Bluegrass Raleigh

Bobby Hicks keeps on keepin’ on

By David Menconi -

Bobby Hicks jam session in Marshall, NC

Bobby Hicks and several other musicians hold a jam session in the western North Carolina town of Marshall. Hear the Bluegrass legend fiddle his way through "New River Train".
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Bobby Hicks and several other musicians hold a jam session in the western North Carolina town of Marshall. Hear the Bluegrass legend fiddle his way through "New River Train".

Bobby Hicks is a unique fiddler, and he plays a unique fiddle, too.

Custom-built almost 40 years ago by Burlington fiddle-maker Harvey Keck, the five-string instrument has the head of a bearded man carved at the top of the neck. Hicks suspected that figure was supposed to be Jesus, but he wasn’t sure until an onstage accident at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival a few years back.

“After the show, a huge puff of wind blew the lid of my hard case over right as I was putting the fiddle into it,” Hicks said. “It caught the edge and took a piece off the back. I figured that’s the end of this baby.”

But Hicks had a friend who was able to repair it.

“He had to take the top off and he showed me something written inside where nobody can see it: ‘Built to be the greatest instrument in the world in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.’ That’s why I believe it’s meant to be Jesus.”

As he spoke, Hicks sat in Zuma Coffee in Marshall on a Thursday afternoon, getting ready for that night’s open-stage jam.

“I’ve been offered $100,000 for this fiddle, but it ain’t for sale,” he continued, cradling the fiddle like a ukulele and strumming it lightly. “That’s my baby. ... Someday when I’m gone, my wife gets it. What she’ll do with it, I don’t know. Maybe the Bluegrass Hall of Fame will wind up with it.”

A big year

Hicks, who turned 81 years old in July, is well on his way to the Hall of Fame. He made his reputation playing with iconic bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, and later Ricky Skaggs. But he’s having himself quite a run this year.

Hicks is up for an International Bluegrass Music Association award as fiddle instrumental performer of the year, fresh off winning a North Carolina Heritage Award. At the award ceremony in May, Hicks got so emotional that his acceptance speech consisted of, “It means a lot.”

But he played beautifully that night.

“He’s still every bit as good as he ever was, and it’s pretty unbelievable,” said Balsam Range mandolinist Darren Nicholson. “Man, I’m 30, and I don’t play as good as I did when I was 26!”

With World of Bluegrass bringing Hicks to Raleigh this week, this will be the rare Thursday where he’ll miss the weekly Zuma Coffee show. Most Thursdays, you’ll find him leading an open jam there for anyone who shows up – as many as 20 players at a time. He’s been doing it pretty much ever since he retired from active touring about a decade ago.

“Anybody who comes in to play, I let ’em,” Hicks said. “We’ll do bluegrass, country, folk, whatever people want to come in and play. If it’s something I don’t know, it don’t take long before I know what they’re doing. I play by ear anyway.”

One recent week found Hicks leading a dozen players spanning a 77-year age range through a lively set of old standards and new favorites. Apart from the inevitable rough spots, it was a fine group of players, especially 87-year-old Leonard Holyfield (who sang wonderfully despite being hooked up to an oxygen tank) and 10-year-old fiddler Lillian Chase.

Still, there was no doubt who was the best player in the room. Listening to Hicks blaze his way through “Orange Blossom Special” was about the closest thing you can hear to living musical history around these parts. It’s something that Laura Boosinger, executive director of the Madison County Arts Council, has seen many times over the past decade.

“We’re lucky he decided to stay here and host that jam, which is a great thing for the community,” said Boosinger, who nominated Hicks for his Heritage Award. “A co-worker of mine was talking to somebody in Nashville and mentioned Bobby playing the coffeehouse here, and the guy asked, ‘Not the Bobby Hicks?’ Yep, the Bobby Hicks. He deserves all the recognition he’s getting now. He’s done a lot for fiddle-playing and to further the music.”

Starting at age 9

Hicks was born in Newton, and his family moved a good bit before settling in Greensboro when he was 12. His father didn’t play music, but he did give Hicks his first fiddle at age 9. Hicks took it from there, teaching himself to play and starting up in bands as a teenager.

“No idea what else I’d have done if not for music,” Hicks said. “I worked three weeks in a cotton mill and another three weeks in a hosiery mill, and that’s the only public jobs I ever had. I did not take to it at all.”

By his early 20s, Hicks worked his way into a spot in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. That landed him on the Grand Ole Opry stage for the first time in 1954, although it was hard to enjoy because he was terrified.

“...I was just scared to death that first time. Since then, I’ve figured out it’s just another gig, only difference being it’s broadcast on the radio,” Hicks said. “But man, my knees were knocking, and I could not keep my fiddle bow still. People ask what the first number we played was, and I have no idea.”

Hicks played with the notoriously crotchety Monroe for four years in the 1950s, sometimes doubling as driver. If they were in hurry, Monroe always said, “Let Bobby drive,” and seemed to trust him.

“Greatest man I ever worked for,” Hicks said. “People can say what they want about Bill Monroe, but he treated me really well.

“I wear him all the time,” Hicks added, patting a custom-made Bill Monroe belt buckle. “Nobody but us Blue Grass Boys can wear this. It’s a special belt buckle they made for us.”

After leaving Monroe’s band in 1960 in search of higher wages, Hicks worked stints with Porter Wagoner, Judy Lynn, Mel Tillis and others. It was in 1963, during his time with Lynn’s country-western dance band, that he thought to add a fifth string to his fiddle to enhance the harmonies he could play with the band’s other fiddler.

“I did it with a pocketknife,” Hicks said. “Put another hole in the peg head and added a string, and if I’d messed up I would’ve been in deep trouble because that was the only fiddle I had. But that helped get the double-stop harmonies I became known for.”

Before starting the Sugar Hill Records bluegrass label in 1978, Barry Poss produced a solo album for Hicks. “Texas Crapshooter” had bluegrass on one side, Western swing on the other and not a false note anywhere. Poss was awestruck.

“Bobby’s intonation, performance, taste and sense of harmony are all exquisite and perfect,” Poss said. “...He’s a special musician.”

Grueling touring

By the early 1980s, Hicks had joined Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder backup band. He would spend more than 20 years touring with Skaggs, keeping a grueling schedule.

“There was one year with Skaggs where we did 258 shows, plus travel days,” Hicks said.

He got married at a bluegrass festival in Eureka, Ark.

“ ...Two hours later, I was onstage doing a show. Really romantic. People who think this is a romantic thing to do for a living don’t realize how unromantic it really is.”

Hicks grew weary of the road and retired to his wife’s hometown of Marshall, a community of less than 900 nestled between Asheville and the Tennessee border. He still plays often, although he’s slowed down some. In February, he was hospitalized with congestive heart failure.

“The doctors put me on medication, and I’m OK now,” Hicks said. “At least I was last time I checked. Hold on ”

He paused to lay a finger on his wrist, taking his own pulse.

“Yeah,” he said with a broad grin. “I’m still here. I’m doing all right, it’s just aggravating because I don’t have the strength I used to. But it don’t affect my playing as far as I know. So I’ll keep on.”