In the mid-1990s, a decade after he showed the world and its airwaves that his soaring musical language included both Steinways and accordions, Bruce Hornsby took his family to the Annual Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, a town in the Appalachian southwest of Hornsby’s native Virginia that has hosted the event since 1935. The trip reconnected him with his Williamsburg youth, a time when bluegrass frequently provided an historical accent to mid-‘70s guitar rock, skittering and flowing out of high school gyms and trendy Georgetown bars, drawing halter-topped girls and suede-jacketed guys to Southeast festivals.
In the Galax parking lot full of campers and RVs, which he calls the site of “one big bluegrass pickin’ party,” Hornsby’s wife emerged unconverted but his preschoolers went happily wide-eyed and Hornsby himself bought a dulcimer. The seller in the booth at the Festival couldn’t hand Hornsby one to take home, but it soon arrived in the mail, this uncomplicated instrument with the “big rich ringing tone” that won over his ears, shipped from a company called Goose Acres in Cleveland.
A couple of decades later, that Galax purchase has yielded Rehab Reunion, Hornsby’s piano-free new album that features guest appearances by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as well as the magisterial soul-gospel singer Mavis Staples. Recorded in Williamsburg with The Noisemakers, produced by Hornsby, it’s a trenchantly sung ten-song collection that spins into intricate dramatic scenes mundane things like skipping town (“M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.”), calculating gratuities at restaurants (“Tipping”), and airport security as sensual experience (“TSA Man”). But it also captures rarer stretches of life that seek or attain transcendence.
“Some may ask, ‘Why?’, ‘What in the world?’” Hornsby says of Rehab Reunion. “What I’m doing here is not about virtuosity: It’s about a song and a singer. I’m really terrible at the dulcimer but that doesn’t stop me. It’s my punk moment.”
Rehab Reunion hardly came out of the blue, though. “My first records had David Mansfield on fiddle and mandolin,” Hornsby says, “and I was playing hammer dulcimer, where thin wooden mallets are used, and accordion of course. “ Earlier Hornsby songs like “Shadow Hand” (from 1998’s Spirit Trail),“Mirror on the Wall” (from 2004’s Halcyon Days), and “Prairie Dog Town” (from 2009’s Levitate) also featured or relied entirely on the dulcimer.
In his concerts those interludes often appeared and gained popularity – so much so that by 2011 the Bonnaroo Festival asked Hornsby, in addition to appearing with The Noisemakers, to perform solo with dulcimer on its Sonic Stage. “I gulped,” Hornsby says, “swallowed hard, and said OK.” Employing the entirety of his dulcimer repertoire, the set lasted forty minutes.
More recently Hornsby was writing with his longtime collaborator and childhood friend Chip deMatteo; they’d been at work on their ever-evolving musical SCKBSTD. He sent Hornsby the song “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.,” which appears on Rehab Reunion. “
“I was fooling around with the song on the dulcimer,” Hornsby says, “and it was something that just gave me chills. I loved what I had, using that instrument. So I put it down as quickly as I could. I recorded it, sent it to him, and I ended up writing four songs in that month. I thought, ‘Wow, this seems like something’s telling me that I need to make a record of this’, because I really like what I’m doing here.”
For Hornsby, the dulcimer provided a counterpoint to the work he’d been doing on his principal instrument, where he is one of the most accomplished players in international music. The dulcimer proved to be a kind of reverse cure.
“In my piano writing,” Hornsby says, “I’ve gotten really bored with triads. I’ve been that way for years. My piano writing has become more strange, chromatic and dissonant. But on the dulcimer I love the limited palette that you’re allowed to paint with. It’s just the white notes – it’s not even like a guitar, where the whole chromatic scale is on the fret board. On the dulcimer it’s just an old-timey instrument. It’s just scalar. So it limits your range and it makes you write real simple songs. I kept writing more and more. And all of a sudden the record needed to be made. “
Songs in the collection such as the two-chord title track, which celebrates the swinging bravado of the great Nashville honky-tonk singer John Anderson and the dulcimer/blues guitar “Hey Kafka,” which Hornsby describes as “Kafka-meets-Cream,” are bookended by “Over the Rise,” an emotional epic that features falsetto harmony singing from Bon Iver’s Vernon, and “Celestial Railroad,” on which Hornsby sings rousing gospel with Staples.
In the middle of the sequence is “Tropical Cashmere Sweater,” a songwriting collaboration with the Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, with whom Hornsby has written several songs, that is rhythmically as alive as last night’s stagger-beat club music courtesy of drummer Sonny Emory and bassist JV Collier. These moments, far from detracting from the critical dulcimer DNA of Rehab Reunion, only underscore the contemporary qualities of Hornsby’s personal engagement with the instrument. Stylistically, the collection ranges fluidly from a generation-spanning family saga like “Soon Enough” to reimagining the 1988 Hornsby classic “The Valley Road” for the Galax parking lot.
“I’ve tried to find my own way with this,” Hornsby says. “I know all the language of the ninths and the elevenths and so forth. But I tend to be moved to my core more by the most elemental gutbucket old-time music, whether it’s Rev. Gary Davis or Bill Monroe or shape-note singing, sacred heart music, the Shaker hymns. That stuff gets under my skin probably on a deeper level than some of the more advanced music I like. It’s all about what gives me chills.”
It explains why Rehab Reunion departs from most singer-songwriter sounds. “Most singer-songwriters,” Hornsby says, “are guitar players fond of big ringing chords. With the dulcimer it’s all just root/fifth/root. I’m playing thirds on some melody lines but it’s way more modal, way more simple, earthy and elemental. It makes the sound less like singer-songwriter sound. It’s pretty because it’s acoustic music, but the primitive nature of the genesis of the music gives things a different feeling.”
It’s a tremendous vibe from the uncomplicated yet resourceful heart of one, as Hornsby tends to refer to it, little dulcimer.
3-Time Grammy Award Winner with 13 Total Nominations
ASCAP “Song of the Year” Award Winner
2 RIAA Certified Platinum Records
2 RIAA Certified Gold Records
Virginia Legends Walk of Fame Inductee
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