20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers

Published July 9, 2021

In part 38 of our continuing Q&A series,

Rob Ickes —award-winning, innovative Dobro player—

joins us to talk about the mysterious Dobro, playing with Merle Haggard, Taj Mahal, and so much more.

Rob is part of the Grammy-nominated duo with our previous NoteWorthy Music guest, Trey Hensley. Their new EP with Tommy Emmanuel titled Accomplice Series Vol. I with Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley is out now. This amazing trio performed at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum June 26 and continue to play live together.

Welcome, Rob, and thank you for joining us.

~NoteWorthy Music

Rob Ickes in Sachsenheim, Germany, May 28, 2019 | Photo by Rainer Gautschi
Rob Ickes in Sachsenheim, Germany, May 28, 2019 | Photo by Rainer Gautschi | Photos courtesy of Rob Ickes

20:20 with Rob Ickes

NWM 1: Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Rob: Rob Ickes here, last name rhymes with ‘bikes.’ Some folks have trouble with that. I come from a very musical family, and I’m proud to say I’ve made my living playing music my whole life. I play an instrument that is kind of rare—it’s called a Dobro. It’s like a guitar played flat with a slide in your left hand. The style of playing originally comes from Hawaii, but the instrument is used in many different kinds of music today. Here’s a pic—

Rob Ickes' Dobro

NWM 2: You are considered one of the most innovative Dobro players of today. Indeed you have won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Resophonic Player of the Year award fifteen times. IBMA notes that you are the most awarded instrumentalist in the history of the IBMA awards. Wow!

Tell us about your approach to playing and what makes your style unique among so many talented players
Rob: I learned mainly by imitating my musical heroes. When I first heard the Dobro, it just blew my mind, and I knew I had to learn how to make those sounds. In some ways I think I’m still feeding off that initial energy and excitement that I got from first hearing the instrument.

When I first heard the Dobro, it just blew my mind, and I knew I had to learn how to make those sounds.

I knew I always wanted to take it as far as I could. I wanted to play at a high level like my heroes did, but I didn’t want to play just like them. It was important to me to find my own sound. So I think that’s what helps make me unique: I have my own sound, and people tell me they can recognize it after just hearing a few notes. I love to learn from other musicians and imitate them at times, but it’s a lot more interesting to play your own stuff. And a lot more challenging. …

NWM 3: Name three things that make you smile.
Rob: Three silly interview questions.

NWM 4: You are part of the Grammy-nominated duo with previous NoteWorthy Music guest Trey Hensley—hailed as ‘Nashville’s hottest young player’ by Acoustic Guitar magazine—with whom you have released three highly acclaimed albums and are currently working on a fourth.

Please tell us about this collaboration, how it started and evolved, how it has influenced you as a musician, and what it means to you personally.
Rob: I met Trey when he was a kid. I was playing with Earl Scruggs, and Earl was a big fan of Trey Hensley’s. The first time I remember meeting Trey was at an Earl Scruggs show. Earl had invited Trey to sit in during the show, and Trey knocked it out of the park.

There’s an ease that [Trey Hensley] has with music that is really incredible. It just pours out of him.

I would see him once in a while after that, but it was quite a few years later that he moved to Nashville, and we started working together. I couldn’t believe how good he was. He never missed a note on the guitar, or his vocals. Just a really incredible musician all the way around.

I introduced him around Nashville to several producers and a lot of musicians and record label people. I was trying to get him some sort of record deal, but the more we started working together, the more it seemed like we should do a project together. There were just a lot of musical fireworks happening every time we played. Our first album we did together was nominated for a Grammy, so that was great. We’ve just been getting tighter and taking our music to higher levels ever since then.

At one of our first shows, the promoter came up to me after the show and said of Trey, ‘I never heard anybody sing so good that also could play the guitar so well.’ And I think that sums up what Trey does. So he has been a great influence on me. There’s an ease that he has with music that is really incredible. It just pours out of him—he doesn’t have to ‘try’ at all, and that’s the way it should be. So it’s inspiring to work with somebody like that.

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley | Photo by Stacie Huckeba
Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley | Photo by Stacie Huckeba

NWM 5: What is a favorite of the songs you have written? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Rob: I’d probably say the title cut of our last album, ‘World Full of Blues.’ It’s actually a tune that was written by a blues artist from Davis, California, named Bill Scholer. I went to college at UC Davis, and I heard Bill perform a lot, and I always loved this song. I always kept it ‘in my back pocket,’ just waiting for the right artist to record it with.

I showed it to Trey, and we re-wrote most of it. But I loved the chords that Bill put in it, and we left those in there for the most part. And we added a bridge section. The song deals with a lot of stuff that’s going on in the world currently, even though we wrote it a couple years before all the real craziness started. … It was fun to take some current events, just the vibe that you were feeling from people, and stuff people were talking about, or stuff you were hearing about on the news, and put it into a song. That was a great experience, and I think the song ended up being very prophetic.

It was fun to take some current events, just the vibe that you were feeling from people, and stuff people were talking about, or stuff you were hearing about on the news, and put it into a song.

NWM 6: You have collaborated with an impressive roster of artists, including Charlie Haden, Merle Haggard, Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, David Lee Roth, Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Peter Rowan, Claire Lynch, and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Please share a couple of outstanding stories from your history of meeting the studio needs of, and sharing bills with, some of the great musicians of the past several decades.
Rob: Well, Merle Haggard was my favorite artist of all time, so that was a big thrill for me to get to work with him. He came to Nashville to do a bluegrass album, and we just sat in a circle and cut the whole thing live over two consecutive days. He was still writing great songs. We did a few that he wrote on his tour bus ride from California to Nashville that week.

It was amazing to record a song with him, then hear a great story about his band, The Strangers, or about what led him to write a certain song that we were about to record, and then record it with him! Absolutely amazing. And he was such a great musician; I felt like just being near him for a couple days made me a better musician.

Well, Merle Haggard was my favorite artist of all time, so that was a big thrill for me to get to work with him.

And I also was impressed with how much he knew about music, and how much he cared about it. When somebody has that much success, you might think at this later stage of their career they might just be in it for the money, or the fame, or whatever. But it was still very easy to see that he cared about music more than anything else. Super inspiring. … I was also thrilled because he invited me out to his studio in California to work with him several times after that first recording session, so that is some time that I’ll always treasure.

Merle Haggard and Rob Ickes
Merle Haggard and Rob Ickes

NWM 7: What are your special interests beyond music?
Rob: I like to get outside as often as I can. Either walking, hiking, riding a bike, or backpacking. When you travel as much as we do for a living, it’s nice just to be outside, and not cooped up in a vehicle of some kind.

And I feel like cooking is becoming a nice hobby. I enjoy that because it takes my mind off of work, and I don’t have to travel anywhere to do it.

When you travel as much as we do for a living, it’s nice just to be outside, and not cooped up in a vehicle of some kind.

I’ve also got a great family, so I just enjoy spending time with them. That’s one of the silver linings of this pandemic. All of us musicians have been able to be home with our families more, and that’s been a great thing.

NWM 8: Please share a unique childhood experience that you feel helped contribute to who you and your music are today.
Rob: Well, I think that’s part of the reason I like to be outside also. When I was a kid I spent most of my summers at my grandparents’ campground way up in the Redwoods in Northern California. Both my grandparents played music, and we spent many nights just sitting around the campfire playing songs. I just kind of have this knowledge of old fiddle tunes, bluegrass songs, country songs that seems real natural because that’s what I grew up around. Hearing those melodies over and over from a very young age, it makes music like another language to me. Very natural.

Hearing those melodies over and over from a very young age, it makes music like another language to me. Very natural.

NWM 9: You were the youngest dobro player on The Great Dobro Sessions, produced by Dobro greats (former 20:20 participant) Jerry Douglas and Tut Taylor, which won the 1994 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

Please share what it was like to be included on this album and to work with other Dobro masters.
Rob: Well it was very exciting because I had just moved to Nashville, and I think this was the first record I played on after moving here. So I was thrilled and honored, and I have to thank Jerry Douglas and Tut Taylor for inviting me to be a part of it. I think they heard something in my playing that maybe I hadn’t even heard yet. I hadn’t really played outside of California that much, so this was my first time seeing Josh Graves play, and Brother Oswald, and so many other of the great players. I was in ‘Dobro Heaven,’ that’s for sure.

Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes at Merlefest, 1997
Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes at Merlefest, 1997

NWM 10: In 2007, you founded ResoSummit, a three-day annual instructional event in Nashville, featuring leading Dobro players and luthiers as faculty.

Please share about the significance of this event and why teaching is important to you.
Rob: I started teaching Dobro when I was in college, just private lessons at a local music store. I was just trying to make some money, but people always said I was really good at it. It was interesting to me to try and explain what I was doing. When you play music as a kid, you just start doing it, and you don’t think about it too much. So it was interesting to me to ‘think about it.’ But you don’t want to think about it too much!

The world needs more Dobro players, and I’m doing what I can to make that happen!

I think I’ve always enjoyed sharing my Dobro knowledge with other folks. This instrument is still kind of obscure and mysterious, so I enjoy trying to take some of the mystery out of it for folks who are interested. I also recently launched a teaching website at www.bigmusictent.com. This has been a great way for me to share my knowledge with people all over the world. The world needs more Dobro players, and I’m doing what I can to make that happen!

NWM 11: Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Rob: When I went to college I got really into blues and jazz music. The guitarist John Scofield is one of my favorite musicians of all time. There’s something really pure about what he does, and I like how he just digs into his own sound and takes that as far as he can. And his sense of time is just amazing … great melodies too—really an important guy in American music.

I also love the great jam band jazz trio called Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Also the Americana group The Wood Brothers. They just blow me away. The song writing is so great, as well as their singing and arrangements. Very inspiring. I also love a lot of great jazz music, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, the list goes on. …

And it’s been really great for Trey and I to work with one of our all-time musical heroes, Taj Mahal.

And it’s been really great for Trey and I to work with one of our all-time musical heroes, Taj Mahal. He was gracious enough to sing on our last record, the title cut I mentioned earlier, ‘World Full of Blues,’ and we’ve recorded several songs with him this past year for his album, and played some shows with him also. We’re looking forward to doing more with him in the future. He kind of reminds me of Merle Haggard in that he is very knowledgeable about many different styles of music, and he is just as excited about music today as he was when he was starting out. Such a thrill to hang out with these inspiring people. …

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley at Telluride Bluegrass Festival
Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, June 20, 2019

NWM 12: The music of your duo with Trey Hensley defies genre, blending bluegrass, country, blues, rock, jamgrass, and stringband music together in a unique alchemy.

Tell us about your creative process and melding these sounds so seamlessly.
Rob: Hmmm … That’s a great question, not sure I can answer it. I just know that Trey and I are both into lots of different kinds of music, and for some reason, when we play together, it seems to take on a pretty good shape. It seems to have a focus, even though it involves many different styles.

For some reason, we are able to do a bluegrass song, and follow it with a John Scofield song, and follow that with the Merle Haggard song, and then a few originals, and it seems to work. I would give a lot of the credit to Trey. I throw a lot of different song ideas at him, or styles. And whatever I throw at him, he is able to somehow make it his own and sound very natural at the same time.

Neither of us is easily satisfied, and we’re trying to figure out how to blend all these different styles that we like into a cohesive sound.

I feel like I can guide it with arrangement ideas, or instrumentation ideas, but it’s pretty amazing what he can do. He makes it sound so easy and natural at the same time. Sometimes I feel like people don’t understand how amazing he is because he makes it look so easy. But I think we challenge each other in a really good way.

Neither of us is easily satisfied, and we’re trying to figure out how to blend all these different styles that we like into a cohesive sound. That’s part of the challenge of this duo is taking all these different things and making it sound cohesive and coherent. But we have a great time trying to meet that challenge!

NWM 13: Taking note of the aforementioned genre-defying sound of your current duo, we often like to ask seasoned bluegrass players for their thoughts on ‘truegrass’: Where is the line—or is there a line—between paying homage to the early greats and embracing the evolutionary alchemy of styles and genres?
Rob: I think the best way we can pay homage to the early greats is by playing the music we love with as much passion and precision as we can. Sometimes I think about the power that was in Earl Scruggs’ banjo playing. He really changed so many people’s lives with just the sound of that instrument. So many people stopped whatever they were doing and got way into bluegrass because of Earl’s playing.

I hope people can hear the passion and the honesty in what we’re doing.

So I just try to play with a similar level of passion—and honesty also. One thing I like about the early greats of this music is that they did not sound like they were just playing for money. You heard the passion and the love they had for music, and that’s why people still listen to them today. Super powerful stuff …

I hope people say that about ‘Rob and Trey’ music. I hope people can hear the passion and the honesty in what we’re doing.

NWM 14: What song/album could you play on repeat?
Rob: Miles Davis Kind of Blue.
Most all of Merle Haggard’s records.

NWM 15: You have performed throughout the US, Europe, and Australia.

Please share a memorable story or two from your time on the road or interesting venues you played.
Rob: I played at Carnegie Hall with country artist Alan Jackson one time. He had done a bluegrass album that I had played on. His manager told us to go on out there and kick off the first song and just vamp on the chord until Alan walked out. We did just that, but he never walked out! We probably played that chord for five or ten minutes, no Alan.

That is not a good feeling to kick off a song at Carnegie Hall and have ‘the star’ not show up!

And then we played a couple other songs, and then his manager waved to us and said to kick it off again, so we did that. Then Alan Jackson walked out on stage, and the crowd went nuts.

That is not a good feeling to kick off a song at Carnegie Hall and have ‘the star’ not show up! I never did find out why he didn’t come out there. I think he just didn’t ‘get the memo,’ and he was chilling on his bus—he didn’t even know it was showtime.

That’s one of my favorite stories from the road. …

Rob Ickes performing with Blue Highway, California June 2010 | Photo by Janet Beazley
Rob Ickes performing with Blue Highway, California, June 2010 | Photo by Janet Beazley

NWM 16: From 1994 to 2015, before working full-time with Trey, you were a founding member of the tremendously popular and highly acclaimed Blue Highway, with Tim Stafford, a previous guest of NoteWorthy Music.

Tell us about your time with Blue Highway and working with its noteworthy collection of musicians.
Rob: That was such a great gig for me. When I was a kid, I had a couple goals—I wanted to be in a great band, and I wanted to play on sessions. I feel like I accomplished both those goals while I was playing with Blue Highway. They’re just great people—and super talented—and I always loved the song writing that the guys did. I was there for 21 years, so I think that says how much that gig meant to me.

When I was a kid, I had a couple goals—I wanted to be in a great band, and I wanted to play on sessions.

NWM 17: If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Rob: Django Reinhardt [Belgian-born Romani-French jazz guitarist from the first half of the 20th Century].

NWM 18: Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to ‘normal’?
Rob: Going out to good restaurants again.

NWM 19: What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Rob: I think you’ve asked everything they would ever wanna know!

NWM 20: What’s next for Rob Ickes?
Rob: More of the same would be fine with me!

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley with Taj Mahal “World Full of Blues”

Rob Ickes

Rob Ickes

“Ickes’ playing is faster than fast, keeping up an incredible pace. …” ~ Acoustic Guitar

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Rob Ickes (rhymes with ‘bikes’) comes from a musical family. His grandparents played old-time fiddle music, and Rob trained his young musical ear at their weekly jam sessions. Although his family wanted Rob to play fiddle, the instrument didn’t interest him. Then, at the age of thirteen, Rob was exposed to the Dobro playing of Mike Auldridge, and the sound immediately caught his attention. Soon after, Rob got his first Dobro, and he has been playing music ever since.

As an active session player and touring musician, Ickes, with his fluid, lyrical, yet stinging style, has collaborated with a wide range of musicians, including Earl Scruggs, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Charlie Haden, David Lee Roth, Patty Loveless, Peter Rowan, The Cox Family, Claire Lynch, and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

To learn more and buy stuff visit https://www.robandtrey.com/

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