His new album, ''A Night on the Town,'' finds the singer sporting a more rock-influenced sound

Bruce Hornsby was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. After two successful LPs, The Way It Is in 1986 and Scenes From the Southside in 1988, he faced a dilemma last year. Should he continue in the easy-rolling, piano- driven style that had sold more than 3 million albums? Or should he move beyond ”the Hornsby sound” to something tougher? ”I knew whatever I did, there would be two camps,” the 35-year-old musician says. ”One group would say, ‘Oh, where’s the Bruce Hornsby I like?’ and the other would say, ‘Oh, not this again’ — myself included.” As Hornsby’s new LP, A Night on the Town — in the top 30 after just two weeks — indicates, he decided to rock out a little.

At the same time, his irresistible keyboard talent has put him firmly at the top of rock’s Most Wanted list. A long line of major stars has been clamoring for Hornsby. The rush started last year with Don Henley’s Top 10 single, ”The End of the Innocence,” cowritten by Hornsby and featuring his piano. Since then, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Sting, and Lou Reed have used Hornsby in the studio. Everybody, it seems, wants the Hornsby sound — everybody except Hornsby. On A Night on the Town, he has cut back on the ”pretty piano,” as he wryly describes it, to spotlight his backup band, the Range. ”People who saw us in concert would come up and say, ‘You’re much better live,’ ” he explains.

To break in the new songs, Hornsby and the Range went on the road last summer before they entered the studio. He hired Don Gehman, who has produced John Cougar Mellencamp and R.E.M., among others, to help oversee the album. And he invited guest musicians, from Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia to jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, to fill out the sound of the Range. The result, according to Hornsby, is ”a lot more guts, a lot more balls.”

Despite his recent spate of studio work, Hornsby has never been part of the rock scene in L.A., though he has lived there since 1980. For the past six years he and his wife, Kathy, have lived in a tiny house in a middle-class neighborhood in Van Nuys, which is far north and west of anyplace remotely hip in the Los Angeles area. ”Elton John is the only guy who has invited us to parties,” Hornsby says.

It isn’t surprising, then, to hear that Hornsby is leaving L.A. He has gradually been increasing the amount of time he spends in his hometown of Williamsburg, Va., where he wrote most of A Night on the Town. Life in and around the neo-Colonial town of 12,000 is the inspiration for many of the songs Hornsby has written, either alone or with younger brother John, a lawyer in Raleigh, N.C. ”We’re not consciously trying to create a milieu with our music,” John Hornsby says. ”It just comes out of the songs.” The Hornsbys portray Tidewater Virginia so perceptively that its characters and situations become universal. As Shawn Colvin, a guest vocalist on the new album, puts it, ”Bruce is very American.”

A Night on the Town proves that you really can go home again. Hornsby wrote several new tunes for the album after hanging out in Williamsburg with friends, who told him stories about the townspeople. This sparked a flood of new songs, including the semiautobiographical ”Across the River.” The song was inspired by an incident that took place when he was a struggling songwriter. ”Picture me at a family Christmas party in the early ’80s,” he remembers. ”One of the uncles is overheard saying, ‘What is ole Brucie doing with that music? Well, give him time and he’ll grow out of it.’ ” The recollection carries a trace of bitterness, just as many of Hornsby’s songs have anger or moral outrage at their core. Sometimes, however, this quality has been undercut by the essential sweetness of his music.

In person, Hornsby comes off as nice, friendly, but with an edge. Wife Kathy says, ”He’s always been pretty driven.” On a professional level, that means Hornsby is restless to try new things. A concert tour is booked through the end of the year, and more dates are likely, but other projects keep crowding onto his schedule. He’s writing a song for the Band reunion. He has begun to produce a new record for Leon Russell. He talks about recording an album with Jerry Garcia, and another with saxman Branford Marsalis. He may do a solo-piano tour or go on the road with a bluegrass band. ”There’s no paucity of ideas from me,” Hornsby says.

A recent concert in Los Angeles displayed many of those ideas — and brought together all the existing Hornsby personas. Taped and recorded on a Paramount Studios soundstage for a VH-1 special, a Westwood One radio broadcast, and a home-video release, the show featured Hornsby’s glistening piano pacing the older, measured songs, while the more recent material surged and ebbed with a rockier wallop. The highlight of the show was a swelling version of ”Barren Ground,” a slow song from A Night on the Town, in which Hornsby sings that ”good things don’t come along/as you just sit dreaming on.” He could have been describing the workmanlike key to his own success, an unflagging determination to tell stories and lift spirits. With Bruce Hornsby, that’s just the way it is.