As one of the most celebrated bluegrass instrumentalists on the planet, Rob Ickes has spent 2014 cultivating three recordings that reflect not only his skills on the wiry, wily resonator guitar known as the dobro but a set of musical environments that define his musical past, present and, in many ways, future.
The first surfaced in January with The Game, the newest album by the progressively minded bluegrass band Blue Highway. Though a native of San Francisco, Ickes hooked up in Nashville with the band 20 years ago. That largely introduced him as a talent that would go on to win the International Bluegrass Music Association's Dobro Player of the Year an unprecedented 15 times.
The second, Three Bells, came last month. It is a recorded summit with two dobro pioneers that helped forge a stylistic path for Ickes — former Lexingtonian Jerry Douglas and the late Mike Auldridge. The record boasts no rhythm section or musical accomplices of any kind. It instead has three dobro pals merrily conversing. Auldridge succumbed to prostate cancer a matter of weeks after recording sessions concluded.
The third, which brings Ickes back to Lexington for a return visit to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday, has the dobro artist teaming with a young and largely unknown country vocalist and guitarist named Trey Hensley. Their collaboration came about almost by accident, when Hensley was enlisted to help Blue Highway on The Game.
"Trey is a young guy but an old soul," Ickes says. "You hear that in his voice. There is just something there that sounds really deep to me. He's soaked up a lot of different influences, but he's got his own thing going. And he's one of the best guitar players anywhere. So to me, he's this surprise that I've been excited to share with people. Plus, we have a good time together."
The duo's debut album, Before the Sun Goes Down, is due out in January. Its sound is casual and rich with Ickes' mischievous slide playing and Hensley's commanding country tenor creating distinctive but homespun harmony. Among the highlights is a roots-country reading of the Stevie Ray Vaughan hit Pride and Joy.
"When Trey plays blues, it's really authentic sounding to me. It doesn't sound like a bluegrass guy playing some blues licks. When we do Pride and Joy live with a band, I play lap steel and he plays electric guitar. But on the record, I thought it would be fun just to do an acoustic version and give people a different take on this great song."
Working with a young artist like Hensley also offers a role reversal from the Three Bells sessions, where Ickes and Douglas were essentially younger protégés of Auldridge.
"The dobro is still kind of an obscure instrument, but Mike gave it this nobility," Ickes says. "He was a real humble guy but had a pretty big vision for what he wanted to do with the instrument. Mike was all about music his whole life. What a treat for me to get to record with him and hear our dobros together. But my hat goes off to Jerry for getting the record together because he is such a busy guy. It was just neat that he would make this such a priority because we were in a kind of now-or-never situation.
"Mike knew this was going to be his last session. He told us several times that he was just honored it was going to be with us and that it was going to be a dobro project. He had so much fun on it."