Bill Hicks passes

William N ‘Bill’ Hicks, a founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers, passed away on Sunday, November 11, 2018. He was 75 years of age.

In the early part of this year he was diagnosed with a chronic condition that attacked his connective tissue and his internal organs, and had been in and out of various hospitals for the remaining months of his life. He had most recently been diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia and sepsis. 

Hicks was the fiddler for Durham’s seminal Fuzzy Mountain String Band and a co-founder, with two veterans from the Hollow Rock String Band – Tommy Thompson (banjo) and Jim Watson (guitar) – of the internationally acclaimed Red Clay Ramblers. 

Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, on January 20, 1943, he was the son of a university professor and became interested in fiddling in the late 1960s, at the same time that the old-time music community was developing in the Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area.  

This included the Hollow Rock String Band, led by Alan Jabbour. Inspired by Jabbour’s work, Hicks started visiting old fiddlers and banjo players like Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and the Hammons family of West Virginia, learning their tunes and, in turn, being influenced by their playing styles.

As an outgrowth to Hollow Rock String Band get togethers to learn tunes that Jabbour had collected, there were several informal Friday night gatherings at Tommy and Bobbie Thompson’s house that led to Hicks meeting Tommy Thompson and then, in 1968, meeting Jim Watson.  

These music parties continued for several years and the fall of 1972 Hicks, Watson, and Thompson formed The Red Clay Ramblers, with their first gigs at the Endangered Species and the Cat’s Cradle, both in Chapel Hill.  

Red Clay Ramblers

During the following year, after pianist Mike Craver had joined the band, The Red Clay Ramblers went on tour for the first time, playing dates at Columbia University (New York City), Café Lena, Saratoga, in upstate New York, and to the Kent State Folk Festival, Kent, Ohio.  Also, they were secretly recorded at the Galax Fiddlers Convention and appear on a bootleg record along with other musicians, released on the Tennvale label (Galax 73, TV-002).

In 1974 the Ramblers started performing in a theatre production, Diamond Studs, The Life of Jesse James (a collaboration with the Southern States Fidelity Choir among others), starting at the Ranch House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Subsequently, they took the show to New York, where it ran at the West Side Theater in Manhattan from New Year’s Eve 1974 until the end of July of the following year. 

In addition to their appearances in Diamond Studs, in the October 1974, their first LP The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin’ Al McCanless was released by Folkways Records. 

Watson takes up the story ..

“We became full-time musicians in 1974 when we went to New York to perform in the show Diamond Studs.”

During the six years from 1975 The Red Clay Ramblers built on their highly-acclaimed eight-month off-Broadway run with Diamond Studs, making a short side-trip with the production to the ArtPark amphitheater, Niagara Falls, New York, and a tour from Florida to Boston; they played the first Eno Festival in Durham, North Carolina; are the first band ever at the legendary Down Home Pickin’ Parlor in Johnson City, Tennessee; and they performed at the Carter Family Store in Hiltons, Virginia, for the first time, meeting the Carter Family’s Sara Carter.  

They made their first overseas tour, with personal appearances from Scotland to Switzerland, and from Sweden to Romania; then toured with Ralph Stanley on the US West Coast and in Canada; they made their first appearance on A Prairie Home Companion, when it was just a local Minnesota Public Radio show, broadcasting from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, an 11-acre park in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Ramblers performed at the 1978 Winnipeg Folk Festival; then returned to Europe, making some eight Channel crossings in two weeks, playing at the Nyon Festival (Switzerland), the Cambridge Folk Festival (England), and the at the Fête des Leus Frasnes-lez-Couvin, Belgium (with Tom Paxton); the band also appeared at festivals in Vancouver (British Columbia) and at Wheatland (Remus, Michigan). 

In 1979 the Red Clay Ramblers toured Belgium and France with Steve Goodman and Tom Paxton. 

During that era the group released the LPs Stolen Love, Twisted Laurel and Merchant’s Lunch; and recorded Chuckin’ the Frizz – live at the Cat’s Cradle nightclub in Chapel Hill – and the tracks for Debby McClatchy with the Red Clay Ramblers. 

After a three-month transition period with Clay Buckner doubling on fiddle, Hicks left the band at the beginning of 1981.  

Hicks contributed a few songs to the Ramblers’ repertoire; The Hobo’s Last Letter – on the LP Twisted Laurel; Play “Rocky Top”Chuckin’ the Frizz; the 2nd verse of Cabin HomeChuckin’ the Frizz, and Three Bells Road, another tune from the Chuckin’ the Frizz LP.

Songwriter Joe Newberry fondly recalls the story behind one of those songs ….. 

“Hicks always laughed about writing Hobo’s Last Letter while working as an editor at Duke Press. He would say that it was the perfect place to do it, since, as he would put it, writing a song and editing a book look exactly the same from across the room. 

The chorus to ‘Hobo’ is full of love and hope…..  

‘I’ll be home in the morning when the sun is coming up. And the rooster’s singing ‘wake up’ to a thousand buttercups. There’ll be pigs in the pen, and turkeys in the woods. I’ll be home in the morning, dear, for good.’

I am so glad we got to perform this on Prairie Home Companion just three short years ago this month.”

Watson shared these thoughts about Hicks’ spell with the Red Clay Ramblers …. 

“The constant touring eventually led him to leave the band and concentrate on being a stone mason, and by all accounts a good one. 

He was the fiddler during what I believe was the most creative time for the Ramblers – 1975-1980 – when we released three albums and toured seemingly incessantly around the country and also Europe. His style was not only rooted in tradition but also adventurous, which fit the style of the Ramblers to a T, and his energy was contagious.”

After leaving the Red Clay Ramblers Hicks began working as a stone mason in Chatham County, North Carolina, and playing music with his wife, Libby. 

However, it wasn’t long before Watson linked-up with Hicks once more … 

“I started playing music again with him in the late 1980s in the Next Zenith String Band, which included his wife Libby on guitar and Tom Holt on banjo.”

Bill Hicks

About 1997 or so, after a long dry spell, Bill Hicks re-discovered his song-writing skills so much so that he felt he “needed to make this CD just to make it known that I am a songwriter and singer as well as an instrumentalist.” The result, a solo album – The Perfect Gig – was recorded live at the Cave, a Chapel Hill “dive,” features Hicks’ talents as a guitarist (electric and acoustic) and no less than 17 of his songs.

Bill and Libby Hicks spent time living on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, where for six years (1996 -2001) they played in the Cajun-Zydeco band Unknown Tongues, in addition to doing duet shows and dances.

In 2001 the duo released an album, South of Nowhere. Among the 14 tracks there are four songs penned by Bill Hicks. 

As well as their many personal appearances, the couple occasionally taught at the Augusta Heritage Workshops, and — in the summer of 2004 — at Allegheny Echoes in Marlinton, West Virginia.

In the early 2000s Bill Hicks got together with Mike Craver, Jim Watson and Joe Newberry in a band that soon became known as Craver, Hicks, Watson & Newberry or, unofficially, the Law Firm.

In 2012 the quartet released a CD, You’ve Been a Friend to Me, an album that includes a Hicks original, Uncle Charlie’s Revenge, also found on the South of Nowhere album. According to Jack Bernhardt, writing for the Raleigh News & Observer, the CD “gloriously revives the spirit and sound of the Ramblers’ early years.”

Watson shares this observation about Craver, Hicks, Watson & Newberry, commenting, in particular, on what Bill Hicks was doing in recent years ….. 

“We did music from the old Ramblers along with a variety of stuff from our usual sources and also newer original material, and he had lost none of the power and inventiveness that he had played with in the old days.”

Hicks was also a contributing editor for the Old Time Herald. 

R.I.P., Bill Hicks

Newberry remembers the impact that Hicks and the Red Clay Ramblers had on him… 

“Bill and the Red Clay Ramblers were such influences on my playing as a young man. I never dreamed I would meet them – they were just people who lived on records. My first night in North Carolina, I went to a party and remember thinking that the fiddler played just like Bill Hicks. Of course, it was Bill Hicks, and I sat in rapt attention the rest of the night. 

As Craver, Hicks, Watson & Newberry, we had lots of adventures over the years, including shows around the country and overseas ……….. 

My condolences to his wife Libby, daughter Anna, and a whole world of friends that he left behind.”

A Discography 

Solo – 

  • The Perfect Gig (Admit One 1001, released in March 2002)

Bill and Libby Hicks – 

  • South of Nowhere (Copper Creek Records 0193, 2001)

Fuzzy Mountain String Band – 

  • The Fuzzy Mountain String Band (Rounder 0010)
  • Summer Oaks and Porch (Rounder 0035) 

Red Clay Ramblers –

  • Stolen Love (Flying Fish FF-009)
  • Twisted Laurel (Flying Fish FF-030)
  • Merchant’s Lunch (Flying Fish FF-055)
  • Chuckin’ The Fizz (Flying Fish FF-089)
  • Hard Times (Flying Fish FF-246) 

Craver, Hicks, Watson & Newberry – 

  • You’ve Been A Friend to Me (Barker Records 2012) 

With others – 

  • Red Clay Ramblers With Fiddlin’ Al McCanless (Folkways FTS-31039) 
  • Debby McClatchy With The Red Clay Ramblers (Green Linnet SIF-1003) 

Our thanks are due to Jim Watson for his invaluable assistance in the writing of this obituary. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.