There are many famous duos in the history of American roots music — from the Monroe Brothers, Stanley Brothers and Everly Brothers to Milk Carton Kids, Civil Wars and The War and Treaty. In the case of Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, they cement themselves as legends amongst a long list of other iconic duos with their astounding instrumental firepower and sheer virtuosity. Ickes is a 15-time IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Dobro Player of the Year and Hensley is a Tennessee-born guitar prodigy who made his Grand Ole Opry debut with Earl Scruggs and Marty Stuart at the age of 11. Together they shatter all expectations for their respective instruments. Ickes and Hensley are equally accomplished vocalists as well, with Hensley’s voice a rich baritone that evokes Merle Haggard one minute and George Jones the next, and Ickes a road-schooled harmony singer who’s voice hugs every twist and turn of phrase.
On their new album, Living In A Song, Ickes and Hensley showcase their songwriting chops in a set of 12 songs, 5 of which they co-wrote with GRAMMY award-winning producer Brent Maher (The Judds, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson). In classic Nashville fashion, the threesome hashed out some 30 songs before picking the dozen that would make up Living In A Song. Paying homage to the troubadours that shaped the Nashville sound, the duo made the conscious decision to lean the music in a classic country direction stylistically, with elements of Americana and bluegrass thrown in for good measure. The results of their collaboration show the depth of their musicianship and are nothing short of stellar.
The title track “Living In A Song” grew out of their experiences as touring musicians, and according to Hensley, the song practically wrote itself after a long day on the road driving through Ohio. When Hensley digs into the lyrics there is no question that he has lived the story he is telling, and the song’s message is lifted even further when Ickes joins in harmony on the chorus.
“Deeper Than A Dirt Road” is a radio friendly, feel-good paean to rural living, evoking life in the tiny East Tennessee town where Hensley was raised.
The duo’s rendition of “Way Downtown” draws its inspiration from Doc Watson’s version recorded 50 years ago on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken album and gives the duo a chance to trade some tasty licks with fiddle virtuoso Stuart Duncan.
“Is The World Still Turning” was the first song written for this project and is a gorgeous broken-hearted love song inspired by the historically unprecedented shut down at the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
“I Thought I Saw A Carpenter” is a heart-felt power ballad inspired by Ickes’s father’s last words as he lay dying, and the emotion that Ickes captured in the Dobro solo is as poignant as any vocal.
The album closes with “Thanks”, a track reminiscent of early Johnny Cash. Hensley wrote words to the melody penned by his friend Lyle Brewer, and the lyrics reflect on his love for his family. The demo version of the track had such a great feel that it ended up being the master, with producer Maher playing “percussion” on the back of an old Gretsch guitar.
Taken together, the tracks on Living In A Song illustrate the breadth of Ickes and Hensley’s musical vision and their depth as practitioners of their craft leaving little doubt why the two are some of the most sought-after musicians in Nashville. Ickes is known for having co-founded the highly influential bluegrass group Blue Highway and has been an A-team Nashville session player and live performing musician for decades, with credits including Vince Gill, Earl Scruggs, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire and Alison Krauss. Hensley has been called “Nashville’s hottest young player” by Acoustic Guitar magazine and his soulful baritone vocals have received similar praise. With influences including The Allman Brothers Band, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hensley has shared the stage with a long list of legends including Johnny Cash, Steve Wariner, and Peter Frampton.
As a duo, Ickes and Hensley have collaborated with Tommy Emmanuel, Taj Mahal, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, David Grisman, and Jorma Kaukonen & Hot Tuna — all enthusiastic admirers of theirs — as well as Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi All Stars, and many more. The duo were key players on “Original,” the GRAMMY-nominated Compass Records album by bluegrass giant Bobby Osborne; their participation garnered a Recorded Event of the Year Award for Bobby’s version of “Got To Get A Message To You.” from that album. They were also featured artists on the 2016 IBMA Recorded Event winner “Fireball,” featuring Special Consensus, in 2016. Ickes and Hensley’s discography includes World Full Of Blues (Compass Records, 2019), The Country Blues (Compass Records, 2016) and the Grammy-nominated Before The Sun Goes Down (Compass Records, 2015).