‘Living In A Song’ (And Writing Them) On Rob & Trey’s Latest
Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley are the Swiss Army Knife of roots music. They’d fit, with their instruments, perhaps not in your pocket but certainly into a compact car. Yet they have more tools at their fingertips than a lot of bigger bands - tools for scintillating grooves, lush harmonies, bluesy yearning, fiery picking, and lyrical beauty. That’s why now, almost a decade into an unexpected journey, Rob and Trey have become a roots country duo with no peers and few if any precedents.
Two singers with guitars is hardly unusual, but it’s the kind of guitars we’re talking about that make this duo unique and well-matched. Rob Ickes has been America’s most awarded resophonic guitar (or Dobro) player since the 1990s, and just to refresh, that one’s played flat and overhand with a slide and fingerpicks. With its articulate and dynamic voice, the Dobro might be the bluesiest of all the instruments. Complementing that is Hensley’s acoustic flatpicked guitar, the virtuoso country-bluegrass style pioneered by Doc Watson and Clarence White.
These guitars fit together like components of an engine, one that can cruise along serving a song or rev up for prolonged instrumental jams. I’ve seen Rob and Trey live a dozen times in the past few years at least, and I’m always amazed by how much music they concoct between just the two of them. When they scale up with a bass player and drummer, it’s outright ferocious.
And yet I’ve scarcely mentioned perhaps the most exceptional and widely relatable aspect of Rob and Trey’s artistry, and that’s Trey’s voice. He’s one of the finest traditional country singers working today with a warm baritone that swirls with timbres of Merle Haggard and Randy Travis. He’s a voice that Marty Stuart spotted ages ago even in pubescence, inviting Trey on to the Grand Ole Opry when he was 11. Much more recently, I saw Trey sing lead on a good portion of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s celebration of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, and there, singing bluegrass songs originally handled by the legendary Jimmy Martin, he delivered remarkable range and emotion. Sometimes, I feel like Hensley’s vocal gift gets a bit lost in the aura of the duo or pigeon-holed as bluegrass when their scope and skill is so wide and deep. Rob agrees, saying, “I’ve been telling people about Trey for ten years.”
As for material to interpret with those instruments and that voice, Rob and Trey’s first two albums featured songs by Merle Haggard, The Grateful Dead, Billy Joe Shaver, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and some key Nashville writers. Hensley snuck in a couple of his own early on, including the classic lines of “That’s What Leavin’s For” on 2016’s sophomore album The Country Blues. But mostly they recorded songs by others, until recently. On the way to making 2019’s World Full Of Blues, the guys teamed up with Grammy-winning producer and songwriter Brent Maher at his Berry Hill studio space. He encouraged them to write most of that album and kick-started a writing habit that accelerated during the 2020 pandemic. By that point, writing for a new album - with Maher returning in his producing role - had become a priority.
Songwriting “was never forefront for me,” Hensley said in a Zoom conversation in February around the time of the release of their fourth album Living In A Song. “I always just thought about playing guitar and singing songs that I already knew and liked, but I think it became just a conscious decision for Rob and I both. We talked about it. Around the time we were getting ready for World Full Of Blues, we wanted to write more. And then for this one, it was like, okay, we're gonna write everything.”
For Ickes, it was more of a leap into the realm of lyrics, although he’d written numerous instrumentals for bluegrass and string bands over a long career that included four solo albums and a couple of string jazz projects. “It was a new experience for me,” he says. “But I enjoyed the process. We probably wrote over 30 songs, and then put the 10 that we thought would go well together on this album. You know, it was kind of fun to say, hey, let's focus on our songwriting and have that be the goal for the next record. And so I'm really, really proud of what we did.”
The opening title track depicts a musician’s life on the road, albeit one more down on his luck “scratching out a living in another run down bar” than the artists doing the singing. Then a different kind of road song as “Deeper Than A Dirt Road” takes us to the country with a bit of sweet nostalgia. The guys told me that “Is The World Still Turning,” a swaying but forlorn waltz-time weeper, was the first song they wrote that felt like a sure thing for the next record. Rob said, “When the pandemic first started, I was hanging out in my music room one morning and when I came out my son was at his computer, and I just said, ‘is the world still turning?’ Like, what's happening? And I just thought it was kind of a cool title, you know, and, and then we turned it into kind of a broken hearted love song.” A similar alchemy makes “I Thought I Saw A Carpenter” come to life, in that Ickes heard his father speak the title line more or less out of the blue when he was in the latter stages of treatment for terminal cancer. He thought it might have come from a near death vision, and he and Hensley worked the thought into a beautiful spiritual. Another one to notice falls at the very end, a coda called “Thanks,” with friendly fingerstyle guitar and a Tom T. Hall kind of light but serious vibe.
There are two old-time cover tunes - “Working On A Building” and “Way Downtown” from the repertoire of Doc Watson - that keep the album grounded in the same deep country and bluegrass that launched the Rob and Trey duo almost a decade ago. They came together thanks to a twist in the life of Ickes’s longtime former band Blue Highway. The Appalachia-based quintet brought Hensley, an area newcomer they were hearing about, into the studio to record a scratch vocal on a song, meaning it was supposed to be replaced later by another guest singer. But it was too good, and they included that track, “My Last Day In The Mine” on their early 2014 album The Game. Ickes, a California native who claimed 15 IBMA Resophonic Guitar Player of the Year awards, struck up a side project with Hensley and ultimately decided he was ready for a change. The Rob and Trey duo released their debut album Country Blues in January of 2015.
Almost a decade later, their concept has been validated many times over. There’s never been a prominent guitar/Dobro duo and while the first is inevitably the best, it’s hard to even imagine a better one, or one capable of taking so many directions. “Sometimes I think maybe we haven't defined ourselves yet.” says Rob. “But that's cool. When you define yourself, you kind of limit yourself.” He notes that they’ve enjoyed collaborations with Taj Mahal (on World Full of Blues), Tommy Emmanuel, and Jorma Kakonen, with a Rodney Crowell connection planned this year. None of that’s by design, just the power of being open minded and really good at apparently everything.