Rector Hicks


About Rector Hicks

Rector Hicks was born out in the country around Chloe, Calhoun County, West Virginia in 1914. Although his father played mouth harp, no one in his immediate family was a fiddler. Rector learned from fiddlers in the area, beginning to play the instrument when he was about ten years old. Rector said that he never played for dances, a typical training ground for a country fiddler. Instead, he refined his craft through hours of solitary playing and in sessions with other musicians.

Fortunately, Rector didn’t have to look far for excellent fiddling role models. He learned much from time spent with a distant cousin, Laury Hicks, a generation older than Rector and one of the foremost fiddlers in the area. Rector recalled:

I don’t know of a fiddle player, really, that played like him. … Ed Haley said Laury was the best fiddler he ever heard on the old time tunes, you know, and old fast ones. Hisself, he said that. And I always thought he was.

The legendary Ed Haley, friend and playing partner of Laury Hicks, was a fiddler whom Rector watched every chance he could. As Kerry Blech writes, when the first release of home recordings made of Haley were issued on a Rounder Records album in the mid ‘70s, Rector was―to say the least―disappointed (at first he didn’t believe they were actually of Haley!).

He was hard to figure out. When I was around him most I didn’t know too much about fiddling, and a lot of that stuff I could pick up now if I was around him. How he got all that in there with his bow like he did, you’d never believe it. He just set there this way [passes the length of the bow across the strings] but everything seemed like it just come in there. … Now that record, that’s not Ed Haley. That’s him, but that’s no good. You don’t get a lot of what he puts in. But he puts every note in that thing. His left hand, his fingers just flew. But his right hand…He just set there and his fiddle laid on his arm, set there and rocked. That’s the way he played. All them fastest tunes he played, didn’t seem like he put any of the bow in hardly. But it was all in there.

Joe LaRose, Rector Hicks and Roy Combs, June, 1982

Joe LaRose, Rector Hicks and Roy Combs, June, 1982 (courtesy Kerry Blech)

While Rector’s actual playing style did not immediately resemble Haley’s, his general approach showed some similarities. Like Haley, Rector held the fiddle against his upper arm and chest and supported it with his wrist (although he didn’t rock the fiddle under the bow as Haley did). Also like Haley, Rector used a good portion of the bow, sometimes playing a passage of several notes with one long stroke, deftly rocking the bow as he played. Rector further accented the melody at chosen times with short, quick strokes. Rather than overlay the melody with a patterned or constant bow rhythm as some danceoriented fiddlers do, Rector seemed to adapt his bowing to the melody of the particular tune he was playing. As I remember while watching him, much of the lilt and movement of his tunes was built into the sequence of notes he played with his left hand.

How Rector ended up in Akron, Ohio is a story similar to that of thousands of other West Virginians of his generation. Depressed economic conditions in rural Appalachia along with boom times in the industrial North resulted in a mass migration of working age men to the industrial cities. A major magnet for West Virginians was Akron, with its rubber factories practically begging for workers through the first half of the 20th Century. Rector came to Akron in the early 1940s and started working at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. He and his wife Bonnie raised a family in Akron, and Rector retired from Goodyear as a machinist in 1967.

While at Goodyear, Rector met Roy Combs, a supervisor there, 20 years younger than Rector and a player and enthusiast of old time music. It was through Roy that most of us young old time musicians met Rector (although, as Kerry Blech writes, Rector made trips on his own to the Kent record store comanaged by Kerry to seek out new releases of fiddle music, and often phoned Kerry’s radio show). Soon, Kerry, Gary Hawk, Roy, Jim Kelley, myself and others would regularly visit Rector and Bonnie in their home for afternoons of conversation, coffee and pie, and music. Those informal sessions are the backdrop for all the music on this CD (except for a few actual performances at a local coffeehouse). The music comes through loud and clear, but what doesn’t is the warm hospitality of Rector and Bonnie, who rarely―and I can’t even remember one exception―declined a request to come over for a visit, and always offered coffee and pie and an invitation to stay for dinner.

I want to lastly mention that, while I knew Rector was good back then, I am in absolute awe of his playing and mastery after listening again to these recordings. I think that observing his relaxed technique in person made me think that he wasn’t working as hard as he was―and maybe he wasn’t, but we were! Rector played fast, and we youngsters did all we could to keep up. It was invigorating to play with Rector. So many times, the second after a tune ended, before the last guitar chord had even faded and we were trying to catch our breaths, Rector would say, “Now, here’s a pretty one…did you ever play that [names tune]?”―and we launch into another…

—Joe LaRose, July 26, 201

Rector Hicks, July 1977

Rector Hicks, July 1977 (courtesy Kerry Blech)

Old Rector plays the fiddle
Ant the sound brings back
The sun in the meadow,
Wet grass and rhododendron,
Lamp in the parlor,
Leather and coal dust.
Men long passed are recalled
As their lonely tunes and happy dances
Once again live
At the master’s command.
His tough fingers noting smooth,
Butterfly float to the bow.
Black Sheep, Stackolee,
The grey misty hills of Clay County,
West Virginia red dirt,
Heart’s home now far away
Down a twisted mountain road of memory.
Arkansas Traveler, Cumberland Gap.
And the old man lays the fiddle up,
Laughs softly and talks
And passes the gift
So rosin-white strings
Will speak his name
Brightly, far from now.

—Gary Hawk, 1980


A Remembrance of Rector Hicks

In the mid-1970s I had my MA in hand but worked at the Kent Community Store, primarily a record store and a part of a larger non-profit organization. I also hosted a weekly radio show on WKSU, Kent State University’s public radio station, featuring traditional music, with an emphasis on old-time music. I managed the traditional/folk music area at the record store as well. Rock journalist/critic Robert Christgau wrote “the Kent Community Store sells more old-timey than New Wave”. An older gentleman from the Akron area had written to me about my radio show, in care of the station, several times and I answered his questions and took requests from him. I mainly worked week-days (to have weekends free to “chase old-time music”) at the store. My co-workers mentioned an older gentleman who came into the store on Saturdays (usually my day off), asked about old-time albums, specifically fiddle LPs. Sometimes he left requests for certain recordings. One Saturday I was working in the store, stocking the folk music section, when he came in and made some inquiries at the check-out counter. I could see my co-worker point back to me and that is the day I first met Rector Hicks. He bought an armful of records, asked if we had gotten the French Carpenter LP back in stock (we hadn’t), but he never mentioned that he was a musician.

Joe LaRose, Rector Hicks and Roy Combs, June, 1982

Joe LaRose, Rector Hicks and Roy Combs, June, 1982 (courtesy Kerry Blech)

About a year later, July 1977, Joe LaRose called me and told me that through our mutual friend Roy Combs he had met a fiddler in Akron who was originally from central West Virginia, Rector Hicks. They were going to Rector’s house to visit, play music, do some recording, and wanted to know if I would like to come over too. I grabbed my fiddle, camera, and tape recorder and hustled the 7 miles to Rector’s. Joe and Roy were already there when I arrived and they introduced me to Rector and his wife Bonnie. I was a bit startled when finally meeting Rector, and he said “We’d already met, at the record store”. It was a lovely time, the first of many, many visits, enjoying their hospitality and music and lore. One thing I remember clearly is that I had recently visited Ward Jarvis (FRC402) and asked Rector if he knew Ward. He said he knew him when they both lived in West Virginia. At some point we played Ward’s “Banjo Tramp” and Rector followed with “Sugar in the Morning”, almost the same melody. We asked Rector where he learned “Sugar…” and he said that Ed Haley had taught it to him. Ward had told me that he had learned “Banjo Tramp” from Haley, as well. We ended the visit talking about Ward Jarvis and what it was like to live back in those times in West Virginia.

After that, Rector would sometimes call me at therecord store and ask if any new albums had come in that I thought he might like, and if so, could I bring them the next time I visited and he’d buy them. I was very pleased to offer a personal delivery service. I recall bringing him the 1976 Rounder Records LP of Ed Haley that Mark Wilson and Guthrie Meade produced. Rector stunned me the following visit by saying that Haley’s fiddling on that LP was not very good: “The only song on that record that sounds like Haley is ‘Stackolee’; the rest of them are too modern.” He clarified his meaning saying that except for that one track, nothing sounded like he remembered Haley playing in the 1920s and early ‘30s. Weeks later I had a cassette tape in my car of J.W. Day playing some fiddle tunes when I visited Rector. I decided to play the tape for him before we started the music session. Without introducing it, I turned it on and Rector became animated and said, “Where’d you get that recording of Haley? That’s how I remember him!” I was momentarily taken aback, then muttered, “That’s J.W. Day, who also was known as Jilson Setters. Had you heard of him?” Now, I can’t recall his response, if any. I wish I’d known then what I know now. Rector’s cousin Rosie Hicks was a well-known ballad singer and featured performer (as was J.W. Day) at Jean Thomas’ “American Folk Song Festival” started in the early 1930s just outside of Ashland, Kentucky. Perhaps Rector was distracted and did not mention it, or maybe he did not know this. I don’t recall him mentioning Rosie at all, in fact, though he spoke at length about fiddler Laury Hicks, whom I believe was Rosie’s older brother. Another item I did not know back then was that Ed Haley lived very close to the Days in Ashland, some say just a few doors away. I would have loved to explore those connections some more.

It seems, in hindsight, that just about every traditional old time fiddler from West Virginia I mentioned to Rector he could tell us a story or play a tune that was relevant. He mentioned French Carpenter often, for instance. Shortly before I moved away from Ohio, I recall asking Rector about some recordings he’d told us he made of French Carpenter, I think in the early-to-mid-1950s. I am hazy about details, but I think he said he’d used a wire recorder. I went to his house once to search his storage areas with him, primarily in his garage, looking for those recordings, but to no avail.

Rector also enjoyed the fiddling of Tommy Jarrell and purchased everything we had in stock at the record store on which Tommy appeared. You can hear several tunes on “Sugar in the Morning” where Tommy obviously is the source. Rector wanted to hear my accounts of visits with Tommy too, and often said he’d love to go down to North Carolina to visit “The Old Man.” I now cannot recall the details, but Rector often mentioned his intent to create some motorized custom bicycle-like conveyance for “visiting.” Perhaps Joe has a better memory on that subject than I possess. He also told us, several times, in great detail, about how he used a Dremel tool to perform his own root canal, using cloves/clove oil as a numbing agent.

Sometime after Rector passed away I had occasion to discuss him with John Hartford, emphasizing the Ed Haley connection. John asked me to send him some tapes of Rector playing tunes he’d learned from Haley, which I did. John called me after listening and told me he agreed that those were indeed Haley tunes that Haley had never recorded. I wish more people could have experienced the warmth and good cheer that Rector and Bonnie Hicks offered to us, they are unforgettable. They were a wonderful couple to visit, socially, historically, musically…. and, ooh, those pies that Bonnie baked for us!!!

—Kerry Blech
Turkey Creek Forest
Gainesville, FL
July 2014

Additional information

Brandon Ray Kirk’s website, “In Search of Ed Haley” has information about Rector Hicks, Lawrence (Laury) Hicks, Rosie Hicks Day and others here.