Trey Hensley is fresh off a two-week West Coast tour when CMT Edge reached him on the phone. For a guy in his early 20s who’s just beginning to build his name in the bluegrass and trad country scenes, the singer-guitarist already has more than a decade of performing and band-leading under his belt. In that time, he’s developed into a personably down-home showman and seasoned stylist, not to mention a hot picker.
One thing Hensley never had the chance to do until he teamed up with Rob Ickes — one of the world’s foremost resonator guitarists — was go out and play as a stripped-down, well-matched acoustic duo.
The musicians struck up a unique collaboration last year after Hensley contributed a guest vocal to an album by one of Ickes’ bands, Blue Highway. First came a series of full-band shows in Nashville, where Hensley had recently moved and Ickes is well-known. Then they recorded a slew of songs and selected 13 inspired tracks for their new Compass album, Before the Sun Goes Down. The CD packaging, by the way, boasts ringing endorsements from both Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard.
CMT Edge: I’ve seen the video of you performing on the Opry at age 11, covering an old Carter Family tune with Marty Stuart and Earl Scruggs. Naturally you sang a lot higher back then. How’d it affect your choice of material when your voice matured?
Hensley: When I first started, I did a lot of Flatt & Scruggs stuff and Carter Family stuff, and I still love to do that. … I recorded a CD just about every year for several years. So this would be my seventh CD, this record with me and Rob. It’s funny listening back, which I don’t often do. If I listen back to some of those that I made when I was 13 or 14, you can definitely hear there’s quite a big transition with my singing, as far as my voice getting a little deeper.
I’ve always loved country music just as much as bluegrass. I think once I started getting a little deeper into my musical career, the country stuff started coming out a little more. I always did a lot of Merle Haggard songs and George Jones songs at my shows, but just with bluegrass instruments. I guess when I was 16, I got an electric guitar and started playing some electric country shows.
Now with me and Rob doing our thing, like when we play in Nashville or if we’re doing something that’s not a flying gig, we usually do half of the show acoustic, then break it down for the other half and play electric, which is really cool for me.
In country singing and songwriting, it doesn’t get any heavier or more adult than Haggard. And you’ve been covering his material since you were a teenager. How did you first get into Merle Haggard?
I remember the first record that I bought of Merle Haggard was the tribute to Jimmie Rodgers that he did. It was like a lightning bolt hit me. I think now — I’m almost positive — I have every single record that he’s ever done. … I started playing when I was 10 and I think I got that record [of Haggard covering Rodgers] when I was either 10 or 11. I’ve been a huge Merle Haggard fan ever since.
One of my favorite Haggard songs on your new album is “Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today.” The way you get inside the song’s sentiment made me wonder whether working-class experience is part of your background.
Yeah, it definitely is.
What kind of work does your family do?
My dad, he’s a mechanic, and he was working on cars and everything. My granddad worked on vacuum cleaners and everything, so he did similar things to what my dad does, except on different things. … Especially with Merle Haggard being the “working man’s poet,” as they call him, a lot of his material is about that, about people who go out and put their nose to the grindstone.
What kind of opportunities were there to play music where you lived when you were just starting out?
I played a lot of interesting places. And it was mainly because there weren’t a lot of options. Even though East Tennessee is a rich area for musical talent — you know ETSU, the college out there, has the bluegrass and country music program — there weren’t a lot of places to play.
My dad and mom drove me a whole lot of different places, from playing in Nashville to up in North Carolina to Virginia. When I first started out, I played almost every week at the Carter Fold in Virginia [a venue that carries on the Carter Family’s old-time music legacy]. Besides that, I would play anything from the fair to private parties, whatever was going on.
I loved being there [in Jonesborough, Tennessee], but as far as the venues, there aren’t as many there as there are, by any means, in Nashville. It does feel a little limiting to be restricted to just a few places to play, although I do love to go back and play those places. Definitely this move to Nashville’s been awesome.