WE ALL LIKE TO PAYLIP SERVICE TO KEEPING AN open mind, but it’s a rare musician who can truly do that, particularly when said musician has enjoyed success at a certain thing. At that point, it’s easier, and generally more lucrative, to go with what you know and do what you do. You could hardly fault Dobro deity Rob Ickes if he just stayed in the comfortable groove that has won him so many bluegrass awards. But instead of continuing to crank out records with bluegrass heavies Blue Highway, Ickes shifted gears a few years back to tackle Jeff Beck and Stevie Wonder tunes in Three Ring Circle. But when it came time to prepare for his latest release, the groundbreaking collaboration with pianist Michael Alvey, Road Song [ResoRevolution], it was a request from his daughter that would truly show how receptive Ickes is to new ideas.
“My daughter came home from school one day and said, ‘My music teacher, Mr. Alvey, heard that you play and he wants you to come to our class and play,’” says Ickes. “I went down there and we started playing and it was like the history of jazz coming out of his piano. I felt such a connection that first time we played together and it’s just such a cool sound, Dobro and piano. I started thinking, ‘I’m going to do a jazz record, but I’m going to do it with just the two of us, just these two instruments.’ That’s how this project came together.”
Everyone who hears this record is struck by how it crosses and obliterates boundaries between genres. Was that deliberate?
No. I’ve sort of learned to keep my radar on for cool stuff and I always think, “Hey, maybe this is the direction I’m supposed to go.” This record came about because I wanted to do another jazz-style project and get into the material more, because I feel like I still don’t know the repertoire like I should. The real story of this record is how Michael and I met. I didn’t want to put that in the liner notes because I didn’t want people to go, “Oh, this guy’s just his kid’s teacher.” He’s a fabulous player. I jumped at the chance to play with him because I wanted to improve my jazz knowledge and knew that he could show me some stuff. I would tape those little jam sessions and it sounded so good that I thought, “Wait—here’s this great player right in my own backyard. This is what I need to do for my next project.” It wasn’t an intentional thing, like I’m going to throw this together and break down some barriers. It was more like, I need to pursue this, document it, and make something lasting out of it.
Talk about how the two instruments blend sonically and melodically.
One thing I noticed right off the bat about the sound is how the sustain of the Dobro meshes with the piano’s sustain. I really love that. From a melodic standpoint, I learned a lot from Michael. For instance, we would play “Song for My Father,” and I had played that before, with guitarists and mandolin players. But when I sat down to really learn the melody, I found that I had been playing it wrong, because a guitar or mandolin can’t lay out those chordal extensions like a piano can. If I would play the melody correctly against their chords, it wouldn’t sound right. And when I’m soloing over the piano chords, I have a lot more note choices, which is a good thing. I never play with instruments that can play ten notes at once. I also found that I can play notes on the low end that would normally just get covered up in a bigger band. The last note of “Road Song” comes to mind. I can just let that one low note ring forever and I love how it dissipates through the atmosphere.
You get some unusual timbres out of your Dobro, like the sitar sounds in “Caravan.”
If you take the bar, which is normally laid perpendicular to the strings, and lay the whole length of the bar parallel to the strings, that causes the strings to buzz. It’s normally a bad thing, but by playing around with it and being funny, I discovered that I could get this sitar sound. “Caravan” is about a North African desert thing and I felt like it was okay to bring out a Middle Eastern sound.
This record has a really live feel to it. How many of these songs were first takes?
A lot of them. All the vocal tunes are first takes. The version of “You Win Again” on the record is the first time we went through that song. I’ve been lucky to work with some great people. I’ve recorded with Merle Haggard several times and I watch him like a hawk. He’ll go from one tune right into another and you have no time to think or plan, you just play instinctively. I learned a lot from that. Tony Rice, also. He’s made so many great records and I’m always wondering how he gets such great performances, not only out of himself but also out of the people he plays with. Tony does a lot of live stuff on his records. A lot of his stuff is first takes and you catch musicians off their guard. I really wanted to capture that.
You have no trouble navigating jazz changes, even though you’re playing with a bar in open G. How do you voice diminished, augmented, or altered chords?
I look for pieces of the chords. If you listen to “If I Had You,” there’s some rhythm stuff where I outline the chords that sounds pretty full but really I’m just playing two or three notes of the chord. That’s the way you have to do it on the Dobro. It’s geographical at times: I’m here, what can I grab that’s close? The instrument is tuned to an open major chord, but one of the things I’ve learned is that a minor chord is just another major chord. In other words, a Bm is the same as a Dmaj. I’m finding ways to play diminished chords with a straight bar. I can get two fourths of a diminished chord and sort of walk those around. If I use the top two strings I can also use the fifth string as a bass note since it’s the same as the second string.
That’s what I love about this project, it’s really opened my eyes up to what’s possible on the instrument. It’s given me so many ideas that I can use with Three Ring Circle, Blue Highway, or on sessions. In many ways the Dobro can be a very simple instrument— it’s tuned to a major chord, etc. But like any instrument, it’s totally infinite. You can do whatever you want with it if you don’t put any barriers on yourself.