Happy 90th birthday to Bobby Hicks

Today (July 21), bluegrass fiddle virtuoso Bobby Hicks turns 90 years old. Last night, a birthday bash/jam was held in his honor at Zuma Coffee & Provisions in Marshall, NC, near his western North Carolina home. An overflowing crowd which included several special guests, packed into the small storefront business on Main Street, spilling out onto the sidewalk, to celebrate the milestone birthday of the king of the double stops.

Hicks referenced many of the jammers. “Most of the people up there, I have taught them something about music. Not the same thing every time, but I’ve taught them all something.”

Musicians, including Michael Cleveland, Tennessee Bluegrass Band’s Aynsley Porchak and Lincoln Hensley, along with King James Boys’ Will Hart, and Ron Shuffler (George’s youngest brother), were there to honor the 2017 Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame inductee, and participated in the jam that included a large number of pickers and at least a dozen fiddlers. Midway through, Hicks, who lately has experienced balance issues, stood with his walker behind the microphone to sing a few tunes before addressing the packed room.

“I want to thank everybody for being here, and want you to know how much I love you. It wouldn’t be nothing without some love. I traveled with the Grand Ole Opry for 49 years. I’ve been to places that people just dream of. I stood on top of the Eiffel Tower. I’ve been to the Louvre in Paris, France. I spent almost two years in Germany in the military, 1956-1958, and I’m glad there wasn’t anything going on then. No wars going on. I don’t know any place I’d rather be than right here.

This is the best place I’ve ever seen. My wife and I have a beautiful place here. We were sitting on the deck one night, having a little drink of wine, and she said, ‘I love you so much and I don’t know what I’d do without you.’ I said, ‘Is that you or the wine talking?’ And she said, ‘It’s me talking to the wine.’ We’ve been married 20 years. I love you, honey, and it ain’t the wine talking. And I’m glad my daughter is here.

I’d love to play for you, but I can’t hold my fiddle anymore. [Torn rotator cuff] I want to thank all the people in the band for helping me do this for about 15 years. And I hate to say this, but it’s probably my last time here. I’m just getting too old to do it anymore.”

Friends and former band mates, guitarist Albert Vestal and mandolinist Jerry Stuart, came from Siler City to jam. Albert shared a story with the audience, “When we’d practice, I’d say, ‘Now, Bobby, be sure and bring your fiddle.’ One night he said, ‘Vesty, if I worked at a service station, would you expect me to bring a gas pump?'”

Cleveland traveled six hours from southern Indiana to attend.

“I’ve been to this jam several times, but I definitely wanted to make this one since it’s his birthday party. Dad was nice enough to drive me over here. 

The first time that I got to play with Bobby was when he was playing with Ricky Skaggs at a festival, and I introduced myself. Then I was in a room at IBMA in Louisville playing and he comes in, but I didn’t know it was Bobby. He put his hand on my shoulder and goes, ‘Are you Michael Cleveland? Are you a fiddle player? Do you think you’re a good fiddle player?’

I’m thinking who is this guy and I didn’t know what to say. Finally, he let me off the hook and said, ‘This is Bobby Hicks.’

We ended up jamming until about 4:00 a.m. It was so cool because Bobby Hicks is like the ultimate fiddle god. I believe that! There’s nothing on the fiddle that he couldn’t play.”

Aynsley Porchak shared…

“Bobby Hicks was one of the very first bluegrass fiddlers that I ever heard. My first teacher gave me the CD, Fiddle Patch [1997 IBMA Instrumental Album of the Year], and I was immediately drawn to his smooth, sliding double stops. To me, there’s never been anyone who can capture Bobby’s tone, taste, and inventiveness on the fiddle. I love playing with him and was able to take lessons from him early on. He was very gracious, always incredibly kind to me, and is a treasured friend as well as a mentor.

Over the years, he’s given me advice about my playing, and personal stuff that he really didn’t have to do. Bobby was not only a hero to me to for his playing, but for the kind of person he was and is today.”

Zuma Coffee & Provisions owner, Joel Friedman, told us, “Bobby Hicks has been instrumental in the development of Marshall through his kindness, his courtesy, and his amazing generosity as a fiddle player. He has continued to share his talent and gift with the whole place. He’s changed the complexity of the neighborhood. He’s been holding a jam here every Thursday for 13 years, and once a month the last two years.”

Bobby’s wife, Catherine, readily agreed. “He has made a huge impact on this town. People come from all over the world to the jam. We’ve had folks from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia. Folklorist, Lowell Jones, said, ‘Madison County is where the music never dies.'”

His presence is evident inside the small business. Paintings of Hicks, done by local artist, Calvin Edney Jr, adorn the wall behind the counter and in the front window. All the locals and regulars know him and call him by name. A strong community bond is felt throughout the establishment. Blanche, a 90-year-old Marshall resident herself, sat beside Bobby except when she rose to buck dance occasionally during the evening.

Retired pediatrician, Dr. Janice Coverdale, served persimmon pudding and ice cream to accompany the birthday cake to those assembled. “Bobby Hicks has a beautiful voice that matches his fiddle, but most importantly, he is a serious teaching mentor who has passed his art along to others.”

Bassist, Cathy Arrowood, added, “He’s brought so many to this town. He’s an awesome fiddler, but an even better human being. Everybody that plays with him leaves with something. He has changed my life. When he plays, my hair stands up on the back of my neck.”

A host of regular musicians were present to the share their talent and show their support. Locals included Brandon Johnson (mandolin), Roger Howell (fiddle), Bryce Parham (guitar), Scotty Owenby (guitar), John Crowder (mandolin), Elijah Rice (guitar), Dona Cavenagh (fiddle), Maxine Solomon (guitar), Lora Sepion (guitar), Brandson Rainer (mandolin/fiddle), Mike Bradley (guitar), and numerous others.

“I loved it,” Hicks stated following the three-hour music-filled party. “If I’d known I’d have lived this long, I’d have taken better care of myself, and I mean it!”

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.