When Trey Hensley got his first invitation to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, at least 80 people from his hometown bought tickets, chartered buses and made the five-hour trek from Jonesborough, Tenn., to Nashville. That's how special it was to them to see a moon-faced local kid with braces amble on stage in his Sunday-best cowboy boots to join Marty Stuart in a rendition of "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy," with a surprise appearance from Earl Scruggs, no less. YouTube footage shows a then 11-year-old Hensley ready to battle for as many flatpicking solos as he can get. He'd been single-minded about guitar since picking it up months earlier.
"I think I started on a Monday," he says 12 years later, "and I played a show that Saturday. So I've just kind of been at it, and always give 110 percent of everything I had."
Stuart surely recognized that when the boy approached him at a county fair and did a sort of impromptu audition on the spot. After all, there's footage of Stuart's own precocious prodigy years floating around on the Web; he made his Porter Wagoner Show debut as a tenor-singing, mandolin-playing, barely teenaged member of Lester Flatt's band, not at all shy about scooting forward to trade licks with pickers three times his age. It was that early start, combined with the tradition-versed country career Stuart built under his own name after apprenticing in bluegrass bands—in hindsight, a seemingly linear trajectory — that Hensley admired. "I looked up to him before I met him," he says.
He could just as easily have zeroed in on Ricky Skaggs or Keith Whitley as a professional role model; they too backed first-generation bluegrassers before venturing out as country solo acts. And there are even more examples of eventual stars who spent youthful years in bands before developing their own marketable, modern identities, Vince Gill and Steve Wariner among them. En route to the music they're best known for, they absorbed classic repertoires, not to mention learned how to please an adult audience. Call it on-the-gig artist development.
The way the gap has widened between country's current radio-dominated mainstream and its more traditional segments, it'd be harder for a young act to follow a similar route today. What Hensley's done is take notes from his elders while working out his style in radically condensed real time. He started out leading his bluegrass band everywhere from the Ruritan Club to a corner gas station with a wagon bed for a stage, the annual Jonesborough Days festival and the storied Carter Fold up the road in Virginia. Once he got into collecting Merle Haggard albums, he switched to playing country material with bluegrass instrumentation, and then took his show electric after acquiring a Telecaster at age 16. All the while, he was cutting independent albums that chronicled each musical phase.
When Hensley plugged in, he presented it as a once-and-for-all shift of his loyalty. "I'm doing country music instead of the bluegrass scene, and loving every minute of it," he said in a filmed 2008 interview. "That's really what I've been wanting to do for a long time."
But his sensibilities didn't just settle there. In 2013, a scratch vocal he sang for the bluegrass band Blue Highway brought such maturity to a song about retiring from the coalmines it made the final album. The group's world-class Dobro player Rob Ickes has been championing him ever since.
"I don't hear stuff that I get excited about real often," Ickes told MusicRadar. "There was something in that vocal on that song that was super honest and super pure. He's so good on pitch and everything; that comes so easy to him that he can get into the storytelling, the soul of the lyric. ... I don't even know if he knows he does it at this point, but he gives each lyric exactly what it needs."
Last year, after Hensley and his wife moved to Nashville, he and Ickes formed a duo. Soon the pair was splitting monthly Station Inn shows between swinging string-band fare, spirited chicken-picking, bluesy note-bending slide work and heart-scraping honky-tonk balladry. Their co-produced new album on Compass Records, Before the Sun Goes Down, focuses on that range, but just a bit. There's a Stevie Ray Vaughan cover adapted to Dobro and acoustic guitar, bluegrass and Western swing standards, some '70s-era Haggard covers and a pensive country-blues Hensley original, captured with a supple, mostly unplugged band and Hensley's sturdy yet sensitive vocal phrasing.
"He's the kind of guy," Ickes said last year, "[that] we could've done an electric album and featured his guitar playing, and that would've been amazing. But he also does all this bluegrass stuff. ... The basic quality of his voice, there's definitely more of a country tone to it, so I didn't want to just do a bluegrass album. I just thought that wouldn't be true to what he does."