Hornsby is a virtuoso-level pianist who has many, varied influences. This album is largely a rock album, but with definite signs of county, jazz and bluegrass. Hornsby is from Virginia, so most of his sings have themes Southern lifestyle. His biggest hit is, of course, “The Way It Is”, a song dealing with the American civil rights movement, telling of the rich mocking the poor and racial segregation. It’s been sampled and adapted by many rap artists, perhaps most famously by Tupac in his song “Changes”. This is thematically a country song, with a jazzy piano solo and a rock beat, very typical of Hornsby’s work in general. Hornsby himself did a cover version of the song in 2007, teaming with country icon Ricky Skaggs to perform a bluegrass version of the song.
The other major hit from the album was “Mandolin Rain”, which was co-written, as many of the songs were, by Bruce’s brother John. It features Range member John Mansfield on mandolin, and transposes a somber-toned verse with a chorus that has more of a swing feel. Hornsby is a master storyteller in his music, and does an excellent job of setting a scene through a combination of the lyrics and music.
Another glimpse into Southern living is “Down the Road Tonight”. The song tells the story of a young boy wondering why men flocked to a particular tavern; as he got older, he learned it was a brothel. Here, he first found ‘love’, as he believed it to be. It’s a very unique coming-of-age tale, with subject matter that may be crass in the hands of a less skilled writer, but Hornsby makes it into an almost sweet tale with a wry smile. Featured on this song Is Hornsby’s longtime friend Huey Lewis, who plays harmonica on the track. He also produces a few of the songs on the album.
“Red Plains” is a song in the vein of “The Way It Is”, or probably more closely “Look Out Any Window”, which would appear on the band’s next album. It’s a bit of a protest, with big oil burning down everything the protagonist built. Many of Hornsby’s songs, particularly during his time with the Range, had undertones of the struggle of farmers and the environment against the oil companies and big business. “Look Out And Window” would be the most blatant example of this, but it’s certainly evident in “Red Plains”.
“The Way It Is” is an excellent album, a wonderful debut for Hornsby. This was the peak of his chart success, but he continues to tour constantly and produce some great music. This album is just a glimpse of what was to come. Hornsby is a master of the piano, and does a great job surrounding himself with talented musicians, whether it be here with The Range, his time with The Grateful Dead, or with his current band, The Noisemakers. It’s a rare talent that can successfully bring piano, mandolin, harmonica and accordion to popular music, but it’s seemingly effortless for Hornsby to do just that. No matter what your musical tastes are, there is something here for you, it’s definitely worth giving a listen.