Duo Dynamics: Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley Combine Forces on 'The Country Blues'

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody shred on the acoustic like Trey does,” says Rob Ickes.
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“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody shred on the acoustic like Trey does,” says Rob Ickes.

Such a statement carries tons of weight coming from the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 15-time Dobro Player of the Year, whose extraordinary experience includes extensive work with flatpicking icon Tony Rice.

Jonesborough Tennessee’s prodigious Trey Hensley picked up the guitar at age ten, and got an invitation from Marty Stuart to join him and Earl Scruggs onstage at the Grand Ole Opry when he was 11. It was only a matter of time before his career would blossom. Hensley, 24, is a pure country singer, and his guest vocal on Ickes’ band Blue Highway’s “My Last Day in the Mine” from 2014’s The Game set the duo in motion.

The Ickes-Hensley debut in 2015, Before the Sun Goes Down, was Grammy-nominated for Best Bluegrass Album, and this year’s The Country Blues [Compass] is a natural evolution. It’s chock full of killer covers with outstanding band arrangements—as well as three original songs—and the dueling slide solos on “Ballad of a Well Known Gun” illustrate the similarities and differences between the Dobro and the dreadnought. Ickes and Hensley don lap-steel and electric guitars on several tracks, including Ickes’ jamjazz instrumental tribute to pedal-steel master Buddy Emmons, “Biscuits and Gravy.” Their rapidfire rundown of Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone” and nasty double-slide take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out” are like dual lightning strikes in a bottle.

Frets caught up with Ickes and Hensley after witnessing them win over Tommy Emmanuel and his crowd when they opened for the Guitar Player Certified Legend Award winner at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts.

Rob, you made some comments at the show indicating that you’re essentially on a mission to make Trey world famous.

Ickes: In a way, I’ve felt like a self-imposed A&R guy. I set up some showcases for him when he moved to Nashville in 2013, but labels want to see 100 gigs on the books before they’ll sign you these days. I said, “Let’s just do a record together,” and things have really snowballed since then. I’m so excited about his singing and guitar playing.

What are some specifics about Trey’s playing that knock you out?

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Ickes: He has a driving sense of timing. His technical ability is way beyond his years, and he’s always had lightning speed with an extraordinary sense of ease. He has absorbed so many different styles. I’ve worked with Tony Rice for about ten years, and I probably wouldn’t be playing music if it weren’t for my fascination with his records, but it’s kind of like players in the bluegrass world are only listening to Tony. I enjoy hearing other influences in Trey’s guitar playing, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Martin, and Doc Watson. He’s hip on the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, and he’s also into Muddy Waters. Trey can play the blues with soulful authenticity, and he is a great slide player. He’s not like most bluegrass players who simply know a few blues licks.

How familiar with Tony Rice’s playing are you, Trey?

Hensley: The first record that got me fired up about playing guitar was Tony’s Manzanita, and his discography made me stick with it. I spent a lot of hours trying to learn his licks, but Marty Stuart adamantly encouraged me to pursue my own style. I started incorporating licks I’d learned from listening to Dickey Betts and Jerry Garcia into bluegrass, and, hopefully, I’ve come up with something that sounds like me.

Both your debut album and the new CD are organic sounding—like in the style of ’70s country records.

Ickes: We agreed to do this one even more organically. We all sat in a circle and cut it live—no overdubs. Some of the other musicians got pissed off at times because they wanted to go fix stuff, and we wouldn’t let them. We cut a few takes of every song. Trey and I picked our favorites later. If we liked take one overall, but we liked the fiddle solo from take two, we’d cut the whole fiddle solo section from take two, and paste it into take one.

And you could do all that editing without using click tracks?

Ickes: Yes. I hate click tracks. You’ve got to play each take at the same tempo or extremely close, but everybody in this group has great time, so that wasn’t an issue.

What instruments did you play?

Hensley: On the acoustic side, I played a Taylor 510e-FLTD. It’s a dreadnought with a Sitka spruce top and Tasmanian blackwood back and sides. Tasmanian blackwood is supposedly similar to mahogany, but, to my ears, it sounds more like rosewood. I brought a bunch of guitars including a few vintage Martins to try out before we started recording, and I wound up playing the Taylor on every single track because it sounded the best through the mics.

Ickes: The engineer really liked it because of the way it cut through on those Peluso P-28 mics. I don’t think of Taylor guitars as having a real bluegrass attack—a big sound like a Martin—but that Taylor rocks. Wasn’t it handmade by one of the main guys at Taylor, Trey?

Hensley: Yes. It was Andy Powers. [Editor’s Note: Click to guitarplayer. com/frets to read Andy’s May 2016 Frets cover story.] Andy brought it to Taylor’s Nashville showroom at Soundcheck that opened in the fall of 2014. I borrowed it for a session Rob and I did for CMT. It was actually the first Taylor I had ever played, and I fell in love. Andy is knocking it out of the park making dreadnoughts that sound monstrous. I’ve got a 910e now with a huge tone. They sound great plugged in as well.

What kind of strings do you put on your Taylors?

Hensley: On that session I used medium D’Addario EXPs, but I’ve switched to their new Nickel Bronze strings [see the review online at guitarplayer.com/frets]. I play pretty aggressively. When I’m done with a show, the strings are noticeably dead most of the time, but those Nickel Bronze strings will still have life. They’re not particularly bright, and I dig that—especially as my Taylors may be a little bit brighter than my Martins. But I’ll use them on everything—even bass-heavy guitars—because the Nickel Bronze strings seem to bring out each particular guitar’s tone, instead of sounding like a particular string on a particular guitar.

What kind of pick are you using?

Hensley: It’s a triangular BlueChip TAD60. It’s thick—basically a step down from a rock. I’ll use a medium-heavy pick when I play electric, and incorporate my middle and ring fingers a lot—like Albert Lee. “Leave My Woman Alone” from The Country Blues is a good example.

How about the electric parts?

Hensley: I played a Fender Eric Clapton “Blackie” Signature Stratocaster through a Fender Deluxe Reverb. That Strat has a mid boost that makes it sound like a fat Telecaster.

What about your gear, Rob?

Ickes: For all the Dobro on the record, I used a Sheerhorn with a serial number in the 200s. It has a spruce top, Indian rosewood body, back, and sides, and a mahogany neck. Tim Scheerhorn revolutionized the instrument in the early ’90s, doing different design things that brought out the volume and the low end. I string it with D’Addario EJ42s. It’s their Dobro set, which is basically a medium set of guitar strings that’s a little thicker on the high end. I actually go a little further and swap out the .016 for a .017 as the highest string. I pluck using a BlueChip thumbpick and Bob Perry gold-plated fingerpicks in standard Dobro tuning: (low to high) G, B, D, G, B, D. I use a Scheerhorn stainless-steel bar. I also played an early ’40s Rickenbacker “Panda” lap-steel through a Fender Blues Junior. “Panda” refers to its black Bakelite body with white plates on top.

The dueling slide solos on “Ballad of a Well Known Gun” are interesting because the listener hears the difference between a Dobro and a dreadnought without any fretting going on.

Ickes: That’s kind of a wild-west song, and we considered various instruments for the solos that would fit the lyrics. I didn’t even know Trey played slide until he whipped one out backstage on the road somewhere. I went, “Wow, that’s a wild-west sound.”

What’s your slide preference, Trey?

Hensley: I use a Dunlop Blues Bottle. I like that it’s a little tighter at the bottom where it grips the fattest point of my middle finger.

Do you notice less string noise with Nickel Bronze strings?

Hensley: Yes. And when I play slide, I also go fingerstyle, which cuts down string noise, as well.

What’s the story behind “Everywhere I Go Is a Long Way from Home?”

Hensley: We were going through California in 2014, talking about how Merle Haggard’s home in Redding is not anywhere near where he tours. Rob said, “Wherever he goes is a long way from home.” I made a mental note of that, and I wrote the song when we got home. It’s almost autobiographical.

It’s in the key of G, and you take the first solo on Dobro, Rob. Can you describe what you’re playing?

Ickes: Melody is always important to me. Trey wrote some great melodies, and I love how the chord progression goes from the VIm to the VII in the verses. I listen to the vivid images in Trey’s lyrics, and I try to play what the song is about. There’s a line in there about blues baby, so I’ll try to play a lick with a blues feeling. The best thing about playing Dobro for me is having an improvised conversation with the singer. I also think like a banjo player on that song, because it has an aggressive bluegrass feel, so my solos have more rolls. The idea is to play on the edge and capture the excitement of a good bluegrass tune.

How did you develop the ability to make a Dobro sound like a banjo?

Ickes: I love good banjo playing. Ron Block from Alison Krauss & Union Station is the banjo player on this record, and he and I go way back. My brother was a banjo player, and I worked with Earl Scruggs for ten years, so that rubs off on you. The tuning is similar. The top four strings on a Dobro are tuned exactly like the top four strings on a banjo. I just think of playing Dobro like playing banjo with one finger on your left hand.

Trey, how did you develop the ability to flatpick so clean and fast?

Hensley: Everything Doc Watson, Tony Rice, or Bryan Sutton has ever played is as clear as a bell, and I’ve always tried to emulate that. I practice with a lot of fiddle tunes, and I try to figure out the best way to play things cleanly. I know nothing about music theory or scales. A lot of what I do is just muscle memory—figuring out how to play a major chord in three positions in every key, and connecting the dots across the entire fretboard. I’ve never practiced with a metronome, but I’ve played along with a lot of records, and I have been to a ton of jam sessions with other great players that inspired me to work hard on my timing.

Ickes: We were playing in Denmark a couple months ago, and a friend who was kind of our road manager on the trip said, “I cannot believe Trey’s timing—it’s just incredible.” And I said, “Yeah, it’s like a f**king freight train.” That’s an instrumental for the next album—“F**king Freight Train!”