It’s six o’clock on a Friday night, and musicians of all skill levels are filing into a converted garage on Bethel Road in Nickelsville, Virginia for the regular “pickin’ and grinnin’” sessions at the home of Allen Hicks. Pretty soon, neighbors and bluegrass enthusiasts fill up the church pews. By nine o’clock, it’s standing room only, with the crowd spilling outside.
As the evening progresses, musicians come and go from the stage, with the older, seasoned pros stepping aside for solos and featured performances from young artists like Haley Kinsler, Hunter Patterson, Colton Powers and brother and sister, Angela and Ryan Henard from Surgoinsville, Tennessee. Impromptu pickin’ and jam sessions are century-old traditions in Scott County, Virginia. In fact, most bluegrass musicians will tell you they can’t read music but, instead, learned and honed their craft pickin’ on porches with friends and neighbors.
The Friday night gatherings at Allen’s home grew from his work as a luthier. After he retired from being a steel worker, Allen started creating mandolins; his son, Larry, builds guitars. With both father and son creating musical instruments, Allen’s workshop was a natural draw for local musicians and friends who played and those who only listened to bluegrass.
Allen had turned a small house, located on his property, into a workshop after his retirement. Initially, he offered his friends part of a room to share their music. Pretty soon, the musicians and their followers had overtaken Allen’s entire work area.
One night, Allen, and his good friend and neighbor, Walter Manis, were talking about improving the music venue. “He had the house with an unfinished storage area underneath,” Walter adds. “That’s where we made our apple and pumpkin butter.”
It didn’t take the pair long to figure out that with a little help from friends, family and neighbors they could create a quality musical arena. “Everybody put in a little material and time, and we made it a fun thing to transform this dirt floor basement into a place where musicians could gather every Friday night,” Manis says.
“I have a lot of friends with lots of talents and skills, and that’s better than money,” Allen says. Everyone worked together installing a professional sound system, laying concrete, and everything else associated with creating a musical venue that would hopefully meet the standards to be an official “Crooked Road” Music Trail venue.
On June 15, 2012, Allen opened his 1844 Bethel Road residence to the public. “The first night I opened the basement up, I had people jamming in the parking lot, over there in my gazebo, and up on stage. That was the musicians, not to mention the people who came to listen. They were spilling over everywhere here,” he laughs.
Although he has a natural musical ability, Allen rarely plays. He serves mainly as the official emcee but, occasionally, joins his “no name” band on the harmonica. Regular performers and those considered part of Allen Hicks Jams include Millard Edwards, banjo; Joe Lell, Dobro and banjo; Bob Marshall, guitar; Lowell Marshall, bass; Ricky Burke, mandolin; Arthur Layne, guitar; Travis Hicks, guitar; and Jeff Osborne, guitar and vocals. These folks aren’t just run of the mill pickers; several are professional musicians and the band is good enough to become a frequent performer at The Heartwood Center in Abingdon, Virginia, the region’s premier musical venue for traditional Appalachian music.
Allen’s mandolins are also for sale at The Heartwood Center. In the last 12 years, Allen has made around 23 mandolins. His son, Larry, has made 44 guitars. Just like music, wood working came naturally to Allen. His grandfather, Patton Hicks, was considered a master wood worker throughout Southwest Virginia.
He made his first mandolin after a preacher of a friend showed him one he had made several years ago. “He told me I ought to try and build one,” he said. “I guess it just grew on me.” Several well-known musicians, like Shawn Lane with “Blue Highway,” own an Allen Hicks mandolin.
Allen goes out and cuts all of his own wood for the mandolins. “I reckon I’ve got more wood stored than I’ll ever use,” he says. Allen mostly uses Curly Maple for his mandolins, but has also used African Rosewood and Sycamore. Red Spruce is required for the front of the mandolin, and Allen has a source in Canada and in Newport, Tennessee for this essential wood.
Although Allen enjoys creating the mandolins, the best part, however, is hearing what the instrument sounds like after it is finished. His natural ear for music ensures that Allen’s mandolins have the right tonal quality.
“I just have an ear for music,” he says. “I can tell from the sound whether a mandolin or guitar is a good one.”
The Friday night Allen Hicks Jams is a family affair, with all members of his family assisting in some aspect of the Friday night. His wife, Jeanette, is the main cook, and daughters, Robin and Lisa, help her run the upstairs concessions. His sons, Larry and Gary, also help, along with all the “grand young’uns.” It is Allen’s wish and intent for the Friday Night Jam Sessions to continue well after he is gone.
“It’s in my will that the kids keep this going.” Allen was recently named an affiliate venue on the Crooked Road. He has completed all of the requirements, including providing restrooms, concessions and making the venue handicap accessible. And, all of this, he has done with his own money, with help from friends, and donations to the Jams.
There is no charge for the Allen Hicks Friday Night Jams, but donations are greatly appreciated. Most of the regulars will tell you the first time you attend a Jam, you are a visitor. The next time, you are family.
With the popularity of Allen Hicks Friday Night Jams, Allen and the Hicks family can honestly say they have family members living around the world—in places like England, Holland, Switzerland, Canada, and most of the continental United States.
One of those “family members,” Jason French from England will return this August with his own band to perform at Allen’s. “Jason started coming here to learn to play and, when he back to England, he kept playing and soon was good enough to form his own band,” Walter explains.
Hicks’ Bethel Road home is easy to find. Just go to Nickelsville, Virginia on Highway 71, go thru town, and turn left at BB&T Bank. That is Bethel Road, and just follow it until you reach the forks where Bush Mill and Bethel Road meet. It’s sometimes a little, steep and curvy, but it is definitely worth the trip to hear some of the finest pickin’ around, plus they really do make you feel like family.
Allen and his band also play Saturday nights during September and October at his friend, Walter Manis’, Punkin’ Patch, also located in Nickelsville. Walter raises pumpkins and is open September and October, with the farm featuring hayrides, a corn maze, petting zoo, mums, produce and thousands of pumpkins from which to choose.
For more information, call Hicks at 276-479-2739. Hope to see you on Friday night at Allen Hicks.