By Larry Stephens
Rob Ickes, one of music’s top resophonic guitar and lap steel artists, has undoubtedly had many offers to join other bands or artists on a full-time basis, but he’s remained a member of Blue Highway since that legendary bluegrass band’s inception in 1994. Ickes has branched out with solo projects, collaborations, and tons of session work, and his latest side project is with Trey Hensley.
A relative newcomer to the national scene (though he was Marty Stuart’s guest on the Opry when he was eleven), Hensley is an excellent singer and clearly knows which end of a guitar pick to hold. Hensley came into the studio to sing a scratch vocal (from the control room, no less) on “My Last Day in the Mine” for Blue Highway’s The Game. But the band liked his track so much that they just went ahead and released it.
Now Ickes and Hensley have now partnered on Before the Sun Goes Down, a strong fusion of bluegrass and traditional country. The title track is a great example of where those two styles—and their fans—meet. Was it written by Hank Williams? Or maybe Lefty Frizzel? Nope, the original recording was by Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys.
Hensley won’t be mistaken for Lester Flatt as he sings “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” but he nails it nonetheless. You can hear traces of Merle Haggard as Hensley sings “Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” a classic Haggard song. From that same era comes a Waylon Jennings hit, “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang.” Sticking with Haggard, they do “When My Last Song Is Sung,” a great song that goes on my list to learn as does “I’d Rather Be Gone” with Hensley channeling Haggard again. Bob Wills is best known for his upbeat western swing but “Misery” (Bob Wills/ Tommy Duncan/Tiny Moore) dates back to 1947 and is an excellent ballad that Haggard included in his repertoire, including Haggard playing fiddle in a triple fiddle break.
Hensley’s guitar is impeccable and no one is going to question Icke’s playing. Master bassman Mike Bub anchors everyone while Aubrey Haynie and Andy Leftwich trade fiddle duties and Ron Block plays banjo. Another Alison Krauss veteran, Dan Tyminski, provides some harmony vocals along with Jon Randall Stewart, Suzanne Cox and and Blue Highway bandmate Shawn Lane. With this lineup you expect excellent music and you won’t be disappointed.
Hensley has a deft hand as a composer, too. “My Way Is the Highway” has an interesting chord progression and pays tribute to making your own way in life. Rounding out the CD is “Lightning,” an uptempo song remembering dad wrapped in a story about a moonshiner, Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia On a Fast Train” and a bluesy number from Stevie Ray Vaughn, “Pride and Joy,” that has Hensley and Ickes trading licks before Hensley sings. This is good stuff.
Among the non-bluegrass instruments on this album are a piano (Pete Wasner) on “More Than Roses,” a country song about someone who really messed up his love relationship; it will take more than roses to fix it this time. Hensley picks a blistering hot electric guitar on a great version of Buddy Emmons’ “Raisin’ The Dickens.” The CD includes drums and percussion—played well by John Gardner—but, like on most bluegrass and acoustic country recordings where the rhythm is carried just fine by the interplay of instruments, they don’t add enough value to justify their inclusion.
Unless you’re tradition-bound to the point where you’ve never heard a good song unless it was Lester Flatt or Waylon Jennings, you’ll greatly enjoy this effort by a master musician and an up-and-coming singer.