Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley go for the heart of the matter in "The Country Blues," their sophomore effort. The release offers gritty country-tinged songs, which place the talents of the two men on fine display. The duo is a combination of a grizzled bluegrass veteran (Ickes) and a relative young gun (Hensley). Ickes has fronted Blue Highway for many years and is one of a handful of top-ranked Dobro players in the music business. Hensley is a fresher entry (although he played on the Opry stage with Marty Stuart at age 11), wielding both acoustic and electric guitar with style and heart. The playing is strong, and Hensley's vocals display his country sensibility.
Ickes and Hensley display ambitious music choices. On balance, the originals are more compelling than the covers. The songs are a mixture of new numbers and reworks of an array of older tunes. Some choices seem peculiar (for example Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Ballad of A Well-Known Gun"), but Ickes and Hensley have chosen these songs for a reason, and they wrest them from their original forms to transform them for the Dobro/guitar instrumentation.
"Everywhere I Go Is A Long Way From Home," an Ickes/Hensley original, trades Dobro and guitar licks with abandon, but with a sad and longing vibe typical of the "road song" genre. "That's What Leaving's For," another original, plumbs the depths of lost or abandoned love. The swing-style "Biscuits and Gravy," written by Ickes, is layered among Dobro, electric guitar and fiddle.
"Pray Enough" gets a lighter, country-chunk treatment compared to the Wood Brothers' recording. The iconic "Friend of The Devil," written by Robert Hunter, doesn't benefit from a re-do here. Nor does Sonny Boy Williamson's (via The Allman Brothers) "One Way Out." As good as Ickes is on the Dobro (and he is crazy good), inviting comparisons with Duane Allman's otherworldly slide guitar mastery never works out.
Yet, some of the covers are, literally and figuratively, electric. Hensley cranks his electric guitar with Asleep At The Wheel-type ferocity on Ray Charles' "Leave My Woman Alone" with Ickes dropping in a wild Dobro break. Hank Williams' "May You Never Be Alone" gets solid treatment as well, with Hensley beautifully singing Hank's vocal part.
"The Country Blues" is an ambitious effort with startling musicianship. Ickes' resonator guitar playing is stout, and Hensley is a country original. They are not shy in their playing or choice of material, and that is rewarding.