If it were magic, all of us fiddle players would be playing like bluegrass musician Bobby Hicks. But as he says… “fiddle playing is hard and it takes a long time to get good. You’ve got to listen… REALLY listen.”
Today, I started really listening.
As a journalist this is a must, especially when one interviews 50’s and under. It’s those generations who watch their words, tow the line, position themselves in a “good” light. So, I’ve learned to really listen, to pull out the authenticity that resides hidden under the PR-speak. I’m not out to “out” them. I’m out to reveal them.
I value authenticity. Hence, why I enjoy conversations with musical artists who are a shoulder season era one up from me. These folks rarely couch their opinions. They tell you their truths, and then watch you real close-like to see if you have the strength of character to engage on your own terms. Sometimes I am good at this repartee, but more often than not I find that I lean into the habit of “not offending.” Maybe it’s a cultural thing — or a gal thing — or a generational thing. Maybe I feel I haven’t yet earned the right.
Bobby Hicks has earned the right — he earned that right the day his momma brought him into the world. He was destined. A North Carolina state fiddle champion when he hit double digits and a professional touring musician a few years after that. In and out with Bill Monroe as one of His Blue Grass Boys – time with Porter, Judy Lynn, Skaggs. Most all of us, who weren’t here to hear it first hand, know the history by way of Neil V.Rosenberg and Charles K. Wolfe.
This week, I’ve been in the mountains in and around Asheville, North Carolina. I’m not at a music camp like so many other folks, I’m just hanging out playing music, writing songs, and recording Artist2Artist interviews with some pretty spectacular folks in our industry.
Tuesday, I spent the morning at the home of my long-lost music camp friend Cathy Hicks and her “tell it like it is husband” Bobby. Their mountaintop home gave us a 360 degree view of incredible Blue Ridge Mountains. Hazy vistas of July blue spread out in all directions.
Though it was before noon, it already was wickedly hot. Bobby and I treated ourselves to a couple of very cold, early-in-the-day, Asheville crafted IPAs. Cathy was on a trip to DC for her job with FEMA — or I suspect the morning would have been more coffee-social.
And then it began… an electrified, no holds-bar Artist2Artist conversation with Bobby.
We started with politics. Who doesn’t want to talk about politics this week? A nationwide seismic shift is underway. Then we crossed somewhat into religion — quickly got off that and somehow went directly into a deep discussion about the long-term viability of record labels. We agree that current artists determine their economic footing when they boldly take advantage of the self-business opportunities available to them instead of following the “well beaten path” of handing over their livelihood and future income streams to others.
We threw toys to their 4 gorgeous dogs = 4 noses, 15 legs, 3 tails. This spurred me to bring up the other news of the week — the self labeled Minnesota trophy hunter dentist who bought with $50k Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, Cecil, just so he could hang this grand animal’s head on his wall for his personal enjoyment and hoped for admiration from his pals (now you know my opinion too). And buddy that’s where it got hot. Don’t hurt ANY animal — if you do, you’ll be dealing with B. Hicks.
One of my favorite phrases that Bobby doesn’t hesitate to use — “they can kiss my ass.” I love that. It takes me right back home to Tennessee. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t hear that from someone in our small community. It even gets called out from the church pews. It’s not vulgar. It’s real, and it means “I hold on to my truth.”
I saw Bobby’s Grammy award and gold albums in the nook of his stairwell – though he never said a word about them.
My hardest task this week was taking 3 hours of great conversation and distilling it down to relevance for everybody here. I decided to go with several pearls of wisdom that apply to every musician. Not just fiddle players. According to Bobby…
1. You need to know the notes on your instrument. You can’t know what to play if you don’t know what they are, and exactly WHERE they are.
2. Play in tune and play with excellent rhythm. If you are not doing these two things, “why in the hell are you playing?” His words and NOW mine. If you play out of tune and with poor rhythm – you dishonor the instrument, you dishonor the listener, you dishonor other musicians, and you dishonor yourself.
3. There’s listening, and then there is REALLY listening. If you are watching your hands or are watching the hands of some other musician, you are not listening. You are watching. There is a difference.
When Bobby picked up his “Jesus” fiddle to demonstrate some of his signature double harmonies, I immediately found myself admiring the instrument’s beautiful headstock. As he played, I stared at the fingers of his left hand.
It was a trick, he was watching ME. He had just told me that people don’t really listen. Busted. But then I started to REALLY listen. Not just listen. But REALLY listen. As he said, “there is a difference.”
I hope you will Really Listen to some of the other buried gems (just above) in my 10 minutes Blue Moon edition of Artist2Artist featuring my guest, bluegrass music fiddle player, Bobby Hicks.