The Daily Press have always covered Bruce Hornsby’s career extensively. Here’s their review of Spirit Trail in October 1998.
October 9 1998 – Daily Press
Hornsby Conjures a New Spirit
“The art of the weaver has always been prized by society,” proclaims an essay inside the booklet of Bruce Hornsbys sixth CD, “Spirit Trail.” “For countless eons, crafts-persons have labored in situ to produce beautiful and durable creations from the bounty of the natural world.” The essay compares Hornsby’s music to the work of Native American artisans.
“Bruce is preserving the defacto tradition of the weaver-savant,” the essay claims. A bit pretentious for a pop record, wouldnt you say? Well, Youre onto something. The “weaver” essay was written by Chip deMatteo, one of Hornsby’s favorite partners-in-crime. The two have been pulling pranks at least since the early 70s when, as teenagers growing up in Williamsburg, they published “Piano Monthly.” It was a farcical music newsletter that eventually found its way into the rare books collection at the College of William and Mary.
More than any of Hornsby’s previous releases, the new album “Spirit Trail” which hits the stores Tuesday taps the Williamsburg maestros sly sense of humor. From the liner notes to the cover art, a goofy antique photo of Hornsbys uncle, the late Charles Hornsby, to the songs describing snake -handling, lounge lizards and imaginary friends, the disc revels in absurdity.
Absurdity, but not frivolity. “Spirit Trail” is certainly more freewheeling than earlier Hornsby discs. But it touches on weighty issues: racism, bigotry, religion. The disc shows Hornsby as a satirist, a keen observer of American life.
“The humor’s always been there, but may be in this one more so,” the 43-year-old singer and songwriter said last week from his James City County home. “Although I think of it as a very serious record, there are more of these sardonic moments.
“ The first song, “King of the Hill,” features stream-of-consciousness images describing a small-town factory boss. “King of the hill with his nightstick, caught up in accounting tricks, throw a bone to the poor hicks, got some candy take a lick…”
“This is not serious stuff,” Hornsby said. “It is, but its not, you know what I mean? It reminds me more of a Dylan Subterranean Homesick Blues. Sort of the earliest version of white rap.”
Often on the new disc, Hornsby trains his critical eye on himself. He admits that in the words of rock tunesmith Paul Westerberg, he who laughs first didnt get the joke.
The song “Resting Place” describes the struggle of an overweight person working to shed pounds. Aside from physical strain, he has to endure ribbing from friends and neighbors. Hornsby admits he’s cracked a few fat-guy jokes in his day. “The song is me writing reminders to myself to stop that mindset or attitude,” he said.
Then there’s the tune “Pete & Manny.” “Thats about me and my friends sitting around laughing at other people, when in the end we realize that, one, the joke’s on us, or two, they’re just doing what they need to do to get by.
“ Several songs were inspired by books. “Fortunate Son” draws from Lewis B . Puller Jr.’s prize-winning book of the same name. “Preacher in the Ring,” Parts I and II are songs about snake-handling churches described in Lee Smith’s novel “Saving Grace.” The album’s title comes from a lyric in Part I: “There was bitin’ and jumpin’ and moans and wails, believers out shakin ’ on the spirit trail.”
And, as usual, Hornsby writes about the people in and around Williamsburg. “You could call all my records Our Town, 1-2-3-4-5-6. I’ve always gotten inspiration from what I know about this area,” he told Billboard magazine in September.
The cut “Sad Moon” was pulled from a true-life experience. “I was sitting in a parking lot in downtown Newport News, eating drive-through junk food, when all of a sudden I’m startled by a knock on my window,” Hornsby said. “I looked, and it’s a hooker, about my age, maybe younger, she was asking me if I want a date. I said no and that was pretty much the extent of the encounter. “But I was looking at her as she walked away. This was the first time this had happened to me, the first time I had been accosted like this in my home area. It made me think, I could have gone to school with her. “ On “Sad Moon,” he used the experience as a launching point: “I think maybe I knew her in school / In my memory’s faded view / I remember years ago, her name / I barely knew / Years later I saw her in town / Knockin’ on my window talking loud / She said baby do you need a date / Or just a little foolin around / … Standing there and laying in wait / she looks at me and I look away / ‘Neath the sad moon.”
Musically, Hornsby is cooking up some new flavors. Jazz is out, for the most part. Instead, he toys with R&B, blues, folk and gospel. With the help of producer Mike Mangini, he injects his grooves with a dose of serious funk. Hornsby said the disk contains some difficult music. ”There are very challenging musical areas here,” he said, “More challenging than Ive ever put on a record.” So “Spirit Trail” comes as a curious mix of goofiness and ambition.
It’s Hornsby’s first double album. But he didn’t imagine the disc as a 20-song opus when he began work on it in late 1996. “I didn’t have designs to make a two-record set,” Hornsby said. “I was almost finished with my record when I had to go on the road last year to be a part of the Furthur Festival. I had all this time on my hands on the road, so I started writing songs. I liked what I was writing, so I decided to record the songs. Since I was writing on the road, I was writing on a little Casio keyboard, and I was writing a different kind of song. More simple song forms. ”
“There’s a definite difference between the first and second CD,” Hornsby explained. The first one includes longer songs, more piano solos. “The second record is more about tight structures,” he said. ”I felt that I couldn’t pick the best five from each, because I didnt feel they went together. I tried to reconcile and tried to combine; I couldn’t do it.”
He understands that a double album can be risky from a commercial standpoint as well as an artistic one. ”Let them have a ball with their critique. I’m well aware of the prejudice against this kind of thing,” Hornsby said. “Its always called sprawling and self-indulgent. ”So I guess this will be called my self-indulgent year.”