Bruce Hornsby bought an Appalachian dulcimer in the mid-1990s at the historic fiddlers' convention in the town of Galax. It only took him 20 years to make an album on the instrument.
Oh, it's shown up here and there — on "Shadow Hand," his favorite song on his 1998 album "Spirit Trail," for example, and on subsequent songs like "Mirror on the Wall" and "Levitate." But this past week the renowned pianist from Williamsburg went all-in with the release of "Rehab Reunion," an album recorded entirely on the dulcimer.
The dulcimer, a four-string instrument in the zither family, has come to play an increasing role in his shows with his band the Noisemakers. When they played the Bonaroo Festival in 2011, the organizers asked him to do a second set — solo, acoustic, all on the dulcimer.
And then, a couple of years ago, his collaborator and grade-school pal Chip DiMatteo sent him some lyrics for a song about a guy who heads to South Florida seeking refuge from the stresses of his everyday life. Hornsby, a graduate of University of Miami, read the lyrics to "M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I." and immediately began working with the dulcimer instead of the piano.
"That was the catalyst," he says. "I generally have two aims when I'm writing a song. If it's light-hearted, then I want to make myself laugh. If it's serious, I want to give myself chills. This was a combination. The words were light-hearted, but the music gave me chills.
"When you can give yourself chills, those are rare moments. Those are moments when you know you've got something special."
That set off a prolific period of writing, all on the dulcimer, and pretty soon an album was taking shape.
Even without the piano, "Rehab Reunion" feels like pure Hornsby. There are plenty of grins along the way — songs about airport security patdowns, the philosophy of tipping and existential author Franz Kafka. But it never drifts into novelty territory and it concludes with "Celestial Railroad," a gospel-tinged duet with Mavis Staples.
In an early review, NPR's Jason Heller says the album "hits the sweet spot between joyful improv and immaculate songcraft." Heller concludes: "Hornsby is by all accounts a patient artist, one whose earthy, unassuming music perennially finds a new audience. On 'Rehab Reunion,' he's never sounded more relevant."
Hornsby, frequently his own harshest critic, feels like he and the band sometimes don't fully learn how to play a song until two or three years after they've recorded it. But he is very excited about the album.
"Ironically, to me, this record is the most akin stylistically to my first record," he says, referring to "The Way It Is," which went multi-platinum in 1986 and made him an unlikely pop star. "That first album we were doing stuff with mandolins and fiddles and hammer dulcimers and accordions — old-time, folk instruments. This is a return to that sound, just without the piano and without the big drums from the first record."
He will spotlight that connection Saturday, when he and the Noisemakers will play "Rehab Reunion" and "The Way It Is" back-to-back, in order and in their entirety on the lawn of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. It is the middle of a three-day Funhouse Fest, which Hornsby is curating as the conclusion of this year's 20th annual Virginia Arts Festival.
Friday's show will feature a bluegrass lineup, headlined by Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs, backed by Skaggs' band Kentucky Thunder. Saturday will feature such singer-songwriters as Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle leading into Hornsby playing his first and most recent albums. The festival concludes Sunday with Taj Mahal Trio and other performers leading into a standard Noisemakers show involving plenty of audience requests.
Rob Cross, executive director of the Virginia Arts Festival, said he initially texted Hornsby about possibly doing a single show as part of the 20th-anniversary season. What Cross did not know is that Hornsby had been playing around with the idea of hosting a festival for several years, assuming it would be in Asheville, N.C., where he has a particularly avid fan base.
But the more he thought about the opportunity with the Virginia Arts Festival in Williamsburg, the more he liked the idea of a hometown festival.
"This is perfect for us," Hornsby says. "I can walk to the gig, and I can walk back home afterward. What could be easier? So we said yes, and we started mining Bruce's phonebook of musical friends."
Cross is thrilled with the result, noting that only an performer with Hornsby's broad musical background could pull together such a diverse and talented lineup.
"We gave Bruce license to create a festival of artists he's worked with, or wanted to work with, or feels like they should be part of this," Cross says. "We would have been thrilled to have Bruce play a show at our 20th festival, but the fact that he's playing three shows and bringing in eight other outstanding acts? Just amazing for us."
The weekend's shows — which also feature a Hornsby solo concert Thursday night at Phi Beta Kappa Hall at the College of William and Mary to benefit local charities — will showcase all phases of a 30-year career that has included pop, rock, bluegrass, jazz, jam band, classical and other genres.
If any song serves as the bridge between his past and his present, it's "The Valley Road," a top-10 hit in 1988 that appears on "Rehab Reunion" in a new arrangement that has taken shape on stage over the past few years.
"It really became a star of our show," he said of the new version. "That became one of those epiphanic moments for me. The way we play 'Valley Road' on this record is very much like the minor-key version of 'Mandolin Rain' that I did with Ricky Skaggs — the only thing that's the same as the original is the words."
Asked if he will have any trouble at age 61 performing four shows in four nights, Hornsby quickly points out that it's actually five shows in six nights — he and Skaggs will do a warm-up show Tuesday night in Black Mountain, N.C., to prepare for Friday in Williamsburg.
And he says he can handle this workload better at 61 than he did when he was younger.
"You learn what to do and what not to do, and you get smarter about taking care of yourself," Hornsby says. "You hear a lot of people — say, Paul Simon or Sting or Jackson Browne — and they actually sound better now than they did in their supposed prime. Listen to Bonnie Raitt and how great she sounds now.
"Hopefully there's some worth to being a veteran."
Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479.
Bruce Hornsby will curate Funhouse Fest, part of the Virginia Arts Festival, next weekend on the lawn of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
Friday (7:15 p.m.): Bruce Hornsby with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Greensky Bluegrass.
Saturday (4 p.m.): Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers (playing "Rehab Reunion" and "The Way It Is" in their entirety), Colvin & Earle, Railroad Earth, DeJohnette Coltrane Garrison.
Sunday (3 p.m.): Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, Taj Mahal Trio, Aoife O'Donovan, ChessBoxer
Tickets: Single-day passes start at $29.95 for Friday, $39.95 for Saturday and Sunday, and go up to $100 each day. Three-day passes range from $99.75-$297.75. VIP packages are available for $449-$599.
Info: funhousefest.com or 757-282-2800.