1922 – 2003
Perhaps the most widely known artist who frequented Jack Guy’s store, Ray Hicks was an accomplished storyteller and ballad singer for much of his life. The fourth of eleven children of Nathan and Rena Hicks, Ray was raised around the storytelling, ballad singing, and instrumental music traditions of Southern Appalachia. Nathan Hicks was an accomplished dulcimer maker and loved to play the dulcimer and the banjo, encouraging young Ray to sing along with him while Ray’s grandfather, John Benjamin Hicks, and his great-grandfather, Samuel Hicks, enraptured him with tall tales of the trickster, Jack.
In 1951, Ray made his first public storytelling performance, entertaining the students at Cove Creek Elementary with a few Jack Tales, which would become his signature repertoire of folktales. In 1973, Ray became the first invited storyteller at the International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee; he would be the only storyteller to receive an invitation to the festival every year. It was at this venue that Ray came to the attention of folklorists and storytelling scholars, after which there was a steady stream of academics visiting Ray and his wife Rosa at their home on Beech Mountain.
Ray loved music, but did not have the zeal for playing the banjo or dulcimer that his father or his cousin Stanley Hicks had. Ray’s instrument of choice was the harmonica, and he enjoyed interspersing riffs on the mouth harp into his tales. Ray was also renowned locally for his knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Beech Mountain area. As noted by The Mountain Times at his death, “[Ray] 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.”
The National Endowment for the Arts named Ray Hicks a National Heritage Fellow in 1983. Though he was invited to engagements around the country and the globe, the farthest Ray would travel was to Jonesborough, Tennessee, each year to attend the International Storytelling Festival. However, he and Rosa invited countless visitors into their home and shared Ray’s tales with whomever asked. Ray Hicks passed away on April 20, 2003, at the age of 80.
– TJ Smith
Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Traditional Artist Directory profile
Alan Lomax Archive: Ray Hicks tells a Jack Tale