Mandolin Rain

Bob Pino called me ‘Hornsby’.

It was always a gentle, challenging moniker from one passionate pianist to another, honoring Bruce Hornsby, a masterful songwriter and genre-jumping pianist. We saw Hornsby play The National one evening in Richmond; Bob, Jeannie, Tony and I climbing steep stairs and bending creaky knees to crouch on ancient, cramped seats. It was fall, 2009, almost a decade ago, and it was a soul-stirring, overwhelmingly transcendent moment of music and togetherness.

Tony and I saw Hornsby again, in Virginia Beach a few years ago, just the two of us. Again, another remarkable experience – the essence of what live music can be at its best. To be completely, utterly present as people shape sound, pouring years of work and the depths of their soul into musical instruments – this is a great, precious gift of life. My memory stirs up a visceral reminder of the deep, tangible joy of both of those evenings, intertwined with the unique love of friends.

Pino called me ‘Hornsby’, and I usually demurred (I don’t deserve that, dude…); but it warmed my heart and pleased me. I always smiled.

Tonight, the hours wind down as I sit in a world without Bob, who left us far too soon. Summer is coming hard and fast; rain has pummeled the ground, drenching roots and spurring all growing things into frenetic bursts of blooms and vines. Our squash plants are huge; the tomatoes have gone haywire, and if we can keep the deer away, it will likely be a bumper crop for both. The garden has already yielded one slightly oversized zucchini, with the promise of more to come.

Things are thriving. Bob is gone, but life seems to have moved forward. So it is; that’s just the way it is, to quote the man himself. But some things will never change, indeed; the power of music, even through a digital medium, is still unparalleled. Surfing Twitter, I landed on a six-day-old video of Hornsby in Kentucky, last weekend, with Chris Thile on Live From Here (which is, for anyone who loves and appreciates music – especially the joy of live music – two hours of amazing, life-affirming, sheer delight each Saturday. Check this out and see if you don’t agree.)

I’m not sure I have words to describe how I experience these six minutes of life; I can tell you that I have revisited them repeatedly this evening, discovering something new each time. Watching, I see this: a man navigating his middle 60’s, reshaping and breathing new life into a song initially released over 30 years ago. I see a chamber orchestra, reading notes imbued with delicate passion and the dedication of finely tuned professionals.

And Thile – oh, Chris Thile, whose twitchy gyrations and skin-stretching grins represents absolutely everything that is true about music. Thile is music, embodied; Thile is, in the flesh, not only able to create evanescent, ethereal, technically stunning sounds, but also able to manifest the very existence of the life that is in music. I watch Chris Thile and I see my soul, turned inside out, dancing and flexing the drama that is everything about how I understand and empathize and experience music.

It’s not just how he plays; in this clip from Saturday’s show, you can see him as he listens (watch him watching Hornsby in this video, tucked offstage behind the strings)he is as much a part of the music when he observes, without the mandolin clutched to his chest, as when he is actively making music.

Pino called me ‘Hornsby’, and I think it’s because he saw a little of that in me, too. We were cut from the same cloth, Bob and I; the one in which harmonies and melodies are rhythmically woven in the strands of everything that is meaningful in life, the fabric that wraps around breath and spirit and movement and thought and the incredible potential of beauty that thrums in the incessant, common-time beating of a pulse.

I sit in my darkened kitchen, the house still, the measured energy of nighttime breathing in the distance as my husband sleeps. I watch Hornsby approach Mandolin Rain – a song birthed by his 30-year old self – with a weathered worn voice, careful to settle a step lower, re-interpreted in a partnership with Ricky Skaggs. This is a radio show – the camera work is good, but it’s limited and not the priority – and yet the still shot on Hornsby’s hands from behind the piano speaks grace and good technique, a gentle caress on the keys that connects with me. Yes, I think, Yes; that is how I know my piano, too. Yes. 

I watch the principle violinist, leading the other nine into the rhythm of the piano, inclined towards Hornsby, face to face. Their low lines descend, then lift, around the piano and his voice. Thile joins in, the arpeggios and tremolo pulling the tempo forward, his shoulders rotating with the arch and fall of the melody. The strings, the piano, the vocal, the mandolin – they dance around once another, clutching the song, laying it down, handing it off, releasing, relinquishing, always committed to its existence. Never claiming ownership, but simply involved in the revolving whirr of energy that is this song, in this moment. As motion fades and everyone but Hornsby steps back, the piano shaping and framing the final approach, Thile makes a fist with his right hand, holding it towards the audience.  Be still, let silence reign here, he telegraphs, bending low into the motion of the chords. Let this play out. Be present. Do not insert yourself into this moment. Listen

The violin grabs a long, sustained D, thick with sorrow; he shifts up to an E, and then back, and then the moment gently, carefully, deliberately, comes to a quiet end.

It is over.

Thile clasps his hands in gratitude, bends towards Hornsby, and the tautness of the moment gives way to released oxygen and the sense that something brilliant just happened here.

I watched, several times, stirred to tears; and then I grabbed headphones and just listened. The images are already embedded in my mind, so it’s now a multi-media experience. I listen, and it’s different. Richer, thicker.

And I hear the birds.


It’s an outdoor venue, and what I missed when my eyes were drinking in the people was the periphery activity. Hornsby begins, and the birds up in the rafters of the pavilion are squawking, and it becomes even more of a transcendent moment, something that is of the limited, literal, now.

This is my inner life, the deep, intricate possession of musical moments and projections of emotional intricacies and the subterranean meaning of facial expressions, all wrapped up in what happened on a stage in Kentucky six days ago. I’ve been soaking in these six minutes for over an hour now.

Well aware that not everybody thinks like I do, I realize that this is somewhat odd. Many, including some I dearly love, who dearly love me, don’t understand. Would call this a waste of time, misguided priorities.

I get it. There are other things I could do with my time tonight; but I will tell you this with no hesitation:

These moments make it all bearable. 

I miss Bob. Hornsby’s music makes me ache with longing. Chris Thile sways and shimmies every melody into visceral choreography. A low D on an upright bass can pull my heart right out of my body.

This gift of hope, to my eyes and ears, makes it well with my soul. And oh, what a gift it is, to have a lonely evening in the kitchen made bearable, to dance and cry and sing and feel my soul touch the sky, even beyond the sky, to a place where it lasts for a while, for just enough.

One Comment

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  1. This is touching and so well written friend! So enjoyed reading this! I love Jean and wish I had known Bob…
    Chris Thile has always been one of my favorite musicians since Nickel Creek days… so amazing live! Can’t wait to see this recent performance after hearing your description…


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