Joining the Bluegrass Boys in 1954, Bobby Hicks played a key role during one of the most creative periods in bluegrass history. Mastering Dale Potter’s innovative use of doublestops, he participated in a number of the classic Bill Monroe twin and triple fiddle recording sessions, including “Wheel Hoss,” “Roanoke,” “Cheyenne,” and “Big Mon.” He recorded again with Bill in the ’80s, appearing on the Grammy-winning Southern Flavor album.
At the time of this interview at the Grey Fox Festival in July 2002, Bobby was playing with the Ricky Skaggs band and touring with the “Down From the Mountain” review celebrating the music from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” The following month he was inducted into the Fiddler’s Hall of Fame in Moulton, Alabama. He now performs with Hazel Creek and continues to teach fiddle.
How did you first get hooked up with Bill Monroe?
He was in Greensboro, North Carolina, which was my home town. Carlton Haney came over to my house from Reedsville and wanted to know if I wanted to play the bass with Bill for two weeks. He had some bookings for him there. And I played bass with him for two weeks. The last date we played, Bill asked me if I wanted to go to Nashville with him, ’cause I’d been playing one fiddle tune on his shows every night. That’s how I got hooked up with him. Of course I wanted to go! So I called my home and my mother and father brought me a suitcase. I put it in his car and went to Nashville. That was in September of 1954.
When you started playing fiddle for Bill, did you have to change your style at all or were you already playing pretty much in that style?
No, I was playing pretty much that kind of stuff. I just didn’t get a chance to play it with the authentic man!
You recorded a lot of the classic tunes.
Most all of those vintage things I did.
Were those tunes that you composed with Bill, or had he already written them?
No, I kinda helped him put ’em together. It was his ideas, though. It was his songs.
He had the tune on the mandolin and you arranged it for the fiddle?
Yeah, that’s about all there was to it! We rehearsed it a lot. If we’d get to a show or be backstage, we’d rehearse a lot of these new songs before we recorded them. So when we’d go in the studio, it was pretty much ready. Back then they didn’t have overdubbing and stuff, so you had to do it right the first time or not at all.
Was that the first time that he started using double and triple fiddles?
Yeah, he had Gordon Terry and Red Taylor playing fiddle for him at the time I was playing bass for him. So when he got back to town after that trip, Gordon had already had his physical to go in the service, and Red already had his notice in to quit.
Was it a western swing influence at that point to put double fiddles into it?
No, not really. We were just playing harmony fiddles, you know. Nobody had ever done it before and Bill always wanted to do something different. I’m not sure how they were working all of it before I went to work with him. But he found out that I could play two parts of harmony, so he didn’t need but two fiddles. He did use three a few times to record.
So you’d be playing doublestops.
I learned a lot of that from Dale Potter. He was so far ahead of his time! You know, I have a record called Fiddle Patch and a song called “Fiddle Patch.” Dale Potter wrote the song and he recorded it when he was twenty-three. And man, talkin’ about a fiddle player! He was so far ahead of his time I don’t think it was ever caught up with him.
It must have been a pretty exciting time.
It was. Nashville’s not like it used to be. There used to be a jam session just about every night. They don’t want to do that any more.
Did you have a bus when you were traveling around in those days?
No, a Cadillac limousine.
You couldn’t practice in the Cadillac limousine, could you?
Ah, there wasn’t much room in there. I know Bill would get his mandolin. You know, he always rode in the back seat. He’d get his mandolin sometimes in the car and we’d all sing hymns going down the road. We recorded that stuff.
So you could sing but you couldn’t really play together.
We could, but not in the car! We’d have to stop at a picnic table. Yes, so I recorded just about all of those old vintage things.
That kind of set the style for bluegrass, didn’t it?
Pretty much. The very first bluegrass as we know it now started about 1946 with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise and Howard Watts -- what they called the “Fabulous Five” at the time. That’s what brought bluegrass together, was Earl Scruggs.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Summer 2005 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Bobby Hicks has a new instructional DVD available: "Bobby Hicks Teaches Fiddling." For details, see his webiste at www.bobbyhicks.com.]
Above photo courtesy of Bobby Hicks: Bill Monroe, Bobby Hicks, Bessie Mauldin.