A new album by master musicians Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley is reason to celebrate. Living in a Song is due Feb. 10 from Compass Records, and it showcases these two brilliant instrumentalists who elevate any song they play to stratospheric levels. Indeed, the title of Living in a Song is just right. The duo dwells in these songs, creating spacious sonic architectures with their spiraling instrumental work and capturing the emotional resonance of the lyrics.
As did their previous albums, Living in a Song showcases two musicians playing with creative intuition and invention, always finding the melodies that fit the lyrics, that wring emotion from the words.
The title track opens the album, with Hensley’s quiet guitar strums providing the foundation for his warm vocals. The initially spare song blossoms along Ickes’ unspooling Dobro runs and Stuart Duncan’s lilting fiddle. The poignant track conveys loneliness and emotional ambivalence. (“All I thought I ever wanted, I’m still looking for … Wondering what went wrong/Chasin’ down my only dream, living in a song.”)
“Deeper Than a Dirt Road” resembles Ricky Skaggs’ “Love Can’t Ever Get Any Better Than This,” and it’s a pleasant little bluegrass ode to the pleasures of ambling along the dirt paths and backroads of the singer’s home.
Ickes’ shimmering Dobro creates an echoing atmosphere on “Backstreets off Broadway,” evoking the hollow promises of musical success in Nashville and the utter devastation that comes with it. (“Music City is a town that can knock you down…And turn your dreams into nightmares.”) The protagonist comes to town with a voice like Elvis, and could “almost taste the fortune and fame.” Instead, he ends up in a backstreet off Broadway, “out of his mind.”
One highlight is the duo’s take on Doc Watson’s “Way Downtown.” The song opens with Hensley’s fingers flying up and down the frets of his guitar. On the instrumental bridges, Ickes and Duncan get the chance to stretch out with searing runs on Dobro and fiddle, respectively, as Mike Bub thumps his bass.
Hensley tears your heart out on the deeply moving “I’ve Given All That I Can Take,” a slowly swirling, tongue-in-cheek, ballad of disappointed love that features a gorgeous layering of fingerpicked guitar, Dobro, and ringing fiddle. The duo turn in a jaunty, jumping version of the Carter Family classic, “I’m Working on a Building,” which captures the urgent pace of the gospel message in the song better than some other covers.
The album closes with the quietly beautiful, “Thanks”—a little note of gratitude that glimmers in its spare layering of guitar, lap steel, and vocals. These two are so much at one with their instruments and in their playing that they follow each other’s leads, playing in the spaces between the notes. In addition, Ickes’ ringing tenor harmonies float beneath Hensley’s smooth baritone lead vocals, a perfect combination for the classic country and bluegrass sounds of this album.
Living in a Song is available HERE.