Americana deluxe

Hot licks only half the story for acclaimed acoustic duo

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Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley
Stacie Huckeba

When Rob Ickes takes the stage at Boulder’s Chautauqua Community House with Trey Hensley on Dec. 4, the first few rows will likely be jammed with serious guitar geeks. They will be there to study one of the greatest living guitarists. 

Along with Jerry Douglas, Ickes is one of the true virtuosi on the resophonic guitar played face up with a slide, commonly called a dobro. The obscure instrument got little love during Ken Burns’ recent Country Music series, even though that bluesy slide is a defining twang of the genre.   

In the bluegrass world, Ickes is royalty as the winner of the IBMA dobro player of the year award an unprecedented 15 times, and a 20-year member of the award-winning bluegrass band Blue Highway. He could spend the rest of his career playing traditional tunes at festivals and supplying licks on country music studio recordings. 

But when Ickes and Hensley play locally on Dec. 4 and 5, the shows will definitely not be “Uncle Pen/Will the Circle Be Unbroken” sets, although they surely will include that flavor. 

Ickes took a left turn in recent years and now performs full-time in a duo with Hensley. “I feel like everything I’ve done before in music has been preparing me for this gig,” Ickes says. “We started playing and just hit off.”  

You can hear the chemistry when Hensley is singing with Ickes’ guitar harmonizing. “Trey has soaked up a lot of different kinds of music in 28 years. I think he is one of the best singer-songwriters on the planet ever, right up there with Merle Haggard,” says Ickes, who recorded and performed with the country legend.  

The guitar geeks may be drawn by Ickes’ wizardry but they will be wowed by Hensley’s flatpicking skills as the duo launches into open-ended jams replete with guitar duels. “We do get into this effortless groove,” Ickes says.

The duo has opened for the Osborne Brothers and Hot Tuna, appearing at Southern bluegrass festivals and the top jam band venues. 

Perhaps it was his Northern California upbringing, but early on Ickes exhibited a tendency to push beyond the constraints and embrace jazz, blues and rock. After studying his dobro heroes Jerry Douglas and Mike Auldridge obsessively, Ickes says he eventually had to learn to sound like himself.

Ickes does unleash jaw-dropping, pyrotechnic, superpicker moments, where notes launch like rockets, but he transcends the instrument with his eloquent melodies, aching solos and propulsive rhythms. In the studio he has backed everyone including David Lee Roth. If you listen to country music, you’ve heard Ickes. 

Hensley grew up in the bosom of traditional American music, eastern Tennessee. He may be a relatively new name but he’s not a fresh face. When Hensley was only 11 years old, Marty Stuart brought him onstage to play with Earl Scruggs at the Grand Ole Opry. 

A multi-skilled acoustic guitarist (and an electric guitarist with an affinity for the Allman Brothers), Hensley has a resonant baritone voice that grabs hold of a lyric, not unlike his hero, Haggard.  

Ickes’ and Hensley’s choice of covers is striking. Go on YouTube and listen to them rock into “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan, then watch them take a jam-band-worthy excursion on the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” 

Their 2015 acoustic debut, “Before the Sun Goes Down,” was nominated for a Grammy. The duo’s just-released third album, The Country Blues, expands their sound exponentially with the help of multiple Grammy winning producer and engineer Brent Maher, whose credits include Elvis Presley and Ray Charles. 

“We both like to record live with everyone in the room, so the entire album was recorded that way,” Ickes says. 

Blues legend Taj Mahal lends his distinctive voice to the original “World Full of Blues,” an ear-grabbing workup with a full band including Hammond B-3 organ, drums, a horn section and backup singers. Ickes managed to talk country star Vince Gill into doing his first-ever cover of a Dead song, “Brown Eyed Women,” on the album. 

“I had mostly written instrumentals, but we went off to an isolated cabin near Franklin, Tennessee. There was bad cell and internet connections and we got a lot of songs written in a few days,” Ickes says. The duo’s original compositions are quintessential Americana. 

They embrace blues and traditional country and intersect with Western swing and country rock. They mainly play as a power duo and occasionally as a trio with a bassist. On rare occasions they will break out the full ensemble. 

“The last time we played the (Grand Ole) Opry we brought out the big band with the horn section. When I told my mom, she said: ‘Do you think they allow horns in the Opry?’” Ickes says. “It went over great.”  

ON THE BILL: Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4, Chautauqua Community House, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, chautauqua.com; 8 p.m. Dec. 5, Cervantes’ Other Side,  2637 Welton St., Denver (with Mark Lavengood Band and Morsel), swallowhillmusic.org