Bruce Hornsby has not rested on "The Way It Is." He probably could -- sometimes it seems like he could rest on the hip-hop songs that sample "The Way It Is." But in the 27 years since his biggest hit came out, he's been working not just on follow-ups -- 10 studio albums, by my count -- but collaborating across genres at the same time.
Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby are scheduled to perform Saturday, October 19, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
Whether having "The Way It Is" in his back pocket helped Hornsby experiment or not, it certainly didn't hurt. "RCA Records," his label from 1985 until 2003, "was always very supportive of my musical evolution . . . since I was going to experiment and work with different musicians through the years anyway, this situation was very nice for me, as I was left alone and allowed to do what I wanted."
That impulse didn't change after he left RCA. In 2007 that led to Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, which is exactly what it sounds like -- a collaborative record that combines new renditions of bluegrass traditionals with originals from both men and an almost unrecognizable version of "Super Freak." In 2013 they're back on the road together, touring behind a live album, Cluck Ol' Hen.
"I always thought I would do [a bluegrass album]," Hornsby says, "but I had no specific plan for it." The interest was certainly there -- in 1989 he contributed a song to a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, which won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Recording -- but the motivation to record an album came from Ricky Skaggs, as the two performed on a tribute record. "When he asked me if I would be interested in making an entire album with him, it was an easy yes for me."
The result might look a little like an anachronism in a discography that had been leaning toward more electronic sounds on albums like Big Swing Face and Halcyon Days, but to hear Hornsby describe it, the two impulses are more complementary than competitive.
"[It's] just a different mode of expression. When making so-called pop records . . . I have always been interested in making textually interesting records that explore different and new sonic areas . . .
"Making the bluegrass records are about a more natural recording process, where there are a bunch of guys in a room playing together and you're trying to capture a really strong performance the old-fashioned way."
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Which is exactly what Skaggs and Hornsby look to bring to Scottsdale over the weekend. Fans of either performer, he says, "should expect good songs -- and some classic songs, Monroe, Stanley Brothers, etc. -- hopefully played and sung well."