It doesn’t happen often, but it’s choice when it does: a veteran musician who seems to have done it all joins forces with a newcomer who has explosive talent. So it is with Dobro player Rob Ickes (rhymes with yikes) and guitarist Trey Hensley. Ickes has played for many years with the all-virtuoso bluegrass band Blue Highway, winning Dobro Player of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association fifteen times. Not long ago he met up with Hensley, newly arrived in Nashville with brilliant chops in need of channeling. The results so far have been exciting.
The channeling has taken several different forms. Their cutting-edge bluegrass avoids the usual jazz influences, although Ickes has played plenty of that, as well as the alternative bluegrass of Chris Thile and his crowd. Instead, they apply specific forms of discipline. They play enough straight bluegrass to keep it anchored in tradition, and when they do break into a jam, it’s often attached to a classic country song by the likes of Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard (“A Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” or one of his few religious pieces, the lovely “When My Last Song Is Sung”). Only then does Hensley cut loose.
The duo has a few Grateful Dead pieces in their repertory, but more often they turn to straight blues. Their album The Country Blues (an ambitious title in itself) includes Elmore James’ (via the Allman Brothers) “One Way Out,” and on their debut recording The Country Blues they took on, and did justice to, the Stevie Ray Vaughan barn burner “Pride and Joy.” On that song they get along without percussion instruments—the percussive quality of the guitars and some rapping on the instruments provide all the drumming they need. On recordings (apparently not in person), there are a few songs with drums, but when they start to come close to rock, as in The Wood Brothers’ “Pray Enough,” the themes of the text push them back toward bluegrass.
Sometimes it doesn’t quite jell. When Hensley plays an electric guitar, he adds little to the music of his models—the tension inherent in the way bluegrass incorporates the wider musical world is important to what the duo does. But both musicians offer original songs that play with this tension in various ways, and the whole enterprise has a satisfying feeling of being a work in progress in the best sense. It’s now been a couple of years since The Country Blues came out, and you may well get to hear new developments of an exciting rising act when they come to the Ark on Saturday, July 27.