It’s a great time for bluegrass, it’s a great time for traditional country, and it’s a great time for quality songwriting. Bluegrass duo Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley find the sweet spot between all three of these disciplines on their new album Living In A Song, which captures these award-winning instrumentalists leaning toward the country side of their sound more than ever before, and exploring the art of songwriting through their own works and the songs of others.
Ickes and Hensley are sometimes easy to lose site of in the crowded bluegrass field since everything seems to be focused on either the jam grass side of stuff, or the staunch traditionalists and legends. But Rob Ickes gives up nothing to any other dobro player in the field, and has about a dozen IBMA Awards to prove it. Is Trey Hensley any less of a flatpicker than Billy Strings or Molly Tuttle? Listening to this album, it’s tough to come to such a conclusion. They’re just not into showy presentation and spectacle. They let the music speak for itself.
Even then, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley have been one of the more interesting projects in bluegrass for some time. A few years ago they backed Texas country songwriter Jason Eady on his 2018 album I Travel On. That’s the kind of unexpected moves you can expect from them, and similar to Jason Eady, everything Rob and Trey do is thought out and intentional. This new album is no different.
Drawing from their own experiences on the road and trying to attain notoriety through music, this is how you get songs like “Backstreets Off Broadway” and “Living in A Song.” There is also a faith component on this album with a spirited rendition of the old standard “I’m Working On A Building” and their own original “I Thought I Saw a Carpenter.”
If you want a master class in classic country songwriting, check out “Is The World Still Turning” co-written by Rob and Trey with the album’s producer Brent Maher. Trey Hensley has a pleasantly distinctive voice, and this song helps explore his lower range, while Ickes’ harmonies are a good compliment to a song that works so simply and perfectly like all classic country songs do. Living In a Song is also fair to call well-produced, showing restraint with the instrumentation to allow the song to be the focal point.
But this album also doesn’t forget to have a little fun. Bootlegging songs are a dime a dozen in country and bluegrass, but “Moonshine Run” will get your blood pumping nonetheless. Doc Watson’s old standard “Way Downtown” has been done a million times too, but it creates the perfect showcase for the instrumental talent of these two men, lest you forget about it on this more songwriter-based album.
Living In A Song is a good mix of the new and the familiar, of country and bluegrass, of songs and reels, all of which help to illustrate the parallels between these things and bridge gaps in appeal until you have an album that is hard to not enjoy no matter what you’re a fan of, as long as it’s unpretentious music delivered with heart and skill.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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