Trey Hensley has for years won over bluegrass fans with his signature smoking guitar style. Yet outside the niche of bluegrass, music lovers of all kinds are drawn to his playing and his music. Call it bluegrass, blues, rock, jamband music—it doesn’t matter. When asked how he’d define his style of flatpicking, Hensley chuckles and simply responds, “My style is loosely, whatever works.”
Hensley’s humble, relaxed attitude towards his own musicianship spills over to his stage show, where he’s often smiling or laughing as he plays, as though the joke’s on him. Yet his technical prowess defies the laid back image he conveys. If it appears that guitar skill comes with natural ease to him, perhaps that’s because it does.
Charlie Waller Inspired
Hensley began his guitar journey at age 10, after seeing Charlie Waller play lead guitar at a bluegrass festival in his native East Tennessee. “Charlie played the fiddle tune ‘Under the Double Eagle,’ and that changed everything,” he says. “I told my parents, ‘I want to do that.’” His parents gave him a guitar, and a few months later, Marty Stuart invited him to play on the Grand Ole Opry. Hensley was 11 years old.
Hensley has since proven that Marty’s instincts were inspired. Hensley continues to play high profile venues and concert halls, including the Opry, under his own name and notoriety. And while he spent years playing only electric guitar—which heavily influenced his current approach to acoustic guitar—Hensley now tours acoustically in a duo format with resonator guitar heavyweight, Rob Ickes. The two men are known for their improvisational energy onstage, with twists and turns through folk, grass, Americana, jazz, rock and blues. While Hensley stakes his own claim in the bluegrass guitar world—he was nominated for the 2020 Guitar Player of the Year award through the International Bluegrass Music Association, Hensley acknowledges that the dizzying variety of influences in his shows is steadied by a firm hold in his bluegrass foundations. “Rob and I do so many different kinds of music, yet we still consider it bluegrass, because of the instrumentation and because the spirit of it is always there. It’s always bluegrass, no matter what we’re playing, no matter how outside it is—even though there’s definitely a lot of my style that comes from outside the bluegrass world.”
Hensley’s relaxed control when he’s playing appears effortless, yet he explains he developed this technique through conscious efforts. “I was having issues with tensing up on stage, and I was developing arm issues whenever I would play. I made a mental decision to practice relaxed, and I changed the way I practiced. It’s made a huge difference.”
When Inspitation Hits
So what is his daily routine with the guitar? “I will pick up a guitar every day and play for a bit,” he says. “Whenever inspiration hits is when I practice. I try to play thirty minutes to an hour a day.” He explains that while he doesn’t have a practice routine, he keeps his inspiration alive by listening to music. “The broad palette of musical tastes comes into play there. It’s a circle, I’m just chasing the next thing in the circle,” he says, describing how musical styles draw him to practice his guitar, which in turn inspires him to listen. “Right now I’m inspired by a lot of horn players, like Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. Tomorrow it might be something totally wild and different.”
Craving Something Different
That craving for something new and different is a driving force behind his creativity when he’s soloing on stage, where his spontaneity takes listeners through unexpected melodic twists. Describing his mental headspace when improvising, Hensley says, “It is a really difficult thing to turn off all the noise in your brain and completely focus on the music. But that’s really what you have to do when improvising. I just basically try to think about the melody and what notes will complement or possibly enhance that melody. I try not to think about ‘licks’ or which run I’m going to put in next. I just try my best to let the music flow as much as possible. Of course, that’s a practice thing too…practicing the guitar until you’re comfortable with the fretboard enough to improvise.”
Hensley continues to inspire guitarists worldwide with his duo’s recent Compass Records release, World of Blues. Most importantly, his own joy for playing never ceases—even after a long night of performing. “When we’re on the road, I’ll come back to my hotel room and play for a few more hours after the gig. It’s still fun.”
By Rebecca Frazier
Trey Hensley uses nickel bronze medium gauge D’Addario strings, and he’s played with the same Blue Chip TAD-60 since 2008.