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Dobro Player Rob Ickes Takes A New Highway

The piano and the dobro are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. One is a titanic instrument of Western music, integral to classical and jazz. The other is used mostly in country music and bluegrass — a resonator guitar, played with a steel bar. But the new album Road Song puts the two instruments side by side, with no bluegrass anywhere in earshot. It's a jazz-standards collaboration between bluegrass star Rob Ickes and veteran music teacher Michael Alvey.

Alvey spends his days in an elementary school in Franklin, Tenn., with little children and a room full of instruments. He says that a couple of years ago, one of his students brought him a CD by her father, a relatively common occurrence in this affluent suburb of Nashville.

"A lot of times, I get things from parents done in their home studios, and they sound OK," Alvey says. "But when I heard this, I said, 'This guy is a world-class musician. Why have I not heard of Rob Ickes?"

Two Different Worlds

Alvey has never closely followed bluegrass, where Ickes is a major player. Ickes has been named dobro player of the year a record 10 times by the International Bluegrass Music Association — largely in his role as a founding member of the band Blue Highway. But he's also a prolific sideman and solo artist, with four CDs to his credit. That doesn't mean he's above a good old show-and-tell session.

"I kind of come in and show the kids what a dobro is and how it works," Ickes says of his visits to classrooms. "And Michael was sitting at the piano, and I said, 'Well, you want to play a blues?' So we started playing, and Michael just blew me away. I couldn't believe this elementary school teacher. I felt like I was getting the history of jazz just in that one song."

"The connection was immediate," Alvey says. "And that's the way it is with musicians. You know after about eight bars if things are going to work or not. From then forward, it was more a discovery process."

Dozens of after-hours rehearsals in the music room of Moore Elementary School let them explore a mutual fascination with each other's genres. Ickes grew up near San Francisco and was inspired to pursue a career in bluegrass dobro by Flatt & Scruggs and dobro master Mike Auldridge of the Seldom Scene. He says he has always loved jazz but never really studied it in depth.

"So as we started getting together, Michael just would teach me a lot of great things," Ickes says. "One time, we were playing 'Caravan' or some Duke Ellington piece, and I kind of know the melody, and I was kind of jiving my way through it. And when we were done, Michael said, 'You know, with a lot of these standards and stuff, you can embellish and tweak your way around it, but with Ellington, you really have to play it note for note.' "

Alvey is originally from North Carolina. He studied classical music and picked up a passion for jazz in high school and college. A job as a music director at Busch Gardens theme park in Virginia led him to Nashville, where he worked at Opryland USA by day and jazz clubs at night.

A Learning Experience For Both

Since Alvey shifted to classroom work almost 30 years ago, he has done more teaching than performing, so he says this collaboration with Ickes has been an unexpected learning experience.

"This is a discussion that Rob and I have had many times about bluegrass versus jazz," Alvey says. "He would say to me, 'How do you learn all those different chords and inversions and harmonically move around these songs and improvise and make it make sense?' And my response was, 'How do you play a song with two or three chords and make it sound like a symphony? You're all over the place, and after about eight bars, I've run out of ideas.' "

That said, Alvey seems to have found his way through the album's one country standard just fine: Hank Williams' "You Win Again."

Road Song marks the first release on Ickes' own record label, ResoRevolution. The project reflects an impulse to take his instrument in new directions.

"It's funny, because personally, I don't feel like an iconoclast or somebody who breaks down barriers aggressively," Ickes says. "But I do feel like that's what I'm supposed to do as a musician on this instrument, is learn the standards and study the great players that came before me. But part of my deal is expanding where the instrument goes."

Ickes is doing so with a mix of received knowledge, curiosity and playfulness — which is really not so different from what Alvey tries to cultivate every school day in the classroom where he and Ickes first met.

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Craig Havighurst