From the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY KENNY BERKOWITZ
The partnership started in 2012, when Trey Hensley supplied a scratch vocal for Blue Highway, the bluegrass band Rob Ickes had founded 20 years earlier. That vocal, recorded in a single take, made it onto the finished album, and by 2014, Ickes had left the band to focus on a duo career with Hensley.
Their debut, the Grammy-nominated Before the Sun Goes Down (2015), was followed by The Country Blues (2016), which was even better, and the new World Full of Blues, which is better still. It’s got the same strengths as the first two albums: incredible chemistry between Ickes and Hensley, hotshot guitar picking at a breakneck bluegrass pace, and a love for classic country delivered with badass Southern-rock attitude. There’s plenty that’s new, too: Ickes and Hensley have written or co-written all but two of these tracks, often with longtime Nashville pros Buddy Cannon, Larry Cordle, Larry Shell, and Bobby Starnes, and it’s given these songs a weathered, three-chord weariness that brings them within shouting distance of their hero, Merle Haggard.
Hag’s influence is all over World Full of Blues. It’s in the songwriting, especially Hensley’s “Both Ends of My Rainbow,” which evokes Haggard’s “Every Fool Has a Rainbow,” and Ickes’ “Thirty Days,” which recalls time spent in the lockup. It’s in the vocal phrasing Hensley uses in “I’m Here but I’m Lonely” and “There’s Always Something to Remind Me of You,” stretching out those last, low notes at the end of the verses. It’s in the swinging, lighthearted cussedness of “Nobody Can Tell Me I Can’t” and the quiet philosophizing of “World Full of Blues.” Really, it’s everywhere, and it’s a fitting foundation for an older, wiser Hensley to build these songs, taking them as far as he can before letting loose with one jaw-dropping solo after another.
Ickes and Hensley are clearly made for each other, and over time they’ve learned how to bring out their one-upping best, filling the spaces between licks with more notes, better notes, and unlikelier notes. A 15-time winner of IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year, Ickes’ playing is faster than fast, keeping up an incredible pace from the opening “Born with the Blues” to the closing “Rugged Road.” On acoustic guitar, Hensley has the speed advantage, picking notes so short they shoot past in a blur, too rapid-fire to count. Meanwhile, Hensley’s band mates—Mike Bub on acoustic bass and John Alvey on drums, along with a three-man horn section—help power this steel-string bluegrass with all the intensity of rock ’n’ roll.
Watch them play the title cut from their new album:
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.