Aug. 08--On the new bluegrass live album by Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs, near the end of the tune "Toy Heart," Hornsby takes a rollicking solo piano break that connects ragtime and gospel with the high, lonesome sound of Appalachian string-band music.
When the Skaggs band, Kentucky Thunder, storms back in, it's as if two distant cousins have finally found friendship and are kicking up their heels together.
Oddly enough, it wasn't supposed to happen at all.
"That was a total mistake," Hornsby said in a telephone interview. "The song had ended. I didn't realize that was the ending and I kept playing."
The 58-year-old Williamsburg-area resident and Grammy winner knows how to think on his feet.
"So I'm going, 'Here I am and I'm going to make something out of this,'" he said.
The incident, one of the highlights of a live disc packed with dare-devil, acrobatic performances, illustrates the joy that Hornsby finds in playing bluegrass with Skaggs and his razor-sharp acoustic band.
It's nearly impossible to throw off musicians as skilled as those in Kentucky Thunder. That means Hornsby's mind and fingers are free to explore -- even when there's a risk of slamming into a dead end.
As "Toy Heart," shows, sometimes the risks pay off.
"That's one of those special moments," Hornsby said. "My thing is always about music in the moment and finding new ways to do things -- hearing what somebody does and taking that and making it the next musical move."
"Cluck Ol' Hen," Hornsby's live album with Skaggs, is set for release later this month, but the piano master is currently out on the road with a different set of collaborators. The tour that brings him to nTelos Wireless Pavilion in Portsmouth on Sunday features the acoustic-based jam band Railroad Earth as well as Hornsby's own backing band, The Noisemakers.
Hornsby said he's found kindred spirits in Railroad Earth, a rock band that draws heavily on country and bluegrass traditions.
"I sit in with them some and they sit in with me a lot," Hornsby said. "So there's a serious nod to the bluegrass world on this tour. That makes it great fun ... I've loved playing with them. I would do this with them anytime."
Some musicians grow more conservative as they age, but Hornsby has done the opposite. Over a decade, he's made two bluegrass albums with Skaggs, recorded a jazz trio album and penned songs for a Broadway-style musical, "SCKBSTD." Last year's album was the soundtrack to Spike Lee's film "Red Hook Summer." That disc was mostly comprised of gentle piano solos.
Hornsby still enjoys playing solo piano gigs, where he can exercise freedom and face the ultimate challenge for a musician.
"Although Hornsby's solos tip-toed to the point of self-indulgence a time or two, he never crossed the line," wrote Orlando Sentinel critic Jim Abbott, reviewing a solo show in Florida earlier this year.
"Mostly," Abbott wrote, "the inventive interludes elevated signature songs such as 'The Way It Is' and 'Mandolin Rain,' the latter slowed down to close the show with a wistful flourish."
The review included a quote from Hornsby that sums up his musical outlook: "Why spend your life doing the same thing every day?"
Want to go?
Who: Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers and Railroad Earth
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 11
Where: nTelos Wireless Pavilion, 16 Crawford Circle, Portsmouth
Tickets: $20-$49.75 plus service charges from Ticketmaster
More information: pavilionconcerts.com or 393-8181
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