‘Southern’ record to me,” says the Warner/Chappell (ASCAP) writer, a Virginia native who recorded most of it at his home studio outside Williamsburg (co-producing with Michael Mangini). “Its influence runs from gospel to blues to R&B to folk music, so I think of it as very Southern in that way and less jazz-influenced than the last two albums [1993’s “Harbor Lights” and 1995’s “Hot House”].

“I also recommitted myself three years ago to studying the piano, and that’s reflected in the record,” he continues. “It’s not your standard pop piano-playing but a different level of the use of the two hands independently.”

Hornsby didn’t intend the set to be a double-CD project and had nearly finished a single-disc set last summer when he joined the Grateful Dead-derived Furthur Festival.

“I had a lot of time on my hands sitting around waiting for the obligatory jam at the end of the night, so I started writing songs on the bus on a little Casio,” says Hornsby. “At the end of the tour I had seven or eight songs I was interested in recording which were shorter than the ones on the first disc — tighter in structure with not a lot of soloing or piano. I thought I should record them, too, and did, and after both records were finished, I didn’t think I could put them together — but that they went together in a musical context. So it became a double album.”

Hornsby thinks of the first disc as “notes to myself, reminders about being a better person,” he says, citing the track “Resting Place,” which deals with teasing an overweight person. The disc also “creates a very Southern feeling,” with sketches like the snake-handling congregations depicted in the two-part “Preacher In The Ring.”

The second disc, he says, “isn’t quite as pointedly Southern” lyrically, while still dealing with issues of bigotry, as in “Line In The Dust.” “But I’ve always written about my area,” Hornsby notes. “You could call all my records ‘Our Town, 1-2-3-4-5-6.’ I’ve always gotten inspiration from what I know from this area.”

Though “Spirit Trail” is a double album, Hornsby says it’s not “unwieldy,” clocking in at only 92 minutes. RCA vice president of marketing Cliff O’Sullivan calls it a “career-defining record full of very radio-friendly songs.” The first of those, the first disc’s “Great Divide,” which features Canadian violinist Ashley MacIsaac, went to a number of radio stations Sept. 8.

An Oct. 19 performance on “Late Show With David Letterman” will kick off a number of TV appearances for Hornsby.

The Q Prime-managed, QBQ-booked Hornsby, who also recently stinted with surviving Dead members as the Other Ones (having served as part-time keyboardist for the Dead from 1990 to ’92), is now in the middle of his own shows, to include a two-week run at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Calif., Oct. 26-Nov. 8. The Nov. 4 concert will be broadcast live on KFOG San Francisco and then syndicated nationally.

Other TV performances include “Austin City Limits” and a solo concert on Canadian outlet MuchMusic’s “Intimate & Interactive” series.


Gannett News Service – Friday, September 25, 1998

Bruce Hornsby following his ‘Spirit Trail’

The cover of Bruce Hornsby’s forthcoming album on RCA Records, “Spirit Trail,” features an eye-catching photo of the musician’s Uncle Charles taken at a family gathering in the 1960s. The two-disc, 20-song CD, recorded mostly at Hornsby’s home studio, will be in stores Oct. 13.

The photo depicts Uncle Charles about to light a cigarette — which is stuck in his ear.

“People have been asking me, what’s the significance of this cover,” says Hornsby, 43, a multi-talented vocalist, pianist and composer.

“It has nothing to do with the record — except that it’s a funny photograph. I couldn’t think of a better reason to put something on the cover,” he says with a chuckle.

To further expand on that theme, Hornsby says he’s also included in the CD booklet for “Spirit Trail” a photo of himself from his college years at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“I found the worst picture that I know of that exists of me, and that’s really saying something, ’cause there’s a lot of bad pictures of me,” he laughs.

Hornsby, says he wrote most of the songs for “Spirit Trail” while on tour last year. Most musicians who keep a schedule as frenetic as Hornsby’s prefer to do their songwriting at home, when they’re off the road. But not Hornsby.

How did he find the time to write while on tour?

“All that activity tends to burn you out a bit, but I wrote a lot of these songs while waiting around for the obligatory jam session at the end of the shows,” he says, referring to his tours with remaining members of the Grateful Dead.

“It was a unique situation last summer. I was sitting around so much, I just began writing songs out of sheer boredom,” he says.

“I got some ideas and I ended up at the end of the tour with a bunch of songs that were worth recording. Sometimes I’d get a song going and I’d be writing all night on the bus.”

Hornsby, raised in Williamsburg, Va., where he still lives, first captured the attention of the record-buying public in 1986 with his smash hit, “The Way It Is.” That breakthrough was the result of years of hard work on his part, including toiling on the Los Angeles studio and music publishing scene in the early 1980s.

By 1986, his gift for composition and arranging was noticed by the masses. In 1987, he won a Grammy award, one of three he’s received, for Best New Artist.

In the early 1990s, he learned he was exposing his music to a whole new audience by touring as a part-time member of the Grateful Dead, after the death of Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland.

“It boosted the recognition level with a certain group of people,” Hornsby explained of his Grateful Dead tours, “but for other people, they wondered why I did it. A lot of people didn’t know I even existed until I toured with the Dead. But I did that for the same reason that I put my Uncle Charles on the cover of my album: because it was fun.”

Hornsby, who was always a fan of the Grateful Dead, said touring with that band — and now the newer group, the Other Ones — as musically challenging.

“A lot of people may not realize it, but the Grateful Dead have a lot of good songs.”

So does Hornsby. A seven-song sampler from his forthcoming “Spirit Trail” is proof. One track in particular, “The Great Divide,” stands out for its candor about the state of black and white race relations in the United States. Accompanied by Cape Breton fiddler extraordinaire Ashley MacIsaac, and with lush accompaniment on keyboards, bass and drums, the track is a brilliant mesh of folk and pop melodies.

“I’ve been inspired by the storytelling tradition in folk music,” he explains, “and I’ve always tried to just do my version of that on my albums.”

Explaining “Great Divide,” Hornsby adds, “it’s about the fact that there’s generally not a deep connection made between black people and white people. It’s almost like a song to myself.”

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