Q Magazine

Bruce Hornsby on His New Album, Collaborating With Spike Lee, and Playing With Everyone From Bob Dylan to Brandon Flowers

"I've been getting nasty letters ever since my second record, to which I replied in my mind, 'Well, if you think this is weird, you haven't seen anything yet!'"

wills q template
Source: Tristan Williams

When Bruce Hornsby sits around the house, he really sits around the house.

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Bruce Hornsby broke into the big time when he and his band, the Range, released their debut album, The Way It Is, in 1986. Thanks to the singles "The Way It Is," "Mandolin Rain," and "Every Little Kiss," the LP propelled them into stardom, but after three albums together, the members of the Range went their separate ways, providing Hornsby with the chance to follow his muse wherever it might take him...and make no mistake, it's taken him to a wide variety of places over the course of the intervening years. Currently, it finds him working with the chamber ensemble yMusic, with the pairing having just released their debut full-length collaboration, Deep Sea Vents.

Hornsby spoke to Q in advance of the album's release, discussing how he first encountered the members of yMusic and how they found their way into working together, but talking about that collaboration turned into a conversation about the wide variety of different artists who've been fortunate enough to have Hornsby participate in their recording sessions or on their soundtracks, from Squeeze to Spike Lee. Indeed, it can now be confirmed that there is actually an album out there that features guest appearances by both Hornsby and John Lydon. What album is it? Well, surely it's worth reading the interview to get the answer to a question like that...

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wills q template
Source: Tristan Williams

Bruce Hornsby: a vision in red

I know there's a video of you playing a version of "Mandolin Rain" with yMusic in 2019, but when did you actually first cross paths with them?

I was asked to play the late, great - at least right now, because it's dormant - Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Justin Vernon and Bon Iver, it's their festival. I guess it was in 2016 or so. So we were playing, we were in the slot on the schedule right in front of the headliner, Bon Iver, and I was gonna sit in with them, and that was always beautiful. Everything I ever did with those guys was very special. So we're waiting to play, and we're in our bus, and I decide to go hear the group that's playing in front of us, before we played. It was a combination of the great British female folk trio the Staves playing with this chamber music group, yMusic. So I walked out to the side of the stage and I'm checking this out, and I was just floored by it all. By both groups! So I reached out.

I didn't meet yMusic at the festival, but I asked both groups to play at my festival [Funhouse Fest] the next year. I totally copied Justin's layout, where they had a classical music stage. A smaller area, obviously, because of the smaller audience that draws. I thought, "I'm gonna do the same thing: I'm gonna have a second, smaller stage next to the main stage to play in the breaks between the set-ups and the sets of the larger-stage acts. So yMusic came and played on stage two. Actually, they did one set on the big stage and one set on the smaller stage. So that's when I first met yMusic. So I asked Rob Moose, one of their leaders, if he'd do some orchestration for me. And within two months, we were in New York City, recording songs for the record that became Absolute Zero, which was a big renaissance album for me in the zeitgeist in 2019.

So that album came out, and yMusic was all over it, along with Rob's solo string arrangements on some other songs. And in the fall of 2019, yMusic reached out to me out of the blue and asked me if I would like to do some gigs with them, just piano and vocal and chamber group. So I said "yes," we book five concerts for early March 2020. [Laughs.] I heard you laugh. Yeah, we got them in right before the world shut down! Our last gig was probably March 5 at the Strathmore Music Hall in Bethesda, Maryland. Well, that December, Rob had reached out to me and said, "Hey, would you be interested in writing a song with us? We can play it as our encore every night on our upcoming tour." So I said, "Yeah, send me some music!" So they sent me this track, and I wrote what became the title song for this record, "Deep Sea Vents."

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So we had such a great time, the song went over well with the crowd, and we had a great time playing it, and afterwards we said to each other, "We should continue this." Well, then the world shut down, so that kind of sent us reeling for a few months, but in the fall we started talking again, and they sent me a second track around November of 2020, and within two or three weeks I sent them back this next track, which was "The Wild Whaling Life," which leads off the record. It's our sea shanty. [Laughs.] We have our own sea shanty now, which is great fun. And with that, we were off and running, and we made what was basically a remote record, like so many people did during that era. So that's the origin story: Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival, and then my festival a year later.

Well, I had a chance to listen to the album before talking to you, thankfully, and...I always say that I started doing interviews because I ran out of adjectives to do reviews, but I'd still describe it as almost psychedelic, if not occasionally even Beatle-esque at times.

Well, that's astute of you. Yeah, I agree. The Beatles, for many years, have never been far from my consciousness when I'm composing, so there are several songs where I feel... The average person may not hear the influence, but to me, it's there. And absolutely that's in this one, too. So, yeah, good going. Nice work. [Laughs.]

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How much remote work had you done prior to this album? Was it something that was more challenging for you because you were having to work in that manner?

No, I had been working... Well, for instance, with Bon Iver, I wrote a song with Justin Vernon for their last studio record, I, I, which came out in 2019. It's called "U (Man Like)," and...I went to Eau Claire to work with Justin on Absolute Zero and some for my next record [Non-Secure Connection], all in one four or five day blast in his studio out there, April Base Studios. And then we would work remotely on those songs. He had me sing on the Bon Iver record on that song - I had one line, which was fun - so it wasn't new to me.

What was also not new to me - although only recently has this become a creative mode for me - I was fairly well-versed and comfortable with writing to a completed piece of music. Because the Absolute Zero record and Non-Secure Connection were all about my taking Spike Lee film cues that I'd written. I'd scored for Spike Lee for a lot of years and amassed this massive collection of 240 different pieces of music I wrote for him. He used about half of those, but...you throw it all against the wall and see what sticks. [Laughs.]

So those records are mostly about taking a film cue of mine that I'd written that seemed to be screaming to me to be turned into a song with words and then writing words over this basically-completed piece of music that I'd written. The song "Absolute Zero" is a perfect example, as is the song "Cast Off," which I wrote with Justin for my record, Absolute Zero. That was also a cue that had never been used that I took to Eau Claire, where we worked on it. So I was very comfortable with receiving a track, whether it's my own instrumental track or theirs, and just going, "Okay, let's go!" [Laughs.] "What do I hear?" And just sort of free-associate.

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How did you and Spike Lee first meet?

We met through our mutual friend, Branford Marsalis. Spike wanted to meet me, I wanted to meet Spike, and Branford was our friend, so Branford, Spike and I met in New York City at some diner and became friends, and I asked Spike to make a video for me for my upcoming record at the time, Harbor Lights. So Spike directed a video of my song, "Talk of the Town," which was a song about the first interracial romance in our town here in Williamsburg, Virginia, and all the consternation it caused, all the venom and vitriol it caused...mostly in the white community, of course. [Laughs.] So he made that video for us. It's great fun. I was driving a yellow cab around New York City and scuffling my ass off, but getting through it. Branford's in the video, too. So that's how we met, and then we continued to do things for several years. He called me up and asked me for an end title song for his 1995 film, a great one called Clockers. I'd just written a song with Chaka Khan, so we gave that to him, and it worked out well. We made a video again, in Harlem.

I literally watched it this morning. I'd never seen it before.

Oh, you're talking about "Love Me Still"?

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Yeah, the one with Chaka Khan. It was great.

Okay, yeah! Well, the standard rap you can say about me, I guess, is that most people have no idea about most of what I've done. They just know a few things. That's what happens when you have big hits in the mainstream area: if you have a career of any sort of breadth or depth, most people only know those. But that's okay. I consider that to be their misfortune, not mine! I've never allowed that to imprison me creatively. Never. I've just gone my way, and if people hate it... Well, listen to those old records. Or don't listen at all! I've been getting nasty letters ever since my second record. [Laughs.] To which I replied in my mind, "Well, if you think this is weird, you haven't seen anything yet!"

So that's the story with Spike. And then after Clockers, later on he asked me for an end title song for Bamboozled, so I did one myself called "Shadowland." That movie was just selected by the Library of Congress to go into their pantheon. Which is so great, because Bamboozled... I liken it to a lot of my records, like Absolute Zero or Non-Secure Connection, etc., on and on. I feel like it's some of my best work, but it's not known. Bamboozled feels the same to me. It wasn't a hit movie, at all. But it's been selected by the self-appointed arbiters of taste up there.

I actually have it on DVD, and I know they added it to the Criterion Collection not too long ago.

Well, there you have it. And good for Spike. He deserves all of it. He's great.

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As far as things you've done, I actually pulled this out this morning... [Produces a copy of Joey Scarbury's Greatest American Hero album.]

[Bursts out laughing.] Yeah, right! Joey Scarbury, great pop singer. And a great country-pop singer. I was in the studio with him sometimes and did a couple of gigs with him and Mike Post. This is in the early '80s. That's really a long time ago now. That's over 40 years ago! And Mike Post was a friend. He produced a demo on our band that used to play all around here, from Norfolk to Richmond, and...not much happened with that tape. We weren't really good enough! We weren't ready. But he heard something in there and he was the first guy who said... Well, actually, he was the second guy. The first guy who wanted to produce us was Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, but we couldn't get much interest from the record companies. So Mike Post then came in and grabbed us up and made a demo with us. So Mike Post was a fan of mine, he knew my songs, and he had this sort of Mike McDonald-esque song of mine called "Take This Heart of Mine," and he and Joey cut that on that record.

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As far as those early days, I know you also worked with Sheena Easton. In fact, you're in the video for "Strut," although I didn't notice you for the longest time. Go figure.

Well, I'm surprised that you actually watched the "Strut" video a number of times. [Laughs.] That's the key factoid that I take away from that: "Wow, somebody was really watching 'Strut'!"

I mean, it was Sheena Easton in the '80s. What are you gonna do?

Okay, I feel that. I hear you. [Laughs.] Well, I have twin sons, and one of them, the oldest by one minute, he's a basketball player. He's still playing in Europe - he's in Spain now - but he played for LSU, and we were down there watching LSU play on a live-around-the-country ESPN1 game against Texas A&M. He had a really bad game, a tough game, so he was in a really blue mood. So I was going, "Wow, how can I take him out of this?" And then a lightbulb went off. I said, "You know, I'm going to take you out of your funk right now: go on to YouTube and look at Sheena Easton's 'Sugar Walls' and Sheena Easton's 'Strut,' and look at your old man just looking like a freakin' clown in the videos." And sure enough, kids love to see their parents looking like idiots in stuff, so it took him out of his funk right away! You know, whatever works. It was very useful for me at that time to help my kid emotionally!

[Writer's note: If you want to save time, just go to 2:27 to see Mr. Hornsby in all his glory.]

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Your breakthrough, of course, came with your debut album, The Way It Is. For the version of "Mandolin Rain" with yMusic that I mentioned earlier, you did it with a completely different arrangement, but I saw the performance of "The Way It Is" that you did recently for Radio 2, and you more or less keep the original arrangement for that song. How do you decide how you're going to switch things up with the older material?

Well, it's all spontaneous for me. I grew up being an improvising musician. I don't know if you're aware of this - if you were, you probably would've mentioned it - but that minor key version you heard yMusic and me perform, that's what we call the Skaggs-Hornsby version. I made two records with Ricky Skaggs - the first one being the studio record, the second being a killer live record - and we did this minor-key version of "Mandolin Rain." I had reinvented that... That version had come to me in the middle of a D-minor jam in Medford, Oregon in the early 2000s, so I had that, and...it just felt special to me. It's a completely different song. Lyrically not, but musically it takes it to a completely different place. So we started playing it that way. Almost always when I play solo concerts, I play it that way. And when I asked Rob Moose, the arranger for yMusic and so many others... He just won a Grammy a few nights ago for doing the strings on that Miley Cyrus record! But when I asked him to arrange four of my old hit songs, he wanted to do "Mandolin Rain" the minor key version. So that's how we play it, and that's why you saw it. But that's mostly known to the bluegrass universe, which is fairly small. It's fairly quantum. [Laughs.] So I understand that people don't know it.

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And, of course, the old nostalgia lovers, a lot of 'em hate it when I do it that way, because they just want their stroll down memory lane. I understand that. I don't blame them a bit! But this is the one that resonates with me. With the band the Noisemakers, we've lately been playing the one where I have to sing real high. [Voice cracking.] "Listen to the mandolin rain!" Ugh! It's not so easy! Anyway, yes, so you saw us play that, but...what about that? I forgot what you'd asked!

Well, on the other side of things, you've got the version of "The Way It Is," which is - more or less - the same arrangement as ever.

Okay, right! So that's just my solo version. A few years ago, Spike asked me to contribute a solo version of "The Way It Is" to his NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½ multi-episode documentary on HBO that came out in 2021. So I call that my Spike Lee NYC Epicenters version of "The Way It Is." [Laughs.] It's basically my solo version that I play when I play solo. And I like the version. It's ruminative. You really hear the words. It's not about the beat, the groove, the up-tempo thing of the record. It's more ballad-y. So that just works well. And, again, that's the one that Rob selected to score. I've done so much with Rob. This record is a big part of it, but it's absolutely not everything.

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As far as Ricky Skaggs goes, I actually interviewed him when he came to Hampton Roads several years back, and I had to ask him about the version you two did of "Super Freak," which is absolutely amazing.

[Singing.] "She's a very kinky girl... The kind you won't take home to mother!" Yeah, it's a scream. I brought that in. That was not Ricky's idea. He was very nice to do it.

Oh, he absolutely said that it never would've occurred to him to do it.

[Laughs.] I have to give attribution to this guy named Mike Duke. He's a great singer-songwriter, he wrote a couple of songs for Huey Lewis that were hits for Huey. [Singing.] "Doin' it all for my baby / She's as fine as she can be..." So Duke's also a great chef, and he was cooking breakfast for a bunch of people in this house, I was one of them, and he's walking around the kitchen going, "She's a very kinky girl..." So I said, "What the hell is that?" He said, "That's the bluegrass 'Super Freak'!" And I said, "I'm gonna remember that." And 25 years later, here we are, Ricky and I are in the studio, figuring out what we're gonna record...and from the deep soul of minor-key "Mandolin Rain" to "Super Freak," it was a broad stylistic gamut that we ran!

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There are a few other random things from your back catalog that I wanted to ask you about. I can't find it detailed anywhere: do you happen to remember what songs you did when you worked on Squeeze's Play album?

Oh, yeah! [Singing.] "Walk a straight line..." That's what it's called: "Walk a Straight Line." Beautiful song. Yeah, the connection there is the great producer Tony Berg. Now, I work with Tony Berg more than ever now. We're getting ready to start another record sometime later in the year. We just made a new record - who knows when it'll come out? - but a cast album for our play Sick Bastard. Which is ill-fated so far, nobody knows about it, but we're so proud of the songs that we've written. And some of them have dotted the last few records for awhile now. We had Jackson Browne singing one of the songs. It was just fantastic. A lot of young indie hotshots. Bartees Strange, this great young indie artist, he sang on a bunch of things. But Tony Berg was producing, and I've known Tony since the mid-'80s. He's most known now for having produced those amazing Phoebe Bridgers records.

Which is funny, because I've known him ever since he worked with Michael Penn.

Absolutely! For a long time, that was his first and only hit as a producer! [Laughs.] Because Tony's not interested in that. Tony's interested in the art. He wants to work with the Cocteau Twins.

Who doesn't?

[Laughs.] Well, you couldn't blame most people, because they haven't heard of the Cocteau Twins! But that's where Tony resides, aesthetically, so that's what he does. Anyway, he was producing Squeeze, and he called me up and said, "Hey, could you come over and play some accordion?" And it was as simple as that. I played on an Edie Brickell record that Tony produced around the same time, before I moved back to Virginia.

I think that might be the same record that he got John Lydon to sing on.

It may be! It's called Ghost of a Dog.

That's it, then. I interviewed Lydon, and after his bemusement that I would ask him about that credit, he remembered the experience as being unique but wonderful.

Yeah, who knew that Hornsby and Lydon would show up on the same record? [Laughs.] But that's happened with me for years, that sort of, "Whoa, that's an odd combination!" But it's really not. If you knew me, it's not.

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When it comes to doing studio work now, is it a case where people reach out to you? For instance, you were on one of Brandon Flowers' solo albums.

Yeah, that's right, they reached out to me. Ariel Rechtshaid, the producer, who's now a really good friend of mine. I was just texting with him in the middle of the night last night. [Laughs.] He produces Vampire Weekend, and I had Ezra Koenig, the great leader of Vampire Weekend, doing a duet with me on my last record, 'Flicted. It's called "Sidelines." It's the first song on the record. So it never ends. The diaspora continues to enlarge!

But, yeah, with Brandon Flowers, that was a remote thing. They just sent me a couple of tracks, and - as the Troggs would say - I pissed all over the tape. They didn't tell us what they want. Of course, to me, they didn't choose the best stuff I did. They were a little safe about it. [Laughs.] But that's okay. It doesn't matter. I don't do it much for that reason, though, because I got tired of playing on people's records somewhere in the late '80s or early '90s, when I was doing it a lot. And I'd try to take it to some interesting-to-me place, some interesting musical area, and they'd go, "Yeah, that's pretty good, but can you do it more like this?" And they'd gradually sort of stifle it and have me play what in the end would make me come into the control room and say, "You know, just to be honest, you could've gotten anybody to play what you've ultimately had me play here...and that's okay!" But in the big picture, I started to go, "You know what? I'm gonna say 'no' more." So now I mostly say "no."

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Do you remember the first time you worked with someone where you had to fight to keep from going full fanboy?

Oh, that's a good question. I don't know, maybe Robbie Robertson? But by the time I worked with him, I'd been in this world for a good six years or so, so I wasn't so "fanned out" about it. But maybe... I played on a Bob Dylan record around that time and, look, when I was 12 years old, I had the red Columbia labelled single of "Like a Rolling Stone," all six minutes of it, and I'd play it over and over again and learn how to ride along with every phrase that he sang. I was so into that as a kid...and never got out of it! So to get that call was daunting. And, of course, exhilarating. So that would've been a moment, I guess, but...I don't think it was, really. But it should've been! [Laughs.]

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What do you recall about the song you did with Warren Zevon? Or maybe it was more than one, but I know one offhand.

I played on two songs on that record. Most people know the song "Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse." Is that the one you're talking about?

Yeah, that's the one I was thinking of.

Right, I played accordion on that. But there's another song on [Mutineer] called "Piano Fighter," where I also played accordion. Warren just kept chuckling about it. "I love the fact that I've got a song called 'Piano Fighter,' and I've got Bruce Hornsby on it...and he's not playing piano!" [Laughs.] He liked that. Warren got a really charge out of that one. What do I remember about him? He was a lovely guy. And Il oved the song "Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse." It's just...very elemental, musically. Kind of an old folky, Cajun-ish kind of feeling. But he was one of the great writers, so I was so happy to play on that. He then came out and did a few dates on the post-Garcia Furthur Festival that we did with Mickey Hart's band and Bobby Weir's band and my band. Los Lobos was on it one year, Black Crowes another year. And Warren came out did some dates with us. And, gosh, I remember I sat in with him one time! I don't remember what I did with him. Maybe "Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse." I hope so! But I loved him. He was a great person, and such a talent.

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As far as the Dead goes, does that just seem like a dream now, the time you spent working with them?

Well, not really. [Laughs.] But I can see why you would ask that! Because it was so spectacular and all-encompassing. You know, the Grateful World is that. And you can lose yourself in that. I know a lot of people, frankly, who have gotten into that world, or some tangentially part of that world, and they end up being members of Grateful Dead cover bands. So I hope they like that, but...it can swallow you. It's all-encompassing, all-consuming. And the audience is so devoted. I call the Grateful Dead corpus the hymns of the Deadheads' lives. It's religion to them. And I get it! Because someone of those songs are so deep, like "Wharf Rat" and "Days Between" and "Brokedown Palace," "Black Muddy River," "Standing on the Moon," you can just keep naming 'em.

So, yeah, it's a deep thing. I guess maybe I should feel like it was a dream. But, again, there were a lot of things like that going on my life at the time, and from then on after that. So it wasn't like there was this one singular amazing thing, and that was all that was going on for me. It was a whole lot of that. The Dylan thing, the Robbie thing... I could keep naming 'em! You can look at the list - I'm sure there's a list that exists somewhere - and you'd know what I'm saying. Bonnie Raitt! Pat Metheny! You can just keep going. So my life has been very fulfilling in that way, and not least of which this last six, seven, eight years since I was reached out to by Justin Vernon and Bon Iver to work with them. It all turned around. I was working with my heroes, and now I'm working with a younger artist who feels that way about me! So that's been fantastic..

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I was going to ask you if you felt like you'd entered a new chapter or if it's just the continued evolution of yourself as an artist.

I feel like from Absolute Zero it is a very new chapter. Yeah, I feel like it is. The music's changed, it's more adventurous. Not that I wasn't adventurous here and there, but this is definitely a serious turn toward an attempt at deep musicianship. I was always trying to do that, but I feel it's different now. Look, I'm inflicting modern classical music on my poor, unsuspecting audience. [Laughs.] That quite often is quite taken with it! And this new yMusic record is a perfect example. That's obviously coming from the classical world. Just the concept of a chamber music group, that's a classical idea. So, yeah, this is a different time for me, and I'm just sort of reveling in it. It's been beautiful to work with all these younger musicians who've been shouting me out.

Now that you've used the word "inflicting," don't be surprised if I use that in the headline.

[Laughs.] Well, the headline, that's a little much. Per hour, the moments of inflicting dodecaphonic pain is probably...eight percent? So to draw too much attention to it is not quite accurate! But you do whatever you're gonna do! I did say it in a tongue-in-cheek manner. But it is true! If I sat down at the piano and played you what I play for them, you'd go, "Whoa, okay, this is not what the casual listener is hoping for!" But I guess I'm a bit of a proselytizer for modern music in that way, and I'm always hoping that people will broaden their range and allow a little adventure into their musical life. I'm hoping that. I'm usually wrong! But I'm undaunted. I am a proselytizer for modern music!

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I'll start wrapping up, but I wanted to mention that they just opened a new record store in Hampton, and when I went to check it out, lo and behold, I now own The Way It Is on vinyl for the very first time.

Well, you know it doesn't age well for me.

I know it doesn't for you. But I still have my fond memories of it.

And I'm not naysaying them! I'm not a big fan of the singer on that record. [Laughs.] And I feel like if someone listens to what I'm doing now and then listens to that, they go, "Hmmm..." Because I'm a lifelong student, and I'm always looking to grow and evolve and change and improve, vocally, pianistically, and as a writer. So, look, I'm proud of it. Look, I've sung about racism with not one but two improvised piano solos! That's not what happens on the radio. So I was just lucky. It was a wonderful accident that happened in the UK, hence my BBC thing that I just did. It was full circle, which was pretty beautiful.

Oh, I meant to ask you: where do you keep your Best New Artist Grammy?

[Laughs.] It's, uh, pretty hidden, man. I have three Grammys. I've won three times. I'm a ten-time loser! But I have won three. I always ask people, if I'm being introduced, to introduce me as "10-time Grammy loser Bruce Hornsby." Because, y'know, it's just frivolity to me.

Well, once you hit double digits, it's kind of a big deal.

Right? I've hit double figures! [Laughs.] But to answer your question... I'm not sure where I keep it. It might be in the attic. But the three of them are together somewhere. You know what? I think they're on a bottom shelf in a room in our house. Hardly proudly displayed. Not that I'm not proud of them. I'm fine with it. But that's just not what's important to me.

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