Too much is made of the distinction between various genres, especially by writers like this one. Musicians often have a much broader view and cross lines rather seamlessly. The late Wendell Holmes of the blues outfit The Holmes Brothers once related, “country is our favorite music because they tell the best stories there.” Think back even to the iconic bands of the so-called classic rock era where The Allman Brothers mixed blues, jazz, and country and The Grateful Dead did a similar mix which included bluegrass and psychedelia. So, when two of the top names in bluegrass music – 15-time IBMA Dobro Player of the Year Rob Ickes and acoustic guitar picker Trey Hensley begin to mix bluegrass with blues and other forms of roots music on World Full of Blues it shouldn’t come as a major surprise but it should clearly pique interest, especially when learning that Taj Mahal and Vince Gill come aboard for guest spots.
The duo has made two acoustic-driven albums including the Grammy-nominated Before the Sun Goes Down) but here they front a full band with Hammond B3 and a horn section. Their lightning fast picking and country-tinged vocals are still the driving force of the duo, but they’ve fleshed out their sound with Grammy- winning producer Brent Maher at the helm. Maher is not a bluegrass producer per se. Instead, he’s known for his production and engineering of such diverse artists as The Judds, Faces, and Ike and Tina Turner.
The album was recorded live at Maher’s Nashville studio, The Blueroom, with minimal overdubs. Maher says, “For me, this record was all about living in the moment…letting spontaneity rule.” Despite the diversity in instrumentation and song selection—acoustic blues to jammed out roots rockers, “Hag” country to Duane and Dickey-style twin leads reminiscent of The Allman Brothers—the end result is a sound unified in its approach to the broad scope of roots music. “Ultimately we’re the unifying factor,” says Ickes (rhymes with ‘bikes’.) “It’s obvious we’re into all these different styles, but there’s a commonality in the sound of our instruments that, blended with Trey’s voice, makes it one sound.”
Ickes and Hensley wrote or co-wrote nine of the songs on World of Blues and put their own spin on the two covers. They begin with the co-written “Born with the Blues” featuring a nine-piece band with a horn section led by Jim Hoke. “Brown-Eyed Woman,” the Garcia-Hunter Grateful Dead tune takes on more significance with the recent passing of Robert Hunter and the lead vocal from Vince Gill, marking the first time he’s ever recorded a Grateful Dead tune. Aside from the picking of the two principals, which is stellar and mesmerizing throughout, Pete Wasner’s Hammond B3 support is striking too.
“I’m Here But I’m Lonely” is a Hensley co-write with Buddy Cannon that has Hensley on the lead vocal for a solid country tune that likely traces to Hensley’s long country legacy. (the guitar prodigy debuted at the Grand Ole Opry at age 11). Hensley sings Ickes’ cautionary “Thirty Days,” a tune that rocks with terrific economic solos from Hensley, Ickes and John Jorgensen this time on the B3.
The unmistakable resonator guitar and voice of legendary Taj Mahal unaccompanied leads into and his signature moaning leads out of the 11-piece rendered title track where Taj and Hensley trade verses on topically current subjects. ’World Full of Blues’ felt important to me to include from the first time Rob talked about it” says Hensley. “Bill Scholer had written a version of the song, but Rob and I decided to rewrite it, with some help from our friend Jason Eady, to make it more modern, while keeping Bill’s original intent intact: ‘It’s a crazy world and it feels like it’s getting crazier all the time…’ We knew we wanted a guest on this song and Taj Mahal was at the top of our dream list. He loved it and agreed to sing a verse and play some guitar on it. Working with Taj in the studio was a huge highlight for us… what an amazing guy and an absolute legend in every sense.” Expect this song to garner various roots awards. It’s a different kind of groove than Buddy Guy’s “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” but, in an inexplicable way, equally as memorable.
Ickes contributes the instrumental “The Fatal Shore,” the only kind of tune that could follow the former. He and Hensley take their fleet fingered solos with driving accompaniment for Jorgensen, Mike Bub on the acoustic bass, Giovanni Rodriguez on percussion. Hensley got the idea to write the lively “Nobody Can Tell Me I Can’t” after hearing a friend use that phrase in conversation. It seems appropriate, especially if someone challenged them by saying, “Bet you can’t make a blues record.” This is just a good solid roots tune with lots of elements running through it and a surprising Dixieland-like ending with Hoke on clarinet. Another country song co-write between Hensley and Cannon follows in “There’s Always Something to Remind Me of You.”
“Suzanne,” written by Hensley with Larry Shell and Larry Cordle, finds the duo swapping instruments, Hensley playing a 1931 National resonator guitar and Ickes playing a 1927 Montgomery Ward guitar that belonged to his grandfather. This one really grooves as one of the disc’s best blues tunes with each principal laying down positively scintillating solos. “We had spent the morning talking about how amazing Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker all were and this song just appeared.” Hensley recalls. “Having Jim Hoke arrange the horns and play on it just really added a Howlin’ Wolf-era/Sun Records vibe.”
Hensley returns to a bluegrass mode for his original optimistic life-on-the road “Both Ends of My Rainbow. ”Closing the project is a rousing rendition of jazz-rock guitarist Robben Ford’s “Rugged Road.” Ickes and Hensley prove more than adept in crossing boundaries as deftly as the celebrated Ford does. The tempo on this piece is blinding and blurring, a true testament to the picking skills of these two giants, Hensley and Ickes.
World Full of Blues has all the ingredients to be one of the top roots albums of 2019. Expect it to appear in multiple categories as it should due to outstanding musicianship, solid songwriting, and impeccable production values. If this doesn’t get your blood flowing and toes tapping, then nothing will.