In Memory

William N. (Bill) Hicks

William N. (Bill) Hicks


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 LoveTwisted 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 Home – Chuckin’ 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. 


WUNC Radio has a podcast tribute to Bill Hicks that can be heard here.


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11/26/18 11:46 AM #1    

Ann Bennett (Rogers)

I was really saddened to learn of Bill's death.  We were in the same first grade class at Fred Olds and lived just a few blocks apart.  Bill was a friend throughout high school, where we were in the orchestra together. I remember being so shocked when I learned that he had become a professional fiddler!  I enjoyed going to some of his "gigs" and we bought some of his CD's.  He really had a tremendous talent.  And, when we reconnected, I found that he had done the stonework on a neighbor's house.  He was definitely a man of many talents.  We will miss him.

11/26/18 12:58 PM #2    

William Stroupe

Ann, to expound on your point about Bill Hicks' outstanding versatility, he was an excellent writer, too. His "Behind the Tower" column in the Hi Times, which he also edited, provided vivid word-pictures of our class. He once let me read one of his short stories, and the characters came to life on the page. His career could have gone in any of several directions. That he chose to produce physical, aural, and tangible work has provided a great pleasure to those whose lives he touched. We will miss him, but he lives on in the music and the masonry he produced.

11/26/18 03:39 PM #3    

Hal Weinstein

saw Bill in Durham last year and he was just like the Bill i knew in high school.  He lived at the time off of Hillisboro St behind the bowling alley and would sometimes hang out with myself and Mike Marr.  When i told him i had a scrap yard he told me he worked for a yard in Siler city for a friend of mine, Wayne Bish's scrap yd, that had passed away yrs ago..  I am so sorry to hear this. My ex-girlfriend loved his music and we went to one of the concerts but he had already left the group. May he RIP.

11/27/18 09:33 AM #4    

Neal Jackson

Bill and I were friends from almost the beginning.  He lived about 100 yards from where I lived until I moved at age 6. We were together at Fred Olds, Daniels, and Broughton, and he was my freshman year roommate at UNC.  I let the Red Clay Ramblers sleep in my house in the DC area in the early 80s when they were recording the Merchant's Lunch album in the Virginia suburbs.  Some years later Sandra and I hired Bill and Libby for a backyard concert at our house in DC.  Everybody loved them.

Bill's life was more complex than the obit indicated.  He was always interested in the world of words.  Before he ever played any instrument, he was writing.  In addition to the HiTimes writing, at Broughton he was the co-editor of the Latipac yearbook.  At Chapel Hill, he had a Sears guitar which we both tried to play when we were frosh, but he actually learned how to play it, and I recall he composed a few songs in the nature of the folkies of the era, like Josh White and Leadbelly.  He hung out with some of the early hippies and, it's fair to say, became one himself.  He's the first person I know of who experimented with psychotropic drugs, which he said gave his unusual insights into the world!!!

I made my first trip to New York City with Bill after our freshman year.  We stayed in the YMCA and mostly visited famous jazz clubs - Village Vanguard, Village Gate - and coffee houses.  We saw performances by Thelonious Monk, Dizzie Gillespie and a few other jazz great.  We were trying soooo hard to be cool cats (hipsters of the era)!

Bill graduated, I think got a masters in English (not sure of that), but went on to work for a while as an editor at the Duke University Press.  Sometime during that period he began to play music seriously, which led to the Red Clay Ramblers era.  

Bill lived near Pittsboro when he was not in Ocracoke.  His house was, I recall, made from two log-based tobacco barns, which he had acquired, moved, and joined together, with liberal stonework.  I only saw photos, but it was an interesting dwelling, very creative and naturally beatiful.  I'm not sure how he got into the stonemason work, but he told me he had plenty of work.  I saw some pics of his work and indeed it was really beautiful.  I knew he was working at the scrap yard for the last few years and don't know when he left the stone business.  He did say it was hard work physically, so I guess being a 60+ year old stonemason was too taxing to continue. 

I have not been as regularly in touch with him in the last decade, but still will miss him.  Our's was a friendship that could be immediately rekindled whenever we met, irrespective of how long it had been.  RIP Bill, and hope wherever you are theres a fiddle that you can use to get all the feet around you tapping and dancing!

11/27/18 02:59 PM #5    

Charles Styron

Bill was always a bit daring with his thinking during our High School days. We were never really close friends, but we appreciated each other, and I admired him and his talents. He and Cynthia (now Quentin) Davis were the class poets (at least in my estimation). I often reflect on a short poem of Bill's--I wish that I could remember it in its entirety. It was a rather cryptic panegyric on the sacredness of the wild landscape, and it may well have been referring to something local; I can't recall. At any rate, it ended with a somber couplet that sticks in my mind to this day: "Cut it down; Build a factory." 

The zenith of my appreciation for Bill came when I was fortunate enough to travel down from Boston to NYC in the mid-70's to see Diamond Studs. I was so excited about it, having seen the Red Clay Ramblers perform in Chapel Hill several times, that I made a 16" x 24" architectural collage (that included a slightly deconstructed Diamond Studs Playbill) and mounted it on the wall on the Theater Lobby. The show was marvelous!

How You Sing, Bill, How You Sing!



11/27/18 04:17 PM #6    

Jimmy Maynard

Bill and I had a friendily but not close relationship in hight school. We reconned at our 40th reunion and maintained communiction by email several times a year. Bill was a delightfull and kind person and his intelligence and creativity were obvious to those of us who knew him. He will be missed. RIP

Jim Maynard, Jr.

11/27/18 10:34 PM #7    

Mary Coggin (McLain)

I still remember when Milton and I went to the Chattanooga Choo Choo to see a group perform Diamonds....  When looking at the performers' names I saw Bill Hicks and wondered if it was the Bill I remember from high school.  What a delight to connect with him after the show to see our talented classmate right here in Chattanooga!  I'm sure he is still picking out tunes to entertain our heavenly friends.  Thanks for the memories, Bill.




11/28/18 10:46 AM #8    

Frederick H. Fisher

 I think I first met Bill at Fred Olds. I liked him because his ears were bigger than mine. We played  Cowboys and Indians in the Raleigh Rose Garden. We both had a peripatetic nature. One day we walked to the train tracks that ran behind the NC State campus and put coins on the track. Later we like hobos jump a slow moving train and road it downtown. Now Bill is a Ghost Rider in the Sky, his face is gaunt, his shirt soaked in sweat. He’s riding hard to catch that herd, but he ain’t caught them yet. His horse is snorting fire.   Yippie yi ooh , Yippie yi yay. I heard his mournful cry. Goodbye Bill I will see you after the roundup.



11/28/18 01:36 PM #9    

Tim Brannan

So, where do I begin? Bill Hicks and I sort of started out together separately. He started with the violin at Fred Olds and I started out with the trumpet at Myrtle Underwood. We didn’t know each other even existed then. By junior high we both were playing music in the school groups and when we competed against other schools we sometimes ran into each other in the halls between performances. Basically I was surprised to see a big guy playing a violin. Most of the big guys I knew played basketball. At twelve or thirteen that seemed a little odd. The, again, at my dwarf-like size, just about all the guys seemed like big guys. Even in those early days he was really good. By the end of junior high I left band because the director Mr. Barnes went to NC State and the new director wanted me to switch to French Horn. I chose not to do that and with that decision lost my artistic focus until college.

Bill Hicks did not lose his! In fact with high school it increased to more than the violin. He became a writer as well . . . at first seemingly a students’ voice but gradually his own unique forms of expression. It turns out that we were both Philosophy majors in college, but I also added creative writing to my interests giving me a new artistic focus. After a masters in Philosophy he went on to be an editor. I went on to being a soldier in military intelligence in Vietnam and later also obtained by MA in writing and became an editor as well. The parallels continued to accumulate in somewhat surprising ways.

Then Bill did the most amazing thing. He did what I imagine all of us hoped to do with our young lives in the 70’s. He became one of the very best in his chosen field. As a lover and protector of traditional American music and the great fiddler traditions, he worked hard at becoming a great fiddler and he did become a great fiddler, one who even during his lifetime had already gained legendary status. He did so through being instrumental in the creation of The Red Clay Ramblers and other groups as well as performing solo and with his wife, Libby. I heard about his career development here and there and even was able to see him perform with the Ramblers in Chapel Hill once but we were still never really anything more than acquaintances from junior high and high school.

Then we chanced to meet up at our 40th reunion as both of us were leaving the Carolina Country Club. We stopped on the steps and spoke for some time exchanging e-mails and websites and we kept in touch albeit erratically from then on. And what I came to know was a man who had had the guts and the talent to take on the world with a fiddle in one hand and a bow in the other to become our own Tommy Potts, Geoff Seitz, Edden Hammons, Tommy Jarrell, John Summers or Liz Carroll. These are some of the artists he sent me when I asked him about his fiddling influences.

Oh, and did I mention that he could sing too? In a painstakingly developed traditional voice.

My first thoughts back when I was twelve about a big guy playing a violin were well . . . the thoughts of a twelve-year-old from the 50’s.Now, thinking back on it, I cannot imagine anything else but that for Bill Hicks. He took that violin into a whole different territory—the territory of the legendary fiddlers. And that’s where Bill Hicks’s contribution will remain . . . among the legends.

Wish I had known you better, Bill. Rest in peace, my friend, with the greatest respect for an art well-served and a life well lived.

Tim Brannan

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