Ricky Skaggs, left, and Bruce Hornsby started collaborating in the mid-1990s, a bluegrass partnership that has turned into albums and now a tour that is coming to the Burnsville Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Nov. 2.

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Singer songwriter Bruce Hornsby smiles as he acknowledges cheers from fans after playing the national anthem before the start of the NBA basketball game between the Dallas Mavericks and Washington Wizards, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) ORG XMIT: DNA101

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Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs bring bluesgrass to Burnsville Nov. 2

  • Article by: Liz Rolfsmeier
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • October 26, 2013 - 4:49 PM

Bruce Hornsby is maybe best known for the hit “The Way It Is,” which topped music charts in 1986 and caused his album of the same name to go multiplatinum.

Since then, he’s embraced all kinds of genres. He played for many years with the Grateful Dead. He put out a jazz album. He’s scored music for Spike Lee movies. And over the past decade, he’s teamed up with country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs.

The two famed musicians, who have snagged numerous Grammys (14 for Skaggs and three for Hornsby), have been playing together for more than a decade, performing traditional bluegrass classics, playing reworked hits and writing new compositions.

The two play with Kentucky Thunder, Skaggs’ back-up band, at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center on Nov. 2.

“They should expect to witness a group of musicians that have a great time playing together,” Hornsby said. “They should expect … some classic songs — Monroe, Stanley Brothers … hopefully, played and sung well.”

He said his musical interests pair well with Skaggs. “Ricky is a very open-minded musician, interested in a broad range of music,” Hornsby said. “I don’t do just one thing, and neither does he, so it’s easy to explore lots of musical areas together.”

The two started working together in the mid-1990s, when Skaggs called up Hornsby and asked him to play on his Bill Monroe tribute record, “Big Mon.” The two recorded a new version of the traditional tune “Darling Corey,” which Monroe had recorded.

They batted around the idea of making an album together and eventually released the self-titled one in March 2007.

“We just ran songs by each other,” Hornsby said, “and if the other one really reacted with passion to a song, we gave it a go. That’s a good way to approach music in general. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, you probably shouldn’t do it.”

The album went to No. 1 on the bluegrass charts and No. 37 on the country charts.

A good example of the playful nature of their collaboration is on their first album — a bluegrass version of “Super Freak.”

A friend of Hornsby’s once sang him a few lines of a bluegrass version of the song years ago. “I always thought it was hilarious,” he said, “so years later I threw it out there to Ricky, and he surprised me by being game to try it.”

Between other projects, the two kept playing and touring together, which produced the material showcased on their new live CD, “Cluck Ol’ Hen,” out in summer 2013. The album topped the bluegrass chart in its first week.

“I started listening to the shows and was excited by the quality and energy of the performances,” Hornsby said. “[I] sent some roughs to Ricky, which got him excited, and we decided to put it out.”

Though piano seems an unlikely instrument for bluegrass and Hornsby said he sometimes gets pushback from purists, he said, “The piano sometimes sounds like a banjo. When it’s playing single-note lines, there is a percussive quality that is similar.”

“I try to play thematically,” he said, “starting with a musical phrase and building on it, developing it. There will be bluesy areas, and echoes of fiddle tunes here and there, and sometimes I’ll just play like Leon Russell.”

Though Hornsby didn’t say if they have plans for another album in the near future, he said he and Skaggs will certainly continue collaborating.

“I think we’ll always figure out ways to make music together,” he said, “because we enjoy it too much not to.”

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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