photo by Stacie Huckeba
Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley are a duo that came together shortly after Hensley moved to Nashville. Ickes was formerly in the bluegrass band Blue Highway and has won the IBMA Dobro Player of the Year award 15 times. The band’s first album Before the Sun Goes Down was nominated for a Grammy, and the band’s most recent album World Full of Blues was released on October 4. By phone the duo discussed their creative process, their Grammy nomination and modern bluegrass bands they admire.
Americana Highways: Trey, you played The Opry at age 11. What was that experience like for you?
Trey Hensley: That was amazing. I met Marty Stuart when I was 10. He was playing at a fairgrounds in east Tennessee. I was a big fan of Marty’s. My dad took me out there to get this guitar case signed. Unbeknownst to me, my dad put my guitar in the case. When we got to meet Marty, my dad said, “Marty, my son would love to play you a song.” I played him an old Carter Family song. Marty had me come up onstage and play at his next show that night. After that was over was when he invited me to The Opry. I grew up with The Opry. I watched The Opry and Hee Haw every Saturday night. That was a dream for me at 11.
AH: With such a variety of influences from country to bluegrass to blues, how does a song typically come together for you?
Rob Ickes: We were on the road quite a bit in Europe last summer. One thing we decided is that we wanted to write more for this album. This is our third album. We’ve had some originals on the first two, but we definitely wanted to write more for this. We got together and we had pieces of songs or ideas. We just helped each other finish them. We actually wrote quite a few like that. The “Brown-Eyed Women” cover. We were on the road listening to The Dead. Trey’s an expert on them. I’m kind of new to them, but getting more into it. That song came on and I loved the melody. I loved what the song is about. It fits our sound. It’s kind of a bluegrass song about moonshine. When we got to the gig, we started fooling around with it. I heard Trey sing it and I was like, “Yeah. That’s going to work.” I love Trey’s vocal on the record on that song. We’re always looking for something that fits what we do. We always have our radar up whether it’s our own songs or listening to other people’s material. It’s a process of what we like and what fits what we’re doing. Sometimes we write a song and like it, but don’t know if it fits what we’re doing right now. So you put it in the Save pile. We had a bunch of songs for this record that we thought about doing, but our producer Brent Maher picked 11 songs. I think he picked 11 great tracks. We have a bunch more that we wrote that weren’t right for this album.
AH: How do you feel the new album compares to previous albums?
TH: With us writing more, it has more of us in it. Our other ones do too, but this means a little more having more of our original stuff on there. It’s similar to the other ones. It’s not like we’re taking a drastic turn into any different music. We’re staying firm with what we do. Maybe this one is a little different with the B-3 and horns. We definitely ventured into that more. It’s all acoustic, which is different than our other ones. We had some electric tracks on the first two records. In a way this sounds more rock and roll than the other two.
RI: Just Brent’s vision for us and what he hears in our music. Brent Maher is a killer producer. There’s got a be a lot of trust in that relationship. Trey and I definitely trusted Brent. He’s had so much success. That helped us let go of the reins to a certain extent. The first two records was all about us and what we thought it should be. It’s a little scary to hand over the reins, but again we trusted Brent, and he loves what we’re doing. He brought the idea of horns into the picture and B-3 and percussion. It’s similar to our other records, but it definitely has a different sound. I feel like it’s more focused on us and our two instruments. Like Trey said, we’re not playing electric instruments on this album. It has a lot more power. It’s even funkier in some ways even though we’re playing acoustics.
AH: What was your reaction when Before the Sun Goes Down was nominated for a Grammy?
RI: It was great timing. We had just decided to do this thing full time. I was in another band, Blue Highway – a great bluegrass band – for 21 years. I was getting the itch to do something else. When Trey moved to town, we started working together. I think we announced that this was going to be our thing in November. A week later, we got nominated for the Grammy. Anything with Grammy on it helps your booking agent and press and everything. It was sort of a surprise, but we were getting a lot of great feedback on the album from people like Vince Gill and other musicians that we respect and work with a lot around Nashville. Our label kept telling us about all this incredible feedback we were getting on the record. We got some great press on the first one. It was all good.
TH: Of course that was my first time even getting close to a Grammy. It was a total shock for me. We love that record. I had such a good time recording it. I knew we were getting some cool press. I remember my phone was just going crazy that morning. I didn’t know what was going on. It took me about 30 minutes to realize we were nominated for a Grammy.
AH: Who are some modern bluegrass artists that you admire?
TH: There are so many great people doing it right now. I love what Billy Strings is doing and Molly Tuttle. Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, we’ve done some tours with those guys. Steep Canyon Rangers. A lot of the folks we’ve done shows with this year have been some of our favorite artists out there. We did a couple shows with Darrell Scott. There are so many amazing artists out there doing their own thing.
RI: I think another influence – not so much bluegrass – The Wood Brothers have really been an inspiration to us. I’ve been following them for a long time. They started out with just Chris and Oliver on guitar and bass. Then they added drums. The records always had more of a band thing. Even now, they’re just a three-piece for the most part, and they’ve gotten it done. When we were first going out and doing shows and thinking about what was possible with this duo. We do take a band out from time to time. Those guys were a real inspiration. I love their music and songwriting. They have a lot of energy. Their whole thing is an inspiration to us.
AH: When you see them live, it’s amazing what they can do with just three people.
RI: People say that a lot about our duo show, that it sounds like a whole band up there. It’s a challenge to get it done with a smaller group like that. We’ve played some shows with them. It was like a mini Rolling Stones. It had that kind of energy.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
TH: Thinking about making music.
RI: I have a Bachelors Degree in biology, and I never did anything with it. I was thinking about going to veterinary school. I dipped my toe into that world a little bit. The first day I started playing music, I knew I wanted to do this. I don’t think there’s another option.
TH: I was going to go to college for AutoCAD design and engineering stuff. I really liked that, but I really like playing guitar more.