California Report: Pete Hicks from Central Valley Boys

Pete Hicks is a California multi-instrumentalist who plays fiddle and mandolin and sings in bands in and around the Central Coast and Central Valley. He plays old-school traditional styles for bands such as the Central Valley Boys and Bean Creek, and an occasional rodeo. Pete is the author of the Hicks Licks column for the for the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association’s Fiddler’s Rag monthly publication. His presence always gets your attention, be it on stage or in a jam, many of which he leads.

Hi Pete. Tell us where you grew up and your first memories of this music we call bluegrass.

My dad was in the Air Force and I grew up in France, England, Germany, and the East Coast. My first memories of bluegrass were from Grand Old Opry radio broadcasts on the Armed Forces Network. Later on, in college in New York, in 1971, I started playing and discovered Flatt and Scruggs, and I was hooked. Then Reno and Smiley played a concert at NYU and Don borrowed my mandolin for some Gospel.

My first bluegrass festival was Union Grove in ’72. We threw a band together to play in the band contest so that we could get in for free. After college, in ’73 to ’75, I worked in Thailand for the US Army Education Center, and I started a bluegrass band with some army guys and some other teachers. They made me start learning fiddle. On my way back to the States I stopped in Hawaii for a couple of years and found a nice little bluegrass scene happening. I finally settled in California. 

Wow, I never knew all that about you. What instruments do you play?

Fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. I can also get around fairly well on bass.

What is the bluegrass scene like on the California Central Coast?

The Central Coast has lots of pickers. The scene has been slow since COVID, but things are picking up. There are some venues opening up, and some of the local regular jams have started up again.

Who are some of the coolest young players that you’ve come across?

Gosh, there are so many. Jack Kinney, Josh, Jake and John Gooding, Daisy Caire, AJ Lee, Jesse Fichman, the Tuttles, and more. These pickers are all very well rounded musicians who know all the traditional stuff—bluegrass or country—and can play anything else. 

What bands are you active in?

I play with the Courthouse Ramblers, Bean Creek, the Central Valley Boys, and the California Rodeo Band. The Ramblers have played together since the ’90s and played Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing for 20 years till COVID hit. Bean Creek also played there and at Sam’s BBQ in San Jose for about 10 years. 

Tell us more about the Central Valley Boys. Any good stories?

Well, the Central Valley Boys are really fun to play with. We have four different colors of suits. Once in Las Vegas, John brought the wrong color suit and stuck out a bit on stage. After the show, Dave and I were talking to Kenny Horton from Country Current, the Navy band, and having a laugh. Kenny said, “Look at my feet, boys.” He was wearing two left shoes because he’d packed in a hurry. 

The California Central Valley is more known for country music, but I’ve heard tell bluegrass is the real country. Thoughts?

Yeah, well I play country music gigs, too. Almost any bluegrass song works fine in an old-style country band. 

Are you playing much these days?

Actually, yes. The Central Valley Boys played five festivals last year and we have a couple booked for this year. I also play with the California Rodeo Band every year at the Salinas Rodeo, plugged in. The CVB is playing Bluegrass at the Beach in Havasu, Arizona in March, plus the Prescott Bluegrass Festival in Arizona around June 25.

How is playing a rodeo different from the usual fare? Do you play different material? 

I’ve played the Salinas Rodeo since 1989. Originally, we were a 14-piece band with horns, steel, guitars, piano, accordion, drums, three fiddles, and a female singing trio. We played the backup music for the rodeo on the bandstand right in the arena. The Jo Mora Sweetheart of the Rodeo poster shows where the bandstand was, on a concrete slab. The bandleader coordinated with the announcers by walkie talkie. 

There must be good eats. Do you play before, during or after?

Well, these days I play in a small Texas-style band in the Directors Patio before and after the rodeo. We do old country and cowboy music. The big rodeo band now plays the midway during the rodeo and on into the night. The food is good, lots of tri-tip, beans, and salad. The Trail-Ride Band is the acoustic version of the rodeo band, and we do gigs outside of the rodeo as well.

I recall first meeting you at a festival with your name on it. Tell us about that.

That started as a Memorial Day weekend campout at Bolado Park organized by my wife, Lora. We had an open mic stage and the kids just took it over. It grew into more of a festival with a few bands booked, but still it was basically a campout with a stage. It was really fun. 

What fiddle players do you most identify with?

Tommy Jackson, Paul Warren, and Chubby Wise. Tommy Jackson was everywhere back in the day, in the studio, all styles, Ray Price, and bluegrass as well. He was on all the records that I listened to when I was growing up. And of course Paul Warren, who was on those Flatt and Scruggs records which was the sound that got me hooked. I tried as best I could to mimic him.

Do you like that scratchy fiddle sound?

I like the driving sound, yea, haha. There’s a fine line between fiddle and violin, you know, and I like to stay on the fiddle side, especially in bluegrass. In other styles it’s different.

And who are your mandolin idols, though it wouldn’t be hard to guess.

Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield.

What about Monroe style appeals to your musical soul?

I think Bill Monroe’s sense of rhythm is important to understand for any bluegrass mandolin player. To me, it’s kind of like horse rhythms at times. 

Bill’s solos are classics. 

What’s your favorite Bill Monroe era?

I like all of Bill’s eras, but am very partial to his instrumentals, like Bluegrass Stomp, Old Ebenezer Scrooge, Come Hither to Go Yonder, Old Dangerfield, Lockwood and many more. They’re all great fiddle or mandolin numbers, written for a bluegrass band.

How is Frank Wakefields playing different to your ears than Monroe’s?

Frank first learned to play like Monroe, and then proceeded to take bluegrass mandolin to another planet. Comparing Monroe and Wakefield is a bit like comparing Impressionist painters. Frank plays more on the edge, in my opinion.

What’s your favorite Frank Wakefield tune or album?

My favorite Frank instrumental album is Own Self Blues. Own Self Blues is a great but very tricky tune. The Old Cat Sneezed is another favorite Frank tune. Frank played our short-lived Big Sur festival and at the Hickstival campout I mentioned which was organized by my wife, Lora. I’ve known Frank for many years. We first met at Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco in the late ’70s and I got to play on stage with him once.

What do you like in a bass player?

I like them to basically be simple and straightforward, but able to do the fancy stuff when necessary. There’s some times when the bass has to do some more difficult stuff—if they can do it well.

How is the lutherie business treating you?

It is a part time business. I’ve just been doing some repairs lately.

What is the most interesting rebuild you have encountered? 

The most interesting rebuild was a sitar with numerous cracks and a bad previous repair. I had to visit Ashwin Batish, the sitar expert in Santa Cruz, for schooling on how to fix it right and get parts and strings. The neck and headstock are hollow, and they had cracks. 

Have you learned any cool fiddle tunes recently or have some other favorites?

Lockwood and Tallahassee from Monroe plus Chicken Under the Washtub by Vivian Williams.

Do you have a day job?

I am a retired adult ed teacher, ESL and GED.

Are you an instructor?

I do some private lessons, but these days I’ve been doing fiddle workshops at festivals when asked. I also run the slow jam at the CBA Father’s Day Festival at Grass Valley.

What’s a good life lesson you can share?

Well, I think it’s good to keep learning new music and songs.

Good one, how long does it take you to learn a new tune?

It varies. I usually “learn” tunes quickly, but then work out the details in practice. The process is to learn one phrase, then the next, etc. Then I concentrate on any parts that are giving me a hard time. 

You mentioned Paul’s Saloon. Talk some about that scene in San Francisco.

It was in ’79 or so, I was playing five nights a week in Salinas and I had a place in SF and was living there. I was playing Sunday nights in a band called Old Friends with Gene Tortora, Bobby Davis, and various people on guitar like Stan Miller and Kathy Kallick. When you went to Monday night jams, you never knew who would be sitting around the table; Frank Wakefield, Larry Sparks came in one time. A lot of different people would come to Paul’s. Paul’s had a lot to do with the whole traditional bluegrass thing in Northern California.

Why else do you think Northern California skews towards the traditional sound?

I think Vern Williams and Ray Park, Jake Quesenberry, and others really got it started. They’d moved here from other states and brought bluegrass with them, and it infected us all. Traditional bluegrass is a great common ground for pickers. Everyone knows what to do. 

Did you ever pick in SoCal back then?

Not back in the day. I went down and played some electric and country stuff at the Palomino with a honky-tonk band that I played with in Salinas. I was playing some Telecaster and electric fiddle and got into the contests down there to try and get some gigs.

What artists do you listen to that might surprise us?

The Dead South, and I listen to a lot of different stuff on the radio.

What do you listen to when you are in the shop?

KPIG radio, out of Santa Cruz. “Sleepy” John Sandidge is a DJ there and definitely a great promoter of bluegrass in the Santa Cruz area. He’s done a lot for our bands, giving us a lot of airplay and such.

Did you ever ride a steer?

No, man, I would never do that. I’ve had dust kicked on me by many a steer from over the fence. Every now and then you might get me on a horse but not too often.

Thanks for your time, Pete. I hope to see you soon on the circuit.

Thanks, Dave. I hope you got what you needed for your article.

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at daveberrymusic.net.