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Folks You Should Know: Allen Hicks

Amanda Marsh • Mar 22, 2013 at 3:41 AM

Allen Hicks probably doesn’t realize it, but he’s an ambassador to bluegrass music.

He would most likely refuse to take the title, being that he’s a humble man who raised tobacco in Russell County while finishing high school. After decades of swinging from bridges and buildings as a steel worker, Hicks has started a new venture in music.

Hicks and his wife, Jeanette, host Friday Night Jams at their home in Scott County. Each week, bluegrass musicians from the surrounding area and even far away continents come to pick a few tunes in a music venue right across the road from the Hicks’ Nickelsville residence.

The bright red building was exclusively used as Hicks’ workshop where he began building mandolins after retiring 13 years ago. A preacher encouraged Hicks to use his woodworking skills to build his version of the eight-stringed instrument. He’s made about 23 mandolins in 12 years.

"Bluegrass has always been my cup of tea you could say. I just have an ear for music," Hicks said. "I can tell from the sound whether a mandolin or guitar is a good one. Acoustic instruments are what I like."

Hicks used a unique style of Purple Heart binding on an A-style mandolin he recently finished. He typically uses Red Spruce for the top of his handmade instruments and other woods like Curly Maple and Sycamore for the sides and back.

And since his son, Larry, also builds guitars, the workshop where Hicks would spend 80-100 hours on each mandolin slowly became a gathering place for those who came by to admire the luthiers’ work and try out the instruments.

"I used to try to build mandolins in here, but they moved me out," Hicks said with a laugh.

Hicks downsized his mandolin-making into a little room and the space was rearranged to provide more space for pickin’ and grinnin’. A kitchen was added so Jeanette could feed the hungry musicians who stopped by each Friday night.

"I gave them this whole room and they outgrew that," Hicks said. "You could get about 45 people in here or 50 standing room only. We had to move again."

Hicks and his neighbor, Walter Manis, decided that the storage area in the basement of the building had more square footage and would be a perfect place for the musicians to gather.

Friends, family and neighbors helped Hicks transform the space. The dirt floor was concreted and a stage was built. A sound system was installed and rows of recycled church pews now provide seating for 100.

They opened the brand new Friday Night Jams space on June 15, 2012. The red building on 1844 Bethel Road in Nickelsville was buzzing with people anxious to hear or play bluegrass music.

"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," Hicks said. "That was the musicians, not to mention the people who came to listen. They were spilling over everywhere."

Given the success of Friday Night Jams and its revamped venue, Hicks applied for his former workshop to become an official "Crooked Road" Music Trail venue. Sometime this spring, he’ll hear if it’s been accepted.

Recently, Hicks was awarded the Scott County Tourism Customer Service Appreciation Award for his continued efforts to keep old-time traditional music alive. A banner displaying his achievement now hangs across the Friday Night Jams stage.

"We’ve been blessed with music," Jeanette Hicks said. "It’s grown by word of mouth."

Building instruments and providing a place where they can be played is a lot of work for a 77-year-old man, as well as his family members, who help out each Friday night. The entire operation runs on donations.

"It’s like a family affair," Hicks said. "I tell people the first time you come, you’re a visitor. The second time, you’re one of us."

Each week is a mystery. Hicks never knows who will be playing at the next Friday Night Jam, but he’ll be there to emcee and organize, while Jeanette will surely have enough hot dogs and nachos in stock for those who come hungry. Hicks puts each group on stage for about 30 or 40 minutes, then the next band gets their chance to play.

It’s all a part of being a bluegrass ambassador.

Sometimes, Hicks play harmonica for an extra treat. The music begins about 6:30 p.m. and is open to players and listeners of all ages.

Traveling to Friday Night Jams is a little curvy, but it’s well worth it. Take Highway 71 to Nickelsville, Va. Go through town and turn left at BB&T Bank. Follow Bethel Road until it forks with Bush Mill Road and you’ve reached your destination.

For more information on Friday Night Jams, visit "Hicks Friday Night Jams" on Facebook. Or call 276-479-2739.

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