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Bruce Hornsby Remains Restless After All These Years…

One of Bruce Hornsby’s favorite stories to tell comes from a time when he was a reluctant pop star.

In 1986, “The Way It Is,” the first single and title track from his first album (released as Bruce Hornsby & the Range), was a huge hit, eventually landing at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. During its reign on the charts, Hornsby took part in a radio station event that featured the other hot acts of the day hanging out to sign 8×10 photos and albums for fans.

“And so I look around,” Hornsby tells SPIN over the phone from his Virginia home, “and there’s Debbie Gibson next to me. And Tiffany on the other side. And New Kids on the Block. I go, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ Me. That’s what’s wrong with this picture.”

While the now 65-year-old artist has never felt comfortable with that kind of pop success, he is the first to acknowledge that “The Way It Is” and his other hit singles—either his own or those that he played a part in (he co-wrote Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence,” and can be heard on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”) helped propel him through the next three decades.

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What no one could have predicted was where Hornsby would roam along the way. Rather than chasing down more hits, he has kept himself open to sonic exploration and following his own musical whims wherever they might lead.

His most high profile gig found him regularly sitting in on piano with the Grateful Dead during that band’s final years. But there’s so much more. Since 1995, he’s regularly contributed songs or music for various Spike Lee joints, up to and including the Oscar-winning BlackKklansman and the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It. He’s recorded albums of piano jazz accompanied by legendary players Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette, and reworked his material as bluegrass songs to be played with Ricky Skaggs. And he’s added piano or synth melodies to albums by everyone from Willie Nelson to the Killers frontman Brandon Flowers.

“People will come up to me and say, ‘I’m your biggest fan,’” he says. “‘I like this song and this song,’ and they’re all from 1990 or before. And I say, ‘Well, thank you very much, but you’ve missed the best part.’ I’m not trying to be an asshole but I sincerely believe that.”

With last year’s Absolute Zero and his new album Non-Secure Connection, Hornsby leaves little doubt that he’s releasing some of the finest work of his career. Both are steeped in the melodicism of pop but informed by indie rock, contemporary classical, and Hornsby’s sly wit and progressive politics. On Connection, his various interests are in perfect balance. The woozy, dissonant ode to AAU basketball (“Shit’s Crazy Out Here”) sits comfortably next to the deep house-like “Bright Star Cast” that features lyrics inspired by the New York Times’ 1619 Project and guest turns by singer Jamila Woods and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. “Time The Thief,” a gorgeous, melancholic ballad about getting older, splits up a stirring opening song that he calls a “rumination on the positive and negative aspect of drones” and the minimalist title track, which uses samples of John Cage compositions and some “aural atmosphere” provided by avowed Hornsby fan Justin Vernon.

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