How Denver blues royalty the Hornbuckles overcame heroin addiction and estrangement

Michael Hornbuckle was twelve years old the first time he shared the stage with his father, legendary Denver bluesman Bobby Hornbuckle, and at thirteen he was playing weekends with his dad. While he was getting an education on stage, he was also schooling himself in blues guitar by listening to the likes of Luther Allison, Johnny Winter, Robert Johnson, Bukka White and three Kings: B.B., Albert and Freddie.

But around the time the younger Hornbuckle was seventeen, he says, he developed a nasty heroin addiction. "From the start, I was always on hiatus, going to fucking rehab or jail, or overdose after overdose," he says. "I was always in trouble with the law."

He says he was letting down his brother -- bassist and singer Brian -- and whoever else was in his path. "And I would hit these bottoms, and they all kind of looked the same," Hornbuckle adds. "I made these firm resolutions: 'Okay, I'm going to do it this time.' I'm fortunate, because I always had people in my corner that were willing to help, most notably my mom."

Hornbuckle had tried to clean up more than once, but, he says, he would get so uncomfortable in his own skin that the only solution he knew of was to start up again.

"You know, that was the only solution besides putting a bullet in my brain," he says. "I wasn't entirely ready to do any work required to manage a chronic condition, a progressive and deadly illness. So I don't know if that clicked in my head that that's what I had."

A few years ago, Hornbuckle found himself at a sober house in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, and he ended up managing the place for two years. It was there that he started writing songs on a cheap acoustic guitar, and where, by happenstance, he met up with keyboardist Alex Baker. Baker does soundtrack work for Universal Pictures and had toured as keyboardist with Atlanta-based funk-rock band Mother's Finest, a band that Hornbuckle's father had turned him on to: Some of the first songs the younger Hornbuckle learned to play were Mother's Finest songs.

Hornbuckle played a few new tunes he'd written for Baker, and soon the two were collaborating on songs without any idea of making an album.

"After a while the writing was effortless," Hornbuckle says. "It was just really organic. We didn't have to force it or anything like that. And it was exciting, man. It felt good. When the ideas were flowing, they were flowing. After a while, it was like, 'We gotta make an album.'"

Back in Denver, Brian set up a Kickstarter campaign for the album, and within a month, the brothers had met their goal. By that time, Michael and Baker had done some pre-production on the sixteen tracks that would become Virtue and Vice, a high-octane album steeped in blues, rock, funk, reggae and a bit of Latin. Brian packed up his van and headed out to Los Angeles for two and half weeks to lay down bass parts and write and sing on a few cuts.

Although Michael says the brothers Hornbuckle grew up "tight as brothers could be," things had gone south fairly quickly once they started playing together in their youth, and it didn't take long for the two to start their own bands. Michael says he blames himself for the falling out. "I wouldn't want to be around me, either," he says. "I got afraid to share the spotlight. Then my brother established himself. He's a fucking great bass player. He sings very well, and I didn't want to share that when we were together. I was just a selfish son of a bitch."

But the recent collaborations on the new album have brought the brothers back together and playing under the Hornbuckle moniker; their goal is to tour in the fall and to make another album in Los Angeles next summer. In the meantime, the two are living together and playing music together in Denver.

"When it comes down to it," Michael says of his brother, "he was the one who was always there -- to get me out of jail, if I needed a place to stay, or if I was hungry. He never put me out. He's never written me off."

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon