‘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 might not fit in a trouser pocket with their instruments, but they would certainly fit in a small car. And yet they have more tools at their fingertips than many larger bands – tools for scintillating grooves, lush harmonies, bluesy longing, fiery picking and lyrical beauty. That’s why, now, nearly a decade after an unexpected journey, Rob and Trey have become a roots-country duo with no equal and few, if any, precedents.

Two vocalists with guitars is hardly unusual, but it is kind Guitars we are talking about that make this duo unique and well matched. Rob Ickes has been America’s most awarded resophonic guitarist (or dobro player) since the 1990’s, and just for a refresher, this one has been playing flat and overhand with slide and fingerpicks. With its articulate and dynamic voice, the dobro is perhaps the most bluesy of instruments. This is complemented by Hensley’s flatpicked acoustic 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 ride along to serve up a song or rev up for extended instrumental jams. I’ve seen Rob and Trey live at least a dozen times over the past few years and I’m always amazed at how much music they brew just between them. When they step up with a bassist and a drummer, it’s downright wild.

And yet I’ve barely mentioned perhaps the most extraordinary and most relatable aspect of Rob and Trey’s artistry, and that is Trey’s voice. He’s one of the finest traditional country singers today, working with a warm baritone that swirls with timbres from Merle Haggard and Randy Travis. He’s a voice that Marty Stuart discovered ages ago in puberty when he invited Trey to the Grand Ole Opry when he was 11. I recently saw Trey sing the lead at a good chunk of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s celebration The circle will be unbroken, and there he sang bluegrass songs originally sung by the legendary Jimmy Martin, delivering remarkable range and emotion. At times I feel like Hensley’s vocal talents get a little lost in the duo’s aura or pigeonholed as bluegrass when their range and skill is so broad and deep. Rob agrees, saying, “I’ve been telling people about Trey for ten years.”

As for the material that can be performed with these instruments and voice, Rob and Trey’s first two albums featured songs by Merle Haggard, The Grateful Dead, Billy Joe Shaver, Stevie Ray Vaughan and several important Nashville writers. Hensley snuck in a few of his own early on, including the classic lines from “That’s What Leavin’s For” on 2016’s sophomore album The country blues. But mostly, until recently, they recorded songs by others. On the way to 2019 World full of blues, the boys teamed up with Grammy-winning songwriter Brent Maher at his Berry Hill studio. He encouraged her to write most of that album and started a writing habit that accelerated during the 2020 pandemic. By this point, writing for a new album – with Maher returning to his role as producer – had become a priority.

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley

Songwriting “was never a priority for me,” Hensley said in a Zoom conversation in February, around the time of the release of her fourth album life in a song. “All I ever thought about was playing guitar and singing songs I already knew and liked, but I think it was just a conscious choice for Rob and I. We talked about it. About the time we were getting ready World full of blues, we wanted to write more. And then it was for this one, okay, we’ll write everything.”

For Ickes, it was more of a leap into lyrical territory, although over his long career he had written numerous instrumentals for bluegrass and string bands, including 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 about 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 that’s the goal for the next album. And that’s why I’m really, really proud of what we’ve done.”

The opening title track depicts the life of a traveling musician, though one is unluckier “scraping a living at some other seedy bar” than the artists who sing. Then another road song like “Deeper Than A Dirt Road” takes us to the countryside with a bit of sweet nostalgia. The guys told me that “Is The World Still Turning,” a shaky but lost waltz weeper, was the first song they wrote that felt like a sure bet for the next album. Rob said: “When the pandemic started I was hanging out in my music room one morning and when I came out my son was sitting at his computer and I was just like, ‘Does the world still turn?’ Like what happens? And I just thought it was a pretty cool title, you know, and then we kind of made it into a kind of heartbroken love song.” A similar alchemy brings “I Thought I Saw A Carpenter” to life, with Ickes’ father filling the title line more or less out of the blue when he was in the final stages of treatment for terminal cancer. He thought it might be from a near-death vision, and he and Hensley processed the thought into a beautiful spiritual. Another thing to note stands out at the very end, a coda called “Thanks,” with friendly fingerstyle guitar and a light but serious mood by Tom T. Hall.

There are two vintage cover songs — “Working On A Building” and “Way Downtown,” from Doc Watson’s repertoire — that keep the album rooted in the same deep country and bluegrass that duo Rob and Trey hit nearly a decade ago Founded . They came together thanks to a twist in the life of Ickes’ longtime former band, Blue Highway. The Appalachia-based quintet brought Hensley, a local newcomer they had heard of, into the studio to record a scratch vocal on a song, which meant he would later be replaced by another guest vocalist. But it was too good and they recorded this track “My Last Day in the Mine” on their early 2014 album The game. A California native who has won 15 IBMA Resophonic Guitar Player of the Year awards, Ickes started a side project with Hensley and eventually decided he was ready for a change. The duo Rob and Trey have released their debut album country blues in January 2015.

Almost a decade later, their concept has proven itself many times over. There has never been a stand out guitar/dobro duo, and while the first is inevitably the best, it’s hard to 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 have enjoyed collaborating with Taj Mahal (on World Full of Blues), Tommy Emmanuel and Jorma Kakonen, with a Rodney Crowell liaison planned for this year . None of this is intentional, just the power to be open minded and seemingly really good at everything.


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