Ray Hicks: Master Storyteller of the Blue Ridge

Ray Hicks: Master Storyteller of the Blue Ridge

by Robert Isbell

Ray Hicks, 78, the famous teller of Appalachian Jack Tales, is one of America's best-loved storytellers. In this book he shares a different kind of story, a chronicle of his family's experiences in the remote section of the North Carolina mountains where they have lived for more than 200 years.

The pioneers who settled Beech Mountain were a God-fearing people who


Ray Hicks, 78, the famous teller of Appalachian Jack Tales, is one of America's best-loved storytellers. In this book he shares a different kind of story, a chronicle of his family's experiences in the remote section of the North Carolina mountains where they have lived for more than 200 years.

The pioneers who settled Beech Mountain were a God-fearing people who cherished the stories, the songs, and the ways of their ancestors. For generations, the Hickses have preserved tales of family history—the struggles and the celebrations—right alongside tales of giants and magic hens. Now readers will come to know the wisdom, humor, hardships, and dignity of this remarkable clan. Robert Isbell's profile of Ray Hicks and his family also pays tribute to the longstanding Appalachian traditions of music-making and storytelling. First published in 1996 as The Last Chivaree, the book is based on hundreds of hours of conversations and many years of friendship.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
It is through a Homeric sensibility, in fact, that Hicks and Isbell work together to convey these stories and sentiments without the least bit of nostalgia. (Blue Ridge Country)

A tender, loving, magical book. (Guy Munger, ""Literary Lantern"")

A book to be savored and to remind us of a quieter and simpler way of life. (North Carolina Libraries)

In this intriguing study of the Hicks family of Beech Mountain, journalist Isbell provides excellent insight into the lives of the people who live in the Appalachian mountains. (Library Journal)

[This book] captures the essence of Ray Hicks's stories and the sound of Stanley Hicks's dulcimer. (Asheville Citizen-Times)

Guy Munger
A tender, loving, magical book.
North Carolina Libraries
A book to be savored and to remind us of a quieter and simpler way of life.
Library Journal
In this intriguing study of the Hicks family of Beech Mountain, journalist Isbell provides excellent insight into the lives of the people who live in the Appalachian mountains.
Asheville Citizen-Times
Amid the hardship, the Hicks family fashioned a life full of humor and amazement for the natural gifts abundant on Beech Mountain. . . . [This book] captures the essence of Ray Hicks's stories and the sound of Stanley Hicks's dulcimer.
Blue Ridge Country
It is through a Homeric sensibility, in fact, that Hicks and Isbell work together to convey these stories and sentiments without the least bit of nostalgia.

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Read an Excerpt

Ray Hicks
Master Storyteller of the Blue Ridge

By Robert Isbell, Wilma Dykeman

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807849626

Chapter One

The Lost Banjoist

Rains came often that summer of 1955. Mountain husbandmen, driven from their potato and cabbage fields, trekked down from the peaks and coves around Valle Crucis; they gathered on the front porch of Will Mast's old store and told stories of other wet summers. This year was nothing like August 1940, when mudslides had leveled homes and turgid rivers had washed bridges away, yet there was enough rain to keep people from hoeing their crops and grubbing herbs from the soft mountain soil.

Over in Boone, where an outdoor drama about pioneers played, rain too often kept audiences cooped up in their lodgings. Late every afternoon, townspeople gathered on the theater grounds to gauge the coming night's weather. If dark clouds rolled in across distant Grandfather Mountain, sponsors knew the tourists would not venture out; they worried that the drama, in only its fourth season, might not survive beyond that year.

It was folklorist Richard Chase who came up with an answer. Nothing could be done, of course, at those times when rain drifted in, but on nights of good weather, especially the high-attendance weekend nights, it might be possible to lure audiences larger than normal. At such times Chase could bring in storytellers, dancers, fiddlers, and dulcimer players who would welcome the chance to perform before an audience. These were not ordinary entertainers. They came from walleye County's remote Beech Creek section, a primitive area rarely seen by the outside world. They were descended from Scottish, English, and German settlers who had for two hundred years enfolded themselves in the valleys under Beech Mountain. Lacking good roads, electricity, and many other conveniences of the modern age, these people had remained in an isolation that kept their songs and stories uncorrupted by contemporary life; to most outsiders, they seemed to represent the candle ends of antiquity.

On the first day these performers came to the theater grounds, they stunned and delighted the audience. They stomped through a sword dance, brandishing wooden blades to replicate the weapons first used in this sixteenth-century ritual. They laughed at their own stories, tales handed down from Elizabethan England. They brought their mountain harps, banjos, dulcimers, harmonicas, and fiddles, on which they played "The Pateroller Song," "Drunken Hiccups," and "Pretty Polly." They sang baleful songs, sometimes in strange keys and irregular rhythms. To happier, livelier tunes they tapped heavy-booted feet.

Travelers from Pennsylvania, New York, New England, and the Midwest learned of the festival from innkeepers off the Blue Ridge Parkway. They delighted in the rare candor of the performers. When the players were not entertaining, they would look curiously about the audience. On stage, one fiddler stared at the treetops throughout his performance. A young dancer, her beribboned hat flung from her head in the fury of a dance, ran offstage to chase it.

It was at one of these Saturday afternoon performances that I met a banjo player whose face I never forgot.

I had been taking pictures with an old view camera and had run out of film. I walked up a little hill to drink from a fountain and then rest on a log bench. I could hear the performers and see them through swaying laurel and rhododendron. A girl whose raven hair fell to her waist sang a ballad in minor key. The audience quieted in response to her soft singing.

From behind me, someone spoke. He said it was a pretty song. I nodded and smiled, not bothering to turn toward him. He came nearer:

"Purty girl, purty song."

I turned to see a man, perhaps in his early forties, grinning over his hearty visage. Proud and cleanly scrubbed, he cradled a crude fretless banjo against the bib of new overalls. His cocked denim hat framed a waggish face.

"Did you hear my pickin'?" he asked.

I admitted that I had not but would like to hear him play the handsome instrument he held.

"Made it myself," he said. He passed the banjo to me, and I rubbed its long neck, feeling precious imperfections. I asked if he would go on stage again.

"Yah," he said. "Gonna play 'Shady Grove.' Maybe ye can hear me then."

He was spellbound by the camera. I took the strap from my neck and placed it over his head. Then I shaded the viewing lens for him to see the image of the girl on stage. He grinned broadly.

"Never had my picture took by myself," he said. "Once there was one with the others at school."

"Never by yourself?"

"Always wanted one, but never had one."

I looked into the face of a man-child; a trust shone there that challenged one to protect him; there was in his blue-gray eyes an expectancy that life would always be good, that brotherhood transcends cultures and boundaries. Indeed, if he said so, a portrait of him had never been made.

"Would you mind if I took your picture?"

"I'd be obliged," he said.

The girl's song ended and the dancers came on. They began to whirl and stomp and skip through a tune called "The Bear Went Over the Mountain." A stagehand came up and told my new friend to get ready to play.

"Well, bye," said the banjoist. "Come down and hear me."

I left the hill and went looking for Paul Smith, an assistant. Paul, a young student, said he would like to take the picture. He had seen the man and had heard him play. Paul went for the film and returned as the banjoist picked his last tune. Then the man stood posing, proudly erect; it was a reenactment of the moment he spoke to me on the hill. His clean-shaven face shone like a schoolboy's; his eyes were clear and alive.

"When the picture is developed," I said, "I will send it to you."

It was a promise I did not keep. Soon after, I moved to Asheville, ninety miles south of Boone, and the picture, now developed, lay buried in my belongings. When it finally showed up in an attic trunk thirty years later, I did not know how to reach the Lost Banjoist. I had always meant to obtain his address from the folklorist who worked with the Beech Creek entertainers, but now I soon learned that Richard Chase was dead. I had failed the Lost Banjoist, and I regretted he would not see the first portrait ever made of him. I wanted to find him, to bridge a third of a century, and to learn how life had treated this seemingly happy, guileless human being. If the man still lived, I wanted to close the circle and get to know him. He was remarkable in my memories.

Three years later, I learned of a man living in Watauga County near the Tennessee border who made dulcimers and banjos. I was told he knew most musicians from those parts, and perhaps he could tell me what had happened to my Lost Banjoist. In a rural telephone book I found the name of instrument maker Stanley Hicks. When I called, I told him I wanted him to help me identify a banjoist from an old picture. He said he'd try and that I should "come on up if ye can."

Days later I find Stanley Hicks. His sitting room is uncluttered; framed pictures of dead relatives hang along three walls, and plaques and posters recognize the old man's folk artistry. His soft voice sounds through a quietness unique to old, rarely used country parlors; the images in the photographs seem to speak in whispers.

"Oh yeah, I remember Richard Chase," says Stanley Hicks. "Don't know if I can help you locate your banjo picker, though, but I'll try; I know just about every music maker in these parts."

We talk for a while, and Stanley tells me that health has forced him to give up making dulcimers and banjos. The dust, especially from walnut wood, aggravated his asthma. He says the day he stopped was "about the sorrowfullest time" of his life.

I mention seeing a wall of wormy chestnut the day before, and Stanley says there are still ghosts of chestnut trees in the forests.

"Till the blight hit them, me and my wife would pick chestnuts. We carried them across Long Mountain into Will Mast's store. Will Mast. You know the old store you pass. We'd walk across the mountains and take chestnuts up there and get about four dollars a bushel. Mister Mast would let us swap for stuff that we'd tote home. My wife'd carry the light sacks and I'd carry the heavy sacks."

Stanley says he remembers well when the trees began to wither and fewer chestnuts fell on the forest floor.

"Some people blamed the gooseberry," he says. "They'd get out in the forest and dig up the plants. But that ain't what killed the chestnut trees. You see, the people . . . they got so bad. Little old young'uns pickin' up chestnuts. The people would run 'em out and law 'em. Law 'em because they's pickin' up chestnuts.

"And I think the Good Lord killed the chestnut trees. I think that's what happened. I don't think the blight hit 'em. I think people just got so bad and they'd run the little old young'uns out."

Stanley becomes meditative, and there is an interval of silence. Now seems the right time. From the briefcase I draw out the Lost Banjoist's photograph. For a long moment Stanley inspects the mellowed picture. Then lackluster eyes seem to mist behind steel spectacles. He nods and passes the picture back to me. At last he speaks:

"You're looking at him."

For an instant I cannot reply. I have wished for this very moment for many years, but when it comes I am stunned and disbelieving. Until now I had fancied the man of the picture in fixed time where he did not age. He would always be the happy banjoist of a long-ago day, always smiling under a cocked denim hat. To me his voice should be as strong and clear as it was that summer afternoon of our younger days when he held out his banjo and I rubbed along its carved neck.

The man before me now is gaunt, broken, and colorless. He only faintly resembles the image in the picture; but still there are the large hands, the earnest look, the stately bearing, the clean bib overalls. His speech belies my fantasy; it projects feebly, and at times there is no way to know what he says except by piecing words together in the context of other words.

"That's me," he says. "A real nice picture. I'd love to have one."

Since the negative has long been lost, I will have copies made from the original print; I will give Stanley as many as he wants. Although many pictures have been made of him since that first portrait, this one would be special.

"Just give me one for the wall," he says. "It's a nice picture."

I ask if he still plays the banjo. He tells me he "goes on," but only rarely because of his failing health.

"I go where it's closest around. Don't go much anymore. My asthma, y'know."

We talk the morning long. As one o'clock nears, I suggest driving him over into Tennessee for lunch. I would bring him back and then take my leave. It is an idea he does not like. He asks if I can stay to eat and says he does not want to go out into the weather. He wants to show me his shed, the place where he once made banjos and dulcimers. But to stay longer would make me uneasy; I think of his asthma and ask if talking does not irritate his throat.

"You don't know how much this means to me," he says. "It's because I've been by myself so much. You gonna stay, ain't you?"

It has not occurred to me that he shares my enjoyment, and I say, yes, I want to stay. Then he walks me into the linoleum-floored kitchen. Light flows through curtained windows on two sides. He says he will eat cookies and raisin cakes ("I never get hongry; just eat to keep from getting hongry") but that he has meat in the freezer and corn and beans. I choose to eat lightly and take a moon pie and cranberry juice. He suggests that I have wine rather than juice; I beg off "because of digestion," a refusal I am soon to regret. He assures me that the Bible says wine is good for a bad stomach.

"Yeah, it's there. You get the Bible and look it up. . . . It says to drink a little wine for the stomach's sake." He tells of a woman who had visited him. "Criticized me for saying that, but I told her, I said, 'Get your Bible, woman. It's in it.'"

Chastised, I sip the juice and look through the kitchen past the living room windows and on to a range of mountains across the horizon. Stanley says the largest of these is Rich Mountain: "Runs from Mountain City to Boone. And the mountain we're on here is called Stone Mountain. Tennessee's on the other side of it. And Beech Mountain is to your south. You can go up yonder, go here in my field and take the glasses and watch them ski. Now if you want some corn flakes, I'll get you a bowl . . ."

"Oh, no thanks," I interrupt. "This moon pie is quite enough."

He says he is sorry I do not take the wine, that he is concerned for my stomach.

"They's a preacher come here and his wife and another feller and another lady. They mentioned wine somehow. And I said, 'I got some good wine.' Well, one of the women, she raised Cain. I said to her, 'No,' I said, 'You go to the doctor?' She said she did, that she went every year for a checkup. And I said, 'You take his medicine?' She said she did. And I said, 'You ever look on it? See how much alkyhol's in it? Some of it's thirty percent.' She said, 'Yeah, but the doctor 'scribed it.' 'Well,' I said, 'I'll 'scribe you the wine.'

"Well, the four of them got some, and we set around here, and they got ready to go, and the preacher said, 'If you don't care, I'd like to have a little more of that wine. For the stomach's sake.'"

Stanley wryly pauses, and the quietness of the house and the outdoors settles about us. Slowly he chews on a raisin cake, while his sunken eyes scan the field toward Stone Mountain's peak. I study him now, still trying to equate this aging man and his many infirmities with the ebullient banjoist of thirty-three years ago. His dark hair is only sparsely touched with gray, and the mustache has been grown since I first saw him. Today, with Pointer overalls, he wears an open-collared flannel shirt of red and blue plaid, and he is cleanly shaven. As he renews his lecture on wine, dark brows arch and his eyes shine with a hint of his younger days.

"I told the preacher to do everything in moderation. You can eat too much, drink too much, work too hard—it ain't the wine. I told the preacher to go in there and get more wine 'cause he said it was about as good as he ever drank. I make wine every year that comes. I make some wine.

"'I'll tell you another thing,' I told them. 'Used to be, they had sacraments in the old Primitive Baptist.' And I said, 'They used wine in it, and a little hard bread.' And I said, 'Noah got drunk on wine, and the young'uns laughed at his nakedness.' And I said, 'They's punished fer it.' Then I said, 'You must not read your Bible.' The woman never said any more."

Though the sun is shining hard, there is a mountain chill. With both hands, Stanley fits a felt cap onto his head. He pulls from the closet a mackinaw faced with cotton twill and lined with sheepskin, its wool exposed at wide, pointed lapels. Now he will take me to the shed where he made the banjos and dulcimers. It is a visit I do not ask for, because I am still concerned for his asthma, but it is clear that Stanley wants to show off his workplace, a cherished corner of his past.

"Can't work there any more 'cause of my asthma. Wood dust from the dulcimers, especially walnut dust."

We walk slowly to the shop in the side yard. Above and beyond, Stone Mountain hovers over the gray-brown March countryside, and the sky is cold and without clouds.

The three-level shop is built of blocks. On the entry side, an evergreen vine climbs from ground to roof. The whole structure seems ancient, remindful of a peasant cottage in the Old Country. The lean-to entry is accessed by seven steps that climb to a tin-roofed porch. Grotesque gnarls of bleached wood crowd along the length of a crude wooden rail. These serve partly as a barrier against falling, partly as a repository for whimsical potpourri.

We climb the steps and I stop to inspect a large piece of driftwood. Stanley comes over: "Now my son's cow. She got her foot hung down in that hole; carried that root in the field all day. I went down there and got it off and got David to go down and bring it up here." Stanley has often picked up driftwood on his farm. "Now that's a one-headed giant." He indicates a piece with a swirled knot. "We used to tell these tales, and they's a one-headed giant and a two-headed giant and a three-headed giant, and one with four heads. The old king was trying to get these giants killed. See, they was taking his grass. And that's a one-headed giant right there. Look at his nose. See his nose? See his eyes?"

Stanley is meditative now. He lives in several planes: the hard life of his reality, the nether world of his own phantasmagoric making, the past from which he selects memories, and the world of the Bible according to his own interpretation. Now his attention moves to a device that, he explains, is a turkey trap.

"When I don't want to kill a turkey, I take it out and let it go, but most of it I give away. There's a trigger here [he laughs at some secret memory] and it goes down through here. The turkey goes back here and tries to get out." He cackles, and I realize that Stanley is suddenly younger. He is in his favorite world and is laughing for the first time.

"I caught a polecat once. Caught two beagles."

He talks about his grandfather, about how the old man trapped the wild turkeys: "Dug a trench and built a pen out of poles. Put grain on the trail. The turkeys would go into the ditch and they'd fly up into the pen; didn't know how to get out."

When Stanley was a small boy, he asked for a large turkey his grandfather once caught. "I wanted that big old gobbler . . . beard that long [he measures with his hands] but Grandpa said the turkey would fly away with me. Which I guess he would."

Inside, the shop is cold. Pictures, plaques, a mirror, ox horns, and a deer head adorn the paneled walls. The patterned linoleum floor is well swept, and the workplace is as clean as his home. A dozen or more alarm clocks rest on the crude workbench; in front of them lies a dulcimer.

"The last delcimore Dad built."

He tunes the instrument and then begins to play a lively piece he says is called "Skip to My Lou."

If I shut my eyes I can hear ancient bagpipes, their notes skirling along the long halls of an old Scottish castle. When the playing finishes, I tell Stanley his music takes me back in time. He seems embarrassed and moves along the bench.

"Ha," he cries. "And right there's the first banjo I built, when I's fifteen years old. And here's one Dad built long ago."

Fervor builds. Out of context, he says I must go see his cousin Ray. "He's got a stove you want to see. Fixed it so it throws off more heat, he claims." Stanley is smiling again; it is obvious that he is proud of Ray. Now he turns back to the dulcimer. "My dad built that in 1931. Right here's my mother's picture before she was married . . . and one beside it is Grandpaw . . . never did meet him . . . horse kicked him to death. And over here's one of my mother and her daddy, a preacher, Andrew Pressley, the grandpaw the horse kicked."

Back in his house, Stanley picks up the picture I brought. He chuckles and says he was prettier thirty-three years ago. Now he goes into an adjoining room and brings out a banjo—not the one of the picture, he says, but the last he used in "concerts."

"No, can't go to concerts much anymore, 'count of my health. I'm laid up now; health's got bad . . . [ravens caw outside and Stanley's words are not clear], but the only rich person in this world is a well person. If your health's good, it don't difference. See, when your health gets bad, why you can't enjoy anything."

When spring comes, Stanley will move the double bed from the sitting area back into the room from which he fetched the banjo. In the big room there are two stoves—one for wood, one for oil. On frigid nights, when the northwest wind cries, two roaring heaters barely keep him warm. His bed is placed between both fires so that he might survive the winter.

Now he takes up the banjo and sits forward in the vinyl-covered lounge chair next to the bed. He tunes the instrument and breaks into a song called "Cripple Creek." When he finishes, he explains that he used to play clawhammer-style, but he cut off the tip of a finger making dulcimers, and now that finger is too short to strum clawhammer anymore.

"Here's 'Chicken in the Corn on Sourwood Mountain.' Don't pick much no more on account of m'health." He plays again, calling over the music: "That banjo has been around a lot."

With a flourish, he ends the tune but remains sitting forward in the lounge chair. He looks past the window and far beyond Old Pete Field to the Rich Mountain range. Old Pete Field? "Yeah," he answers. "Old Pete is the man who once 'stayed there.'" Stanley now drifts into silence, and I think that perhaps his voice is weakened by the asthma. I ease up from my chair to leave, but suddenly he speaks again:

"Two years ago, three winters ago, I fed the birds up there in that hole. Fed 'em scratch grain. So I made me up a song." He takes up the banjo and begins to strum and sing.

Bird's in the bush and bear's in the den
The fox in the hole and snorin' again
The river froze over and the creeks went dry
Got no wings and I can't fly
I went home and got in the bed
I pulled the cover down over my head
Pulled the cover down over my hea-a-d
Pulled the cover down over my head.

Got up next morning and the moon went down
Sun come out jest layin' on the ground
I got up and went back to bed
I pulled the cover down over my head
Pulled the cover down over my head
Pulled the cover down over my hea-a-d
Pulled the cover down over my head.

Got up that night and made a little round
I met Miss Sadie and I blowed her down
Met a good run, would have been slow
Sharp overhaul named Jerico
Took me downtown, dressed me in black
Put me in a freight train and sent me back
Put me in a freight train and sent me ba-a-ack
Put me in a freight train and sent me back.

Bird's in the bush and bear's in the den
The fox in the hole is snorin' again
The river froze over and the creeks went dry
Got no wings and I can't fly
I went home and got in the bed
Pulled the cover down over my head
Pulled the cover down over my hea-a-d
Pulled the cover down over my head.

Laying down the banjo, he gets up and walks to the window. Ravens cry again, and the sun is tepid upon the sill. Stanley says he has always liked the house, but it "wasn't built right." He tells me he lost a barn in a storm two months ago.

"Yeah, bad storm come out of the southwest. Never have seen it do that before. Never have. I've been in the mountains all my life. Never saw nothing like it. Just sat here and dozed all night in the chair. I mean it broke treetops out, it blowed trees across power lines, ripped off tin roofs. Been some time in January. Boy, it was rough. Lord ha' mercy.

"It come thisaway, come out of the west. Never in my life. And I had my dog tied down there. My daughter-in-law across the road went down and crawled under the trees and turned the dog loose; he hadn't been hurted. Crushed his bed though. Ha! Bet he thought thunder 'n lightning hit him. Crazy thing. No, hit blowed and took the whole first shed—forty-five long and twenty-four wide. And it rambled all around . . . sounded like a cyclone or something. Left everything a-sitting where it's at. Never blowed a thing out of the shed. Just took the top and the metal roof and all that, the sides and all. Left the things inside and didn't hurt my dog."

Outside a beagle puppy sees Stanley through the window and wags his tail and shimmies his whole body. Stanley stares and grins.

Ever since the National Endowment of the Arts named him a National Heritage Fellow, Stanley has entertained strange people from places he never heard of. "Come by the busloads sometimes," he says. "Bless their hearts. Want to give me money." They ask him to play the banjo, to sing outrageous songs; they want to visit the shed where he made dulcimers. Unfailingly, Stanley obliges—an old mountain man who would rather talk about his dogs and whose memories are rooted in Old Pete Field and in the days when he played and stomped about on a crude stage to the lusty merriment of his audiences.

Through the window he looks out across a rinsed sky. His gaze seems not focused on the scene but instead is one of remembering. Tourists are good company, but they are no substitutes for foot-tapping, roisterous, Saturday-night hootenanny audiences. Nor does Stanley want to tell his curious visitors about how he listens to his dogs in the chase.

He shakes his head: "They don't understand."

The room smells faintly of linoleum and oak. Stanley looks toward Old Pete Field and sees a small animal run toward the house then swiftly change course and scamper into the woods. The beagle, occupied with Stanley and still shaking about, does not see the animal.

"Might be a rabbit," says Stanley. "Now, that beagle pup out there. He don't want to go with the old dog. Wants to go by hisself. Wants to be on his own.

"I went down the road and set there in a warm place, and that pup rambled on in front till he was out of sight. Directly I heard him barkin'; never heard such barkin' in my life. I said to myself that there ain't no rabbit down there, and I soon found I was right. It was a polecat. I said, 'My God. I don't want that polecat stuff on him.' But I finally got the pup and put a leash on him. That beagle'd run anything that makes a track—any kind of rabbit, groundhog, possum . . . he'd run another dog's track."

From his lounge chair Stanley reaches and pulls the banjo snug to his body. He sits forward and his pale eyes look far away into the light and he makes no sound. Then he cradles the banjo and slowly plucks the strings as he talks.

"This one I made up—a fox chase. Had me three foxhounds once. Old Bush, Old Cripple, and Old Blue. Now Old Blue was a good dog. I'd rather hear him run foxes than any dog I ever saw.

"Here, now listen. They're pretty shiftless when they want to be, but I'm gonna see if I can get them going." He shouts, "Blue . . . Cripple . . . Bush!" By following Stanley's eyes, you know the dogs are jumping and yelping and ready to go.

"Whoo," he says, and he begins to play. The first notes sound slowly, as though the dogs are puzzled and sniffing. Then a loping rhythm indicates they are moving out.

"That's old Bush." The pace livens. "Here's Cripple . . . hah!" Still faster the strumming goes.

"Now, Old Blue! But they ain't got it going real good yet. They just on the trail. Whoo! Hah!"

The sitting room that seemed stale and cavernous begins to echo to the banjo and to Stanley's whooping.

"Whoo! Hah! Gettin' hot." Now the banjo's rhythm slows and the tune undulates, seeming at times to skip beats. Then the throbbing returns as if the dogs were picking up a stronger scent. The volume reaches a new level. "Old Blue! Now they've got it going. Old Blue jumped! Whoo! Hah!"

Stanley turns his head in such a way that you know he is hearing the dogs; the banjo is imitating the dash of hounds through the brush, trees, fields, mountains.

"They's coming back off Stone Mountain and I'm a-feared they'll run through my tobacco patch. If they do, you know what'll happen? They'll tear it all to . . .

"Hah! Whoo!"

The banjo's pace is fevered now. The old man's eyes are ablaze.

"That Blue can go! And the fox—his ol' tongue's a-hanging out. Hah! They draggin' it out, but Old Blue's up near the hole. I can tell. Whoo! Hah!"

Suddenly there is silence and a pause. Out of the quiet, four high notes are plucked and the chase seems finished.

"Went in the hole right there," says Stanley, pointing to his feet where linoleum covers a trapdoor.

"Whoo! Hah!"

Now he relaxes the banjo. It is time for me to applaud because I know that in his reverie a stomping, whistling, and clapping audience responds lustily.

A sadness hangs about his person; it is the longing of an old warrior who battled unconquerable enemies but made life bearable by private enchantments. He gleaned meager crops, gathered herbs, built houses and barns, walked thousands of miles, and saw his family through harsh winters. And, in his days of glory, he stood with a homemade banjo and saluted rollicking Saturday-night audiences. He would not trade these experiences for those of an ancient king.

Stanley was appointed. He carried messages, both happy and forlorn, that came to him from his parents, his grandparents, and their grandparents, reaching back even to the first forebear to "enter" this mountain land. The ballads he played came from the England and Scotland of long ago, and the songs survived the intervening years and were still flavored with Elizabethan overtones. He played the banjos and dulcimers he made in his shed, and he smiled as he reflected upon his uncommon craftsmanship.

Now he is in the last years of his seventies. He has asthma and a strange feeling in his abdomen. All the loves are gone from his house: an adoring wife who bolstered him when times were tough; a grown son who now lives across the road and must arise before dawn to work on the highways; the fox chases; and finally the buck dancing, banjo picking, dulcimer playing, and ballad singing that drew yells and whistles from hardy crowds in meetinghouses throughout the high mountains.

His wife's long illness drained what was left of the old man's wiry strength. When finally she was taken to the "nurses home," he missed having her in the house. To comfort her and lengthen her life, he traded nearly all his possessions. Now, on this windswept day, he wonders if he was born too late, if perhaps he was "not fittin'" for the twentieth century.

"Used to be that old folks was left to stay in their homes. It weren't no problem; nobody went to a nurses home because they wasn't none. People didn't go to orphanages, either, because somebody would always take in a young'un to have an extra hand on the farm. But the way people's a-living now is different. We didn't have money back then, but we was fixed to take care of sick people. We didn't try to squeeze a few days more out of their lives . . . make them unhappy because they're not at home. And having tubes running out of them so you can't hardly tell who they are when you go see them. No, they was still the kings and queens of their homes. And their homes, no matter what kind of shack they lived in, was their palace. They might have died six months sooner but they got to stay home where people loved them."

Stanley says he learned hard lessons from seeing people like his wife, Virgie, spend their last days among strangers:

"When I start to go—and that might not be far off—I want my son to know that I don't care about all that fuss. That ain't helping much anyway. I want to die at home if they'll let me. That way I won't be taking away so much money that others need to live on. And I'd druther be here to look out of the window when my dogs start barkin'."

Outside, the little beagle is looking up. Stanley lays the banjo down and walks closer to the window. As though the beagle has understood when his master mentioned dogs, he rears up and paws the air. In a charged moment of time, a grinning old man and a frisky young dog share happy, secret adventures. Spring will come, and soon there will be foxes and rabbits waiting in the meadows and woods beyond Old Pete Field.

"If you ain't got something to pass off the time," says Stanley, "you just up agin it."

Excerpted from Ray Hicks by Robert Isbell, Wilma Dykeman. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
A tender, loving, magical book.—Guy Munger, "Literary Lantern"

Amid the hardship, the Hicks family fashioned a life full of humor and amazement for the natural gifts abundant on Beech Mountain. . . . [This book] captures the essence of Ray Hicks's stories and the sound of Stanley Hicks's dulcimer.—Asheville Citizen-Times

If any one performer embodies the true essence of storytelling, . . . Ray Hicks is that performer.—Blue Ridge Country

A book to be savored and to remind us of a quieter and simpler way of life.—North Carolina Libraries

In this intriguing study of the Hicks family of Beech Mountain, journalist Isbell provides excellent insight into the lives of the people who live in the Appalachian mountains.—Library Journal

It is through a Homeric sensibility, in fact, that Hicks and Isbell work together to convey these stories and sentiments without the least bit of nostalgia. . . . Life, death, hardship, poverty, music, the beauty of spring, the indignity of walking to school in shoes made of corn shucks and the art of falling in love define a life and a region from which we have much to learn. Just listen.—Blue Ridge Country

Meet the Author

Robert Isbell, a former journalist and bank executive, lives on Winyah Bay, near Georgetown, South Carolina, in winter and spends the summers in Beech Mountain, North Carolina.

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