Guitar and dobro pair well and play well together. Both instruments excel at harmony, rhythm and lead playing, and the sliding resonator guitar has an especially cutting and emotional voice. Usually one finds guitar and dobro nested inside a bluegrass band, not out front as the heart of a roots duo. It was a combination just waiting for the right musicians, and nobody could be better qualified than Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley.
Ickes, a California native in Nashville, joined the band Blue Highway 25 years ago and took a hugely successful journey with them that led to mantles full of awards and recognition as one of bluegrass music's elite instrumentalists. Hensley, just about a generation younger, was a well-known prodigy as a picker and singer in his home region of East Tennessee. He played country, rock and bluegrass with various bands, preparing for his national career to start.
Around 2013, Hensley was called in by Blue Highway to do a "scratch" or stand-in vocal as part of the production process on an album, and the guys in the band were so impressed that they left him on the song as a guest singer. When Rob and Trey started jamming together, there was chemistry right away, and dominos started to fall.
"I was kind of feeling the itch to do something else musically," Ickes says in the joint interview with Roots Radio presented here. "I've always had a side project or done solo albums, and I thought this will be a cool thing, you know, to help Trey get going. It'll be fun, because I love Trey's music. And then it just kind of took off."
Trey's version is quite similar, a kind of musical love at first pick story. "I really wanted to do more acoustic music," Hensley says. "And I'd been a fan of Rob's for a long time, so I was just thrilled to get to come to some jam sessions when I first came to town. And it seems when we first started talking about the music we like and the artists we liked, it was the same list."
Beyond the obvious bluegrass and country music heroes, those lists also included a lot of jazz, from beboppers like Charlie Parker to modernist groove mavens like John Scofield. The pair has covered the Grateful Dead, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Wills and the hillbilly jazz of Buddy Emmons. Their original songwriting owes debts at various times to Bakersfield country, the Delta blues and the Allman Brothers. "We could do all this bluegrass stuff, but then there was this whole other thing, where I could play lap steel," Ickes says. "We could play country, not to mention the blues. Working with this guy you can do anything."
Which brings us to World Full of Blues, the duo's third album, released on Oct. 4. Here, Ickes and Hensley do play just about anything and everything, showing range in both playing and writing. The nine originals touch country rock (opener "Born With The Blues"), jazzgrass (Rob's instrumental "The Fatal Shore") and the pathos of classic country on Hensley's "I'm Here But I'm Lonely." Closer "Rugged Road," a Robben Ford cover, shoots along like a jet with a hard R&B revue kind of punch and face-melting solos.
Working with producer Brent Maher, famous for discovering the Judds and building up the Berry Hill neighborhood recording scene, Rob and Trey pulled in more band support than ever before, including horn sections led by Nashville's Jim Hoke, John Jorgenson (of all people) on Hammond organ and a two-man drum and percussion section. They also call on guest stars Vince Gill (for the Dead's "Brown-Eyed Women") and Taj Mahal. The blues elder gets called in to sing parts on the title track, which finds the artists stepping into social commentary for the first time.
"World Full of Blues" has a long history, Ickes says, stretching back to band leader and songwriter Bill Scholer, whom he knew during his college days at the University of California at Davis. "And he had this song, and I loved the chords and I loved the chorus. But we re-wrote most of the verses. I loved his version, but we brought our perspective to it." And indeed current events, with nods to climate change, gun violence and the Me Too Movement. "That was born out of Trey and I talking about the crazy stuff going on right now. Just observations Trey and I made about what we read in the papers. And that seemed to meld with Bill Scholer's chorus and the chords."
Mahal flew in to add his vocals to the track, which led to a long and joyful dinner with the duo talking about music and, Ickes says, an equally enjoyable session. "We brought him to the studio and we talked for an hour or two and then he went in there and we both knew it was gonna be great, but he opened his mouth and started singing and Trey and I about jumped out of our skins.”
The whole thing was captured for the music video below. Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley are on tour for the rest of the year (more often than ever with a rhythm section), including dates with Taj Mahal and others with the Gibson Brothers. They'll also be on the Cayamo Cruise, Feb. 3-10, 2020.