Some things you know are just meant to be—but even when you do, it’s nice to get some outside affirmation. So while Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley were sure that their musical partnership was the right move at the right time, it was still welcome news when their debut Compass Records project, Before The Sun Goes Down, earned a nomination for the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy just about the time that Ickes took leave of the band he’d been in for over 20 years to make the joint venture the centerpiece of his career. And with the release of their new project, The Country Blues on July 8th the pair build on the first one’s strengths to take their unique musical conversation to an even higher level.
“Rob’s helping me to explore more of what to play and when to play it,” says Hensley, who’s made the transition from hot-shot guitar phenom to well-rounded instrumental and vocal powerhouse look easy. “I’ve been in a band for so long that I’m really enjoying the simplicity of the duo thing—and Trey’s done a lot of band stuff, too, so we’re on the same page,” responds Ickes, whose award-winning resonator guitar work not only helped to power famed bluegrass ensemble Blue Highway for two decades, but appears on hundreds of bluegrass and country albums. That same page extends to the other musicians who complement their work, starting with bassist Mike Bub and drummer John Alvey, who regularly accompany Ickes and Hensley on gigs around Nashville. “It works in so many different ways, we've done it duo, we've done some gigs with just John, we've done four piece, and we’ve done five piece with a fiddle,” notes Ickes. “Trey and I have always clicked, and when he and I know what's going on, everyone else just grabs on—and that’s kind of the fun of the gig, it’s constantly changing.”
That fun pervades the 11 tracks on The Country Blues, even when the subject matter’s as mournful as the post-romance desolation of Hank Williams’ classic “May You Never Be Alone.” “I hate to use the word,” Ickes chuckles, “but we really did pick the material organically. Our gigs in town have acted as a workshop—you can try something new during a show at the Station Inn and work it out right there. So when we got into the studio, we just blasted through, doing a few takes of each song, without stopping for anyone to fix anything. And then Trey and I went through the takes to make our choices.”
That organic approach served well as recording sessions with regulars Mike Bub (bass) and John Alvey (drums) and a select handful of instrumental and vocal guests that included the likes of Vince Gill and Carl Jackson were sandwiched between long stints on the road as a duo. The unusual schedule allowed Hensley and Ickes to take what they were exploring on stages across the country and around the world into the studio, and the result is a set that expands the already wide-ranging palette of Before The Sun Goes Down in even more directions. “This guy is so versatile,” Ickes says of Hensley, “that we can do just about anything. The bluegrass stuff can sound really straight ahead, but then we can do something in the vein of the Allman Brothers, and that’ll sound authentic, too. We could do a Bob Wills album, and that would be great as well—I haven’t found anything he can’t do.”
Want proof? Check out the powerful Sonny Boy Williamson blues shouter, “One Way Out,” or the mixed regret and determination of “Won’t Give Up My Train,” memorably recorded years ago by Merle Haggard, or the ‘grassy dexterity of their original, “Everywhere I Go.” Need more? How about the insouciant funk of “Never Can Pray Enough,” imported from the Wood Brothers, or the southern rock of Charlie Daniels on “Willie Jones?” Then there’s the jazzy tour de force instrumental, “Biscuits And Gravy,” written by Ickes as a kind of tribute to pedal steel master Buddy Emmons and so much more; there’s even a nod to the Grateful Dead in “Friend Of The Devil,” a dazzling staple of the duo’s live shows.
Indeed, though the contributions from Alvey, Bub and the rest of a short but sweet list of friends who helped out complement the duo’s exciting work, there’s no doubt that it’s Ickes and Hensley who are front and center on The Country Blues—and that’s just how it should be. After all, when something’s meant to be, the best thing to do is to get out of the way and let it go.