MFD Interview with Bruce Hornsby


Since 1987 when his song "The Way It Is" became a hit and he won a Grammy as Best New Artist, Bruce Hornsby's career has encompassed a range of music as wide as America itself. He has crafted a distinctive body of recordings that draw inspiration from jazz, folk, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, electronica, and avant-garde music, while always remaining swinging and accessible. Hornsby's live shows with his bands -- the Range, and more recently, the Noise Makers -- pack tremendous power while retaining their improvisational edge. In the late '80s and early '90s, Hornsby made regular appearances with the Grateful Dead, re-energizing their music while gaining a whole new generation of fans. In 2007, he recorded Camp Meeting with two of the most gifted jazz musicians of our time, bass player Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and he also released a duo album with Ricky Skaggs, one of the most talented multi-instrumentalists in bluegrass.  I spoke with Hornsby from his home in Virginia.

Steve Silberman:  What do you think are the most important issues the country is facing in the next election?

Bruce Hornsby:  Certainly the war, energy policy, lack of bipartisanship in politics, the polarization of the electorate, and obviously the economy. I have a hard time blaming George Bush for the economy in a black-and-white fashion, just like I have a hard time giving Bill Clinton credit for the booming economy of the '90s. The economy is obviously a huge issue.  I'd like to see more openness in government. That's been a problem the last seven years.  As far as the voters go, I think the main issue right now is the economy, and then the war. With the economy going to hell these days, it's overtaken the war as the main issue, and I understand that.

Silberman: I hear you were going to call your great collaboration with Ricky Skaggs The Red States and the Blue States as a humorous comment on getting past your political differences. Why do you think the country has become so polarized in the last decade or so?

Hornsby:  I think it's been happening longer than that.  But in the current political climate, I think the Republicans have been very smart.  I think they made the right choice in choosing their presidential candidate.  Look at George Bush's approval ratings -- they're in the high 20s or at best low 30s.  A centrist, a more moderate Republican -- and McCain is not a "liberal Republican," as some conservatives would call him, but he is more moderate -- is the guy who has the best chance of winning of all those guys who ran. I think he will be formidable.  I also like John McCain because he seems to naysay these polarizing political tactics. You see him saying, "I don't want to campaign that way, I don't want to have negative personal attacks." I'm willing to take him at his word for now.  I think John McCain is a good man.  I think that the country has already won with the candidates out there now -- they're all better than what we've had.  And I think a lot of Republicans would agree. I think there was a congressman in Tennessee who said, "If McCain hadn't disagreed with us, he wouldn't have had a chance at being president. He's the one guy who can be the candidate for us in this cycle."  So a lot of conservative Republicans acknowledge that the brand is tainted right now.

I think McCain is on the wrong track with his support of the war. It's great that Obama is the one guy who was never for the war. Obama's not suggesting that we take all the troops out right away, but he's just trying to get to an end-point.  I'm with that, and I think most of the country is with that too.  Obama has a real problem with this Jeremiah Wright thing, and this Farrakhan thing.  Mostly he has a problem with it because the right is going to flog that, they're going to lambaste him all fall with that.  Farrakhan and Wright are going to  get more publicity than they ever wanted. Their faces will be splashed all over television for the next six months.  I think Obama needs to go on the Fox shows --  the O'Reilly show, the Hannity show, even Rush  Limbaugh.  I think he needs to go into what he would perceive as enemy  territory and address it with them, straight up.  I think he gave a  great speech about race when the Wright thing first blew up.  That was a great moment for him, and he even wrote the speech himself, and that's rare.  He's so sharp.  He's got so much going for him.  But this thing -- he needs to deal with this I think.

People make a big deal about Obama's lack of experience.  All anyone needs to look at is the way his campaign has been run, which is exemplary.  I think political operatives will be studying his campaign for years, because it's been run so well, don't you think?    Just on a grassroots, nuts-and-bolts, organizational level -- anyone who says this guy is not a good executive, I'm sorry.  Just look at that. That's his proof positive.  The Clinton campaign had all these problems, and Obama's had very few.

Silberman: One of the reasons why his campaign has been so successful is that he's been able to mobilize and energize young people to get into politics.

Hornsby: Well, that's fantastic. So many more new voters have been registered because of the excitement surrounding Obama's campaign. Some women were excited by the Clinton campaign, so I don't think you can give all the credit to Obama.  But I would imagine you could give him most of the credit.

Silberman: For many young people who have grown up during the Bush era, the thought of getting involved in electoral politics has been depressing. You played with the Dead, and some Deadheads are apathetic about politics.  I've even heard some younger Deadheads say "Jerry [Garcia] would never have played that benefit show for Obama."

Hornsby:  That's not necessarily true.  Garcia was real friendly with [Vermont Senator] Pat Leahy, and we had Bruce Babbitt [former US Secretary of the Interior and Arizona governor] at our gigs. Tipper and Al Gore would come to the Dead shows.  Garcia was very politically interested. The Dead went to the United Nations once to talk about the Rainforest Action Network.  If Deadheads think Jerry was politically apathetic -- that's just not true.

I'm not one to jump in someone's face and say, "You should get involved in politics."  But the great thing about Obama is that he has inspired passion in people who were apathetic before. That's going to be a real key to his success -- the fact that his candidacy has inspired so many new voters to register.  I guess when you asked me the question about the Bush years, you were leading me in the direction of saying that there is good reason now for people to get involved in politics, but I'm not going to get on a soapbox.  I think it's a personal choice.  Sure, I disagree with most of the things that George Bush has done, but for instance, I think he was right on immigration.  He was very moderate on immigration.  He was a Texas governor, and I think he's sympathetic to the cause of immigrants.  He just got shot down by the right -- he was too liberal for them!  So, I'm not going to completely naysay the guy.  I think Bush has been really good in Africa -- he's been really forthcoming with the funds for the battles against AIDS and malaria.  There are some good things he's done.  I know that's an unpopular statement among people who want to judge their politics in black-and-white terms, and in most cases, yes, I've disagreed with him.  But not in all.

Silberman: The first song of yours that made an impression on a mass audience, "The Way It is," talked about racism and contained the line "Some things will never change."  But now we're on the threshold of nominating the first black candidate for President from a major party.

Hornsby:  "Some things will never change" is a statement of resignation, but the most important line in that song is the one that comes after that:  "But don't you believe 'em."   So I've always been about being strong when resignation is a possibility.  Trying to pull up from that and have a positive outlook so that things can change. That's a song about the civil rights era:  "They passed a law in '64 to give those who ain't got a little more."  So for me, it's great to see the first black nominee.  I know he's not the nominee yet, but things seem to be heading inexorably in that direction.  I think the country should be proud.  I think it's a fantastic moment.  Once again, Obama has to be damn careful, because they're going to trot out all his church baggage, and that's tough.

Silberman:  Lately, the Republicans and a lot of the media have been focusing on Obama's alleged inability to connect with working-class voters.

Hornsby:  Of course they have.   They're playing hardball. The interesting question is whether Obama can turn that around and try to appeal to that demographic.  That's a good challenge for him.  Like when he made that "bitter" comment that they're wearing him out with.  He's admitted that he made the statement in a less than artful manner.  You have to be so careful these days.  I think some of the points that he made are right there, but when you talk about people "embracing religion" -- you have to be so careful.  I think he will be.  He's a very bright guy, and I'm really impressed with him.

Silberman:  You made a contribution to Obama's campaign last year, very early on. What was it about him that attracted your support?

Hornsby:  Yeah.  We've been Obama supporters for a year.  I really hate the nastiness of politics, as you can hear in the way I'm talking.  I try to see both sides.  I've supported John Warner here in Virginia.  I think he's a good man who has done a lot of great things for our state -- a longtime Republican Senator, he's just retiring now.  I was impressed with Obama originally because I thought he was trying to bring a less divisive, less combative way of dealing in the political area.  I would really like to see that.  Maybe it's impossible, because there are people on both sides who are so caught up in this, and so emotional about it.  But I'd sure like to see it happen.  I really believe Obama when he says he's looking to do this a different way -- to introduce a different emotional way of dealing in the political world.  That's what drew me to him right away.

Silberman:  I don't know how much you hang out on the Internet, but do you see it as having a sweeping effect in politics on how messages get out?

Hornsby:  I'm not a fan of the Internet, and in this situation, it seems like the Internet is an area where you can get online and just be as nasty as you can and as anonymous as you want to be -- and that's a bad combination.  When somebody doesn't have to be accountable for what they say, or the rumors they spread in the political arena, nothing good comes out of it.  Obviously it's a great source of information -- for instantly finding out what's going in the world for the past hour, for example. On the level of information access, that's fantastic.  But in this other way, I think it's really regrettable.

Silberman: Have there been any moments in the campaign recently when you feel like you got an insight into Obama's character?

Hornsby:  I was proud of Obama that in this tough economic time, when gas prices are running amok, he resisted the pandering stance that the other two campaigns took with the gas tax.  If you're going to use tax policy to shape energy strategy, I would think you'd want to raise taxes on the thing you want to discourage people from using -- gasoline being one of them -- and you'd want to lower taxes on things you want to develop, like renewable energy technology. I thought it was great that Obama didn't take the lower road like the other two candidates.

Silberman: A lot of people are talking about this country needs "healing" on a political level.  Do you sense that?

Hornsby:  Well if it does, I think Obama could be the one to do it. Although I don't think McCain's bad in that regard either.  I don't think he's a polarizing figure, and I like that about him.  I think unfortunately for Hillary Clinton -- and it's not necessarily her fault -- she had so many years in the arena where people were bashing the crap out of her. I feel for her in that way. I like Hillary Clinton.  I think she's incredibly bright and incredibly capable.  But I think Obama can do it, and I hope he can.  It's a nasty game.  But I think he'll try.  I don't think he's such a hard ideological cat.  I think Obama's personality lends itself to bridge-building and healing.