Rob Ickes is a contemporary Dobro player recognized as much for his adherence to bluegrass traditions as for his exploration of the instrument in jazz contexts. He is a popular solo and session artist but has also gained recognition for his work with the band Blue Highway. His performing and recording career has been studded with honors, including two Grammy awards.
Ickes was born in Northern California into a family of musicians. His grandparents played old-time music and he attended weekly musical jam sessions. Although family members hoped he would learn fiddle, especially since many on his grandfather's side of the family had played the instrument, Ickes was singularly fascinated with the Dobro and began on that instrument. "People suggested I start on guitar, learn some chords," Ickes said, in an interview. "I didn't want to play guitar. I wanted to play Dobro."
The Dobro, or resophonic guitar, is an instrument created by the Dopyera brothers, who were immigrants to the United States in the late 1920s, and the name derives from the words "Dopyera Brothers." The Dobro is considered to be one of the six classic bluegrass instruments, although it is commonly used in other musical contexts as well, including country and popular music. Ickes's interest was sparked when he first heard Dobro artist Mike Auldridge play, and he got his first Dobro when he was 13. He continued to listen to Auldridge and to work with Seldom Scene, but also began exploring the music of other bluegrass artists including Tony Rice, Flatt and Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin.
Ickes played with local bands while attending school. Most of his serious playing was logged at bluegrass festivals, including the long-running Grass Valley and Strawberry music festivals. It was at these events where he met musicians such as Joe Craven, a noted solo performer and member of the David Grisman Quintet, and Ron Block of the band Weary Hearts. Ickes eventually moved to Davis, California, and, while attending the University of California at Davis he became exposed to many more types of music, including that of artists like Miles Davis, John Scofield, Robben Ford, B.B. King, and Blind Willie Johnson.
After graduating with a degree in biology, Ickes spent the summer on tour with New Wine, a group formed with Block after he left Weary Hearts. The group toured the West Coast and British Columbia. After Block moved to Nashville, Ickes became interested in the possibility of relocating, and moved to Nashville in 1997 to pursue his music career.
His first session was with the Cox Family. Ickes has long been in demand as a session player, and began finding steady work in the late 1990s. The list of artists with whom he has performed and recorded reads like a Who's Who of both contemporary acoustic and country music. They include Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Earl Scruggs, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Marty Raybon, Natalie McMaster, The Oak Ridge Boys, Jerry Douglas, Claire Lynch, Lynn Morris, John Cowan, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, among others. Ickes contributed to two Grammy-winning recordings, both awarded in 1996. These were I Know Who Holds Tomorrow with Alison Krauss and the Cox Family, and The Great Dobro Sessions, an all-star recording of contemporary Dobro players produced by Jerry Douglas.
Ickes was among the founders of Blue Highway, which has often been referred to as a "bluegrass supergroup" due to its stellar lineup of players, which includes Jason Burleson, Shawn Lane, Tim Stafford and Wayne Taylor. The group first played publicly on New Year's Eve in 1994. With the release of its first recording in 1995, Blue Highway earned both critical and popular acclaim. The group also began winning industry awards, including numerous awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).
"Ickes keeps fresh by session work with virtually every star in country music," wrote Grant Britt in ESP Magazine online, declaring, "In spite of their forays into new, more progressive territory, Blue Highway still respects the old ways." Ickes told Britt, "'I don't think any bluegrass artist is really gonna change what they do to gain wider popularity. And we're not going to—we're just gonna do the music that we like.'"
In 1996 the IBMA recognized Ickes as its Dobro Player of the Year for the first time. He won the prize five consecutive times through 2000, as well as in 2003. He is the only person other than Douglas to have received this award. In 1997 Ickes recorded his first solo album, Hard Times. "When you have something to say, you make your own record," Ickes said in an interview. "My heroes have always done something like that. Really early on, I knew I wanted to contribute something to the instrument, if it were possible. Mike [Auldridge], Jerry [Douglas], Josh [Graves], each did something different. They explored new areas on the instrument. I was trying to make a good record, not trying to be flash or do a lot of hot licks. I wanted to make a good record, keep pushing what I do on the instrument."
Two years later he released Slide City, a jazz-blues infused project. Reviewing the album, Down Beat noted that Ickes "ventures off Bill Monroe turf … and employs his Dobro at a measured pace on a program liberally seasoned with jazz standards and pop-jazz material."
Writing about the group's 1999 self-titled album, the Bluegrass Unlimited website declared that Blue Highway had progressed "from being one of the finest bluegrass bands of the 1990s to being a band for the ages," and praised their combination of "brilliant musicianship; authentic original songwriting; heart-wrenching vocals; and a sense of cohesion and unity that puts this band on the same level as the Johnson Mountain Boys and Hot Rize were in the '80s." The review also praised Ickes, declaring that he "has crafted an honest, lyrical vocabulary on Dobro/resonator guitar all his own, truly among the first 'post-Douglas' stylists on that instrument. Just hear his unearthly tone and phrasing 'Troubles Up And Down The Road' for a textbook example in the bluesy side of bluegrass."
The year 2003 also proved to be a year of amazing accomplishments for Ickes, who got yet another IBMA award for his playing. Blue Highway received both a Grammy nomination and a Dove award for its gospel album Wondrous Love. Ickes continued to be busy in various projects. In addition to touring with Blue Highway, he was seemingly always in the studio. With Raul Malo (The Mavericks), Pat Flynn (ex-Newgrass Revival), and session bass player Dave Pomeroy, Ickes released The Nashville Acoustic Sessions, an album of standards from country and pop featuring Malo's expressive vocals. Billboard called the group's material "impeccable," and said the album was "a quiet glory."
Ickes said in an interview that the session was so loose that everyone was able simply to play. "It became something of its own. It was just fun. It just has a mood or spirit about it. … It was like 'what just happened?' It was in some ways like capturing a good jam session."
For the Record …
Born Robert Thomas Ickes on May 26, 1967, in San Mateo, CA. Education: University of California at Davis, bachelor's degree in biology, 1990.
Began playing Dobro, 1980; played with local bands; joined New Wine, 1990; moved to Nashville, c. 1991; played first session with the Cox Family; founded Blue Highway, 1994; released debut recording, 1995; won first of many International Bluegrass Music Association awards as Dobro Player of the Year, 1996–; recorded first solo albums, Hard Times, 1997; and Slide City, 1999; Blue Highway released self-titled album to critical acclaim, 1999; released award-winning Wondrous Love, 2003; recorded The Nashville Acoustic Sessions with Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, and Dave Pomeroy, 2003; released fourth solo album, Big Time, 2004.
Awards: Numerous International Bluegrass Music Association awards: Instrumental Album of the Year and Recorded Event of the Year for The Great Dobro Sessions, 1995; Dobro Player of the Year, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003; Album of the Year for It's A Long, Long Road (with Blue Highway), 1996; Emerging Artist of the Year (with Blue Highway), 1996; Instrumental Album of the Year for Knee-Deep in Bluegrass: The AcuTab Sessions, 2001; Grammy Award for The Great Dobro Sessions, 1996; Grammy Award for I Know Who Holds Tomorrow (with Alison Krauss and the Cox Family), 1996; Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) Bluegrass Award for Dobro Performer of the Year, 2003; SPBGMA Bluegrass Award for Instrumental Group of the Year (with Blue Highway), 2003; Dove Award, Bluegrass Album of the Year (with Blue Highway), for Wondrous Love, 2004.
Addresses: Booking—Keith Case and Associates, 1025 17th Ave. S., 2nd Fl., Nashville, TN 37212. Record company—Rounder Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, website: http://www.rounder.com. Website—Rob Ickes Official Website: http://www.robickes.com/.
He released his fourth solo album, Big Time, in April of 2004. "I wanted to come back towards bluegrass and feature the guys I play with all the time. They're great players," he said. "I know they can play tastefully and do a song instead of a bunch of licks. So I put a record together with those guys in mind." Much in the spirit of his recording experience with Malo and company, the sessions were recorded live "to capture that energy and fun," rather than recorded piecemeal to a click track.
Ickes said the question he is most often asked is, "How does a guy from California play the Dobro?" His answer: "It's an esoteric instrument. I make a pretty good living. I followed what I wanted to do."
Hard Times, Rounder, 1997.
Slide City, Rounder, 1999.
What It Is, Rounder, 2002.
Big Time, Rounder, 2004.
With Blue Highway
It's a Long, Long Road, Rebel, 1995.
Wind to the West, Rebel, 1996.
Midnight Storm, Rebel, 1998.
Blue Highway, Ceili Music, 1999.
Still Climbing Mountains, Rounder, 2001.
Wondrous Love, Rounder, 2003.
(With Butch Baldassari) Old Town, Rebel, 1990; reissued, Rebel, 1994.
(With Joe Weed) American Portrait, Gourd, 1992.
(With John Reischman) North of the Border, Rounder, 1993.
(With Claire Lynch) Friends for a Lifetime, Rounder, 1993.
(With Laurie Lewis) True Stories, Rounder, 1993.
(With Joe Weed) Prairie Lullaby, Gourd, 1993.
(With Joe Weed) Prairie Christmas, Gourd, 1994.
(With Alison Krauss and the Cox Family) I Know Who Holds Tomorrow, Rounder, 1994.
(With Claire Lynch) Moonlighter, Rounder, 1995.
(With Alison Krauss) Now That I've Found You: A Collection, Rounder, 1995.
(With Joe Weed) Vultures, Gourd, 1995.
(With Claire Lynch) Silver and Gold, Rounder, 1997.
(With Laurie Lewis) Seeing Things, Rounder, 1998.
(With Kane's River) Kane's River, Doobie Shea, 2000.
(With Claire Lynch) Lovelight, Rounder, 2000.
(With John Reischman) Up in the Woods, Corvus, 2000.
(With Silk City) Time, Sliced Bread, 2000.
(With Dale Ann Bradley) Cumberland River Dreams, Doobie Shea, 2001.
(With Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, and Dave Pomeroy) Nashville Acoustic Sessions, CMH, 2004.
Down Beat, October 1999.
Sing Out!, Summer 2002.
"Blue Breaks the Rules," ESP Magazine, http://www.espmagazine.com/2004/1631/bluehighway.html (March 17, 2004).
Blue Highway Official Website, http://www.bhighway.com/ (March 17, 2004).
"Highlight Review," Bluegrass Unlimited, http://www.bluegrassmusic.com/bu/reviews/BlueHighway.htm (April 10, 2004).
"International Bluegrass Music Association Awards," International Bluegrass Music Association, http://www.ibma.org/ibma.awards/2003/press.asp (March 17, 2004).
"Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes, Dave Pomeroy: The Nashville Acoustic Sessions," Billboard, http://www.billboard.com/bb/reviews/album_article_display.jsp (April 10, 2004).
"Rob Ickes," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 17, 2004).
Rob Ickes Official Website, http://www.robickes.com (March 17, 2004).
Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA), http://www.spbgma.com (March 17, 2004).
Additional information was obtained in a telephone interview with Rob Ickes on May 10, 2004.
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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