Back in the 1980s, when Bruce Hornsby couldn’t flip on the radio without hearing one of his tunes, the singer-songwriter failed to impress one listener: himself.
“It was kind of a drag,” Hornsby recalled of the time when his string of hits included “Mandolin Rain,” “The Valley Road” and the No. 1 single “The Way It Is.” “On the first album, I didn’t like all the songs. They could have been so much better.”
The piano player par excellence now faces a different problem. His new single, the radio-friendly “Gonna Be Some Changes Made,” is getting all sorts of airplay. But the perpetually active Hornsby, already touring to support his new album “Halcyon Days,” hasn’t caught it on the radio yet.
“I know it’s all over,” he said. “I just haven’t heard it.”
There’s a fairly good chance he will. The new single seems poised for widespread success, with radio stations picking up the track that includes Sting on backing vocals and Eric Clapton on guitar.
“It’s Bruce and the Brits,” joked the 49-year-old Hornsby, who duets with Elton John on another track. “Bruce and the British big shots. They’re all great people and good friends of mine. They’re incredible musicians and iconic figures.”
Hornsby’s no slouch himself. His run of hits continued well into the 1990s, with “Fields of Grey,” “Walk in the Sun” and “Harbor Lights.” But even when he wasn’t on the radio, the three-time Grammy winner was never off the music industry radar.
A rich musically resuméHis first Grammy came in 1987 for best new artist. “Jacob’s Ladder,” a No. 1 hit for Huey Lewis and the News, was a Hornsby composition. And Hornsby co-wrote, with singer Don Henley, yet another massive hit single: the wistful “End of the Innocence.”
More recently, he has guested at Bruce Springsteen’s annual Asbury Park, N.J., Christmas shows. And he’s in constant demand for his stylish keyboard work, performing on more than 100 albums with stars such as Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Robbie Robertson, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Seger — not to mention his two years on the road with the Grateful Dead.
“Halcyon Days” marks a return to the vintage piano sound that helped Hornsby sell more than 10 million albums worldwide. It marks his debut with a new label, Columbia, and follows its quirky predecessor, “Big Swing Face” — “a Bruce Hornsby record with no piano,” Hornsby said. “I still like it, but the record company didn’t know what to do with it.”
The new album, in contrast, features Hornsby’s distinctive piano playing on every track.
“I thought it was time to bring the piano back,” said Hornsby, although he acknowledged that swapping labels after 18 years with RCA influenced that decision.
“It’s something that’s attractive to new suitors, if you know what I mean,” Hornsby said with a laugh. “That’s how I’m known.”
Bruce has got gameHornsby is smart and funny in conversation, as likely to ruminate about roundball as recording — and quick to recount the time he defeated a teenage Allen Iverson in a game of one-on-one in their native Virginia.
“Three straight games,” bragged Hornsby, who wrote two of the all-time great basketball songs: “Rainbow’s Cadillac” and “The Old Playground.” The new album contains a sly hoops reference, too: “Heir Gordon,” about a ne’er-do-well born into a wealthy clan.
Hornsby unleashes his sharp sense of humor on two other new songs.
“Hooray for Tom” sounds the lament of an underachieving kid-turned-underachieving adult, bemoaning how life went south after a loss in the school spelling bee. The winner was Tom, who easily spelled “crepuscule” — look it up — on his way to fame and fortune.
The song is paired with Hornsby’s self-deprecating and self-explanatory “What the Hell Happened to Me?” Both tracks evoke the sound of kindred spirit Randy Newman, one of Hornsby’s favorite writers.
“I called Randy up a couple of years ago and told him I was writing some Randy Newman songs, and he said, ’Be my guest,”’ Hornsby said. “I had been listening to Randy’s box set. Nobody writes as well as him, so I wound up doing my version.
“It’s Randy through Scott Joplin and Bill Evans.”
Hornsby, married with twin 12-year-old boys, drew from his family in writing much of the new material. “Dreamland” was a song for one of his sons, while “Halcyon Days” was written for his wife.
“Most of this record was inspired by being a family man, being a dad,” Hornsby said. “I was really happy with my family life. But you’ve got to be careful, because you can be real trite writing about your kids and happy times.”