Ray Hicks: A Legend in His Own Time
By Sherrie Noris
The Mountain Times
News of his death came as no great surprise to many of us; his condition had begun to deteriorate over the last couple of years as cancer invaded his body, though each time he “took a turn for the worse,” he would bounce back again. That is, until Easter Sunday, when lilies on Old Mountain Road in the Old Beech Mountain Community were at their loveliest and the region’s “father of jack-tales” was a few miles over the ridge in a nursing home, taking his last breath.
Ray Hicks needed no introduction – his name was a household word for many miles around; not just in the mountains that he loved and trampled over throughout his lifetime – but in far-away cities, like Washington, DC, where the Smithsonian Institution once presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award and closer home, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where his natural storytelling abilities helped establish one of the nation’s largest yarn-spinner’s annual festivals.
Ray Hicks was a legend in his own time – and one that will live on in our hearts and minds for many years to come.
The last time we visited with Ray, his wife Rosa and their son, Ted, snow was on the ground and a hot, billowing fire was roaring in the old woodstove setting smack-dab in the middle of the family room; a room that served as the center of the Hicks’ household, where friends and family gathered, and where, in recent months, Ray’s hospital bed took up residence in the front corner. The last gift we brought Ray was a box of moon pies, which he looked upon as a treasure to behold. It was the simple things in life that mattered most to Ray Hicks.
On good days, he sat up in his favorite chair, facing the stove, his can of Prince Albert and rolling papers close at hand, as well as his spit bucket and a pile of white birch sticks fashioned into his own patented invention he called “fire starters.”
Regardless of how bad he might have felt during that last visit, he was determined to entertain us, and quickly lit into one of his tales – this one about Jack and the “dunkey.” Certain that’s what we wanted to hear – he kept us in stitches as he jumped from one yarn to another in the blink of an eye, speaking in a unique dialect recognized everywhere as his very own. Though short of breath, he wouldn’t let us leave before he pulled his harmonicas from a rolled-up brown paper bag, leaving us spellbound with a private concert we will never forget.
On earlier visits, Ray talked about life on the old Beech, a place from where he never ventured too far, for too long at a time. “People git mixed up when they talk about Beech Mountain,’ he once told us. “They don’t really know much a-bout hit. Now, I’ve lived hyere all my life and I’ve yet to see a ski slope anywhere close by.’ They can call that place over yander (pointing in the distance) whatever they want to, but this hyere is Beech Mountain.”
No one would argue that point, seeing as how Ray was born there on August 29, 1922, in the house his grandfather had built nearly a decade earlier. As one of eleven children to Nathan and Rena Hicks, Ray lived in the same house where he was born, until his death. He once shared with us how he walked about six miles round trip to school each day, many times barefoot; he chuckled when he said, “I weren’t much when it come to books, but one day I come into the room and there was the teacher a-tryin’ to build a far in the stove. She tried an’ tried an’ never could git hit a-goin’, so I walked up to her and took over and had that stove farred up in no time. Well, after that, she counted on me ever’ day to build the far. She never did bother me ’bout my ‘rithmetic or readin’ anymore. When my seventh year come and we had to pass a test, I didn’t know a thing what wus on the paper, so my teacher, she just finished hit fer me and let me pass.”
Evidently, it was not a formal education that made Ray Hicks the man he was. He was one of the wisest men most of us will ever meet – and had more common sense in his little finger than most have in their entire body.
He knew the mountainside like the back of his hand – every herb, weed and tree that ever grew . . . and called every wild creature by name; he never forgot anything he learned. He was known as one of the community’s most productive farmers, and dabbed in other things as well. “People always called me a jack- of- all- trades. They would just show me a little of how somethin’ was done, and I’d citch on real quick . . . they hain’t much I can’t do.”
At one time in his life, Ray decided to become a barber, and set up a little space to work in the Matney Grocery Store, charging fifteen cents a cut. “There weren’t much biz’ness cause most fellers back then didn’t care a-bout their hair.” He did recall the time a man came in “and I got to cuttin’ aroun’ his bald spot on top . . . I made a mis-lick, and when I tried to fix hit, I cut and cut, and ‘fore I knew what happened, there weren’t no hair left!” After that, Ray worked as a mechanic, and in the sawmills, but still cut his own hair for many years to come.
Ray grew up hearing his daddy telling Jack Tales, a family ritual each night as they gathered around the fire. Later, he too, learned to tell stories, and fast became a highly sought-after entertainer in adjoining communities. He never forgot who invited him to his first public appearance, and told us several times, “Miss Jennie Love, over at Cove Creek was the first one who ever had me come to school and talk to her young’uns. She offered me three dollars fer my trouble, but I didn’t want to take hit.” He added, “After that, they was a wantin’ me ever’wher.”
That was back in the ’50’s, Ray shared, and as we know, the rest is history.
Through the last five decades, Ray was invited to countless venues all over the United States, but preferred to stay close to home. He did venture to Washington DC to receive his award, and also received the NC Folk Heritage Award in Raleigh, as well as other accolades throughout the country. He never missed a Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough until his illness prevented his attendance. In between times, schools and universities around the southeast always made him feel welcome as he came to share his tales. Ray was featured in countless articles and documentaries, as well as several books about his life. Back in the ’70’s, Ray appeared in the movie, “Where The Lilies Bloom,” with friends and relatives, when the big cameras made one of their first visits to the area. “I was just myself – didn’t put on any airs for no body,” he stated. And that’s something he never did. Being a celebrity meant little, if anything, to this mountain man, but he never turned away those who wanted to hear his tales, and seemed to enjoy telling them as much as those listening.
At his side for over fifty years was his sweet Rosa, a petite, soft-spoken mate who bore him five children and never seemed to tire of his endless narratives. She loved company as much as did Ray, but always scooted to the background while Ray entertained their guests. Often, she was in the kitchen, where she spent much of her time cooking and canning her garden goods, or outside in her lovely flower gardens in the summer.
The last time we visited, Ray had traded in his worn bib overalls for pajamas, and his lanky, seven-foot frame seemed diminished, somewhat. At that time, his family, along with Hospice personnel, with whom he had developed a very special bond, lovingly cared for him and saw that his needs were met on a daily basis. Just a few weeks later, we learned, he was hospitalized and then transferred to a local nursing home, where he lived out his last days.
Old Mountain Road will never be the same again. The “high-falutin’ city slickers” that Ray often told about coming in search of him, will no longer be trudging up the curvy graveled road looking for their story. Those of us who found him, time and after time, will treasure each visit, and will remember Ray Hicks, this time every year, when the lilies bloom, and every day in between.