The Ramblers' Bill Hicks Lives For Music

by Susan Ketchin
(article appeared in the Western Wake Herald, April 20, 1978)

Many years ago, before the coming of television and big commercial recording companies, folks used to sit on the front porch in the evenings to relax.

As the sun went down somebody might pick up a fiddle or a banjo, start strumming and the family would sing out, harmonizing on the hymns and clapping to the old fiddle tunes they'd known since childhood. 

Bill Hicks, who lives on the old Hilliard Place on Three Bells Road near Apex, is preserving that kind of music, the music of the land, the home and the heart. 

A relative newcomer to Apex, Hicks is the fiddle player for the Red Clay Ramblers, a talented and colorful group of North Carolina musicians, who are rapidly becoming popular all over the United States, Canada and Europe. Their repertoire covers the entire range of American folk music from mountain ballads to "swing." 

An English music magazine has described Hicks as looking like he wandered off the farm and "was presented with a divine ability to play fiddle." 

As he walks around his small farm proudly pointing out his garden and chicken house, thirty-five year old Hicks appears to be contented to stay at home and lead a quiet, simple life. He seems to be the type that would be concerned more with preserving pickles or apricots than old-timey music. 

But Hicks is possessed with a sense of mission about his music and the unique place the Red Clay Ramblers hold in the current music scene. 

When he talks about his music, the usually reserved man becomes intensely excited:

"Before American music became Big Business and large recording studios began determining what and how music should be played, a lot of great music was being played in all parts of the United States. The simple mountain songs, and fiddle tunes of Appalachia, the big-city blues and New Orleans jazz are all part of our heritage."

The Ramblers have tried to go back to the sources of American music, to avoid imitating the popular trends.  "In reviving traditional tunes and blending in our own arrangements and original material," Hicks says, "we have developed a unique and entertaining sound which has grown directly from the roots of American music." 

Hicks credits much of his musical interest and ability to his own North Carolina roots. Born and raised in Raleigh, he attended Broughton High School and UNC where he obtained a master's in philosophy. 

In July 1977, he moved to a rambling farmhouse built by Freeman Hilliard in 1910. The home is located on a dirt road off S.R. 751. 

The beauty and peacefulness of county living inspires his music. He is learning the time-honored techniques of hauling manure, raising chickens and keeping his old pick-up tuned. . One of the fiddle tunes Hicks has written, called “Three Bells Road,” celebrates the beauty of the country road that runs in front of his house through the pastures and fields, to Highway 751.

In 1974, Hicks made the difficult decision to give up his job as copy editor for the Duke University Press and become a full-time musician.  At that time the Ramblers were asked to appear in “Diamond Studs,” a Broadway musical about the life of Jesse James.  The show, written by two Chapel Hillians, was a smash hit.

From then on, offers to play and tour came pouring in.  Today, the Ramblers are preparing a second concert tour in the United States and Europe for this summer.  The U.S. State Department sponsored in part their first European trip last summer and has asked them to play again for Rumania's Tricentennial Festival in Bucharest. 

The Ramblers came together about six years ago in Chapel Hill when Hicks and Tommy Thompson (five-string banjo, tenor guitar) who had played together in the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, linked up with Jim Watson (bass, mandolin) from the Hollow Rock String Band from Durham.  Mike Craver (piano) and Jack Herrick (trumpet, bass; penny whistle) joined in1974 And 1975 respectively

They traveled together in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina learning from the many local and nationally known musicians, they met.

In 1972-73 Hicks won first prize at the West Virginia State Fiddler's Convention and was runner-up at Union Grove in 1972. Thompson won the World Championship Banjo competition at Union Grove that same year.

In its early years, the band played primarily traditional gospel hymns and folk tunes such as "The Girl I Left Behind Me, and "Rockingham Cindy."  With addition of Craver's piano, and Herrick's trumpet, the band expanded its music to jazz, ragtime, Depression blues and swing.

Though their music defies categorization, the Ramblers play songs such as Jimmy Rodgers' "Mississippi Delta Blues, " Uncle Dave Macon's "Rabbit in the Pea Patch," and Fats Waller's Sweet and Slow."  Their original compositions, notably "Twisted Laurel" and "The Ace," reflected increasingly sophisticated chord structure and lyrics.

"We now have our sound. I don't know of band who plays music the way we do. We're taking traditional sources and going in new and different directions. Whether we're playing material we've found or working up original material, we improvise, and develop unique arrangements.

One of Bill Hicks rousing originals was inspired by music of Charlie Poole's Carolina Ramblers. “The Hobo’s Last Letter” expresses the joy of coming home to one’s farm and loved ones:

“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 wood
I’ll be home in the morning, dear, for good.”
“Many of our songs are about every day country life,” Hicks points out.  “The people who remember the square dances and the excitement of the fiddle striking up will recognize the foundation of what we do."

One beautiful song about the country of West Virginia is "Twisted Laurel" by Tommy Thompson.  That song was the title cut of their third album, released in 1976.  Their most recent album, "The Merchants Lunch," is doing extremely well and the band is very happy about their commercial success.

Hicks leaned back in his armchair and reflected.  "We are very lucky to be able to create our own music and play what we love.  The DJ's are playing our records and the more that happens, the better known we get."

Last year they toured the U.S. with Ralph Stanley, and everywhere they went, people seemed enthusiastic about their music.

The Red Clay Ramblers will give a concert at the Ranch House in Chapel Hill this Saturday, April 22, at 9:00 p.m.  It will be the last concert in this area before they go on tour.  This Saturday's audience can look forward to an evening of non-stop humor and enthusiasm, and good music.

"We're definitely not dull," Hicks grins.  "We want people to enjoy themselves."  Big Tommy Thompson (they call him "Uncle Wide Load") and tall, skinny Jack "Stretch" Herrick are just plain funny to watch.

The Ramblers humor infects the entire audience with Hicks providing the straight lines and Thompson or Watson the clinchers.  Herrick and Craver stay in the background and roll their eyes or cut other crazy antics.

"When we do a concert, we're there to have a great time and we want the audience to join in with us," Hicks says.

The Ramblers obviously love and respect the music they play and it is impossible to hear them without getting caught up in the hand-clapping, harmonizing, and joke-cracking fun of it all.

Hicks invites any one from Apex who wants to have a fine time and hear good music to come on out that night.  "We need you," he smiles.  "It's people like you that keep us going."

But if by some sad chance you can't make it, keep your ears open.  If you hear a fiddle tune drifting in on the breezes, you can bet it's Bill Hicks playing and singing, keeping the music that is such an important part of our heritage alive and growing right here in Apex.

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March 2, 2001
updated January 8, 2002