Some things you know are just meant to be — but it’s still nice to get some outside affirmation. So while Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley were sure their musical partnership was the right move at the right time, it was certainly welcome news when their debut album, “Before the Sun Goes Down,” earned a Grammy nomination for the Best Bluegrass Album a few years ago. It was just about the time that Ickes took leave of the band he’d been in for nearly 20 years to make the joint venture the centerpiece of his career.
The pair, who are the featured artists for the Oct. 5 edition of Guitar Masters at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, built on the strengths of that record with their sophomore effort, “The Country Blues,” which takes 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. 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 countless bluegrass and country sessions as well. That impressive body of work has earned him Dobro Player of the Year honors a record 15 times.
That fun pervades their latest work, even when the subject matter is 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 (Nashville) have acted as a workshop — you can try something new during a show at the Station Inn and work it out right there. When we got into the studio, we just blasted through, doing a few takes of each song, without stopping for anyone to fix anything. Then Trey and I went through the takes to make our choices.”
The organic approach served them well as recording sessions with regulars Mike Bub (bass) and John Alvey (drums), and a select handful of instrumental/vocal guests that included the likes of Vince Gill, 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.
“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 or Stevie Ray Vaughan, 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.”
To no one’s surprise, they are both students of the Bakersfield Sound. “I’ve always been a Haggard guy,” Ickes told me in a recent conversation from his Nashville home. “Several years ago, Merle asked me to play on a few tracks for an album he was working on. We were recording at his home near Redding and had finished up for the day. He took me down by the river to his own personal campground. It was great … just Merle and me around the fire for the evening. He definitely had some wonderful stories!” Ickes added.
“Trey is a huge Don Rich fan, and I have always admired Tom Brumley’s steel guitar work (Rich and Brumley were members of Buck Owens’ Buckaroos). In fact, not long ago, we were driving through your town on the way to another gig, and I told him we just passed through the holy land!” Ickes exclaimed. “I was explaining to him the importance of Cousin Herb and the Trading Post band to the whole musical genre that is Bakersfield. He definitely gets it!”
If you are one of the relatively few who are familiar with Hensley’s musical resume, you would surely agree that this young man fully understands country music. Keeping true to its roots is more than a lovely sentiment of nostalgia. It is a necessity for the growth of an artist, and seems to come naturally for Hensley. After picking up a guitar at age 10, he quickly took the bluegrass world by storm — even invited by Marty Stuart to play the Grand Ole Opry when he was just 11 years old. Through the years, he has had the opportunity to perform with the likes of Earl Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Steve Wariner and many others.
“There were these definitive moments, like listening to a Merle Haggard record,” Hensley said. “At that point, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do, so I started doing more country stuff. Then I got the Buck Owens record ‘Carnegie Hall Concert,’ and that first guitar solo on ‘Act Naturally’ hooked me. As soon as I heard that, I bought a Telecaster and started working on those great guitar licks. When I was playing around where I grew up, people had grown accustomed to hearing a bluegrass band. It was never like I was doing anything totally different, but going from acoustic to electric did jar a few people’s musical taste,” he recalled.
Fate brought Ickes and Hensley together some five years ago. Hensley got the call to sing a “scratch” track (used primarily for timing purposes) on one of Blue Highway’s albums. The group ended up liking the vocal so much they left it on the record. According to one of the group’s members, Tim Stafford, “it was one take, live from the control room. That tells you how good this guy is!”
Although both are steeped in the roots of the Bakersfield Sound, it was Tommy Emmanuel who first tipped Ickes and Hensley off to Guitar Masters when the duo opened for him in San Francisco last year, right after his two sold-out nights at Studio A. They took Emmanuel’s positive recommendation to heart and confirmed their show not long after.
After all, when something is meant to be, the best thing to do is to get out of the way and let it go.
— Rick Kreiser is the founder of Guitar Masters.
Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.