The Hicks Family, of the Cumberland Plateau, possesses in collective memory a quantity of ballads that includes many of the oldest and rarest ever kept in family tradition in the United States. Their unaccompanied style of singing has very few presenters in Tennessee or the rest of the country.
Carmen McCord, currently of Bon Aqua, is the daughter of ballad singer Bessford Hicks, who died in the late 1970s. Bessford was the brother of Dee Hicks, of Fentress County, who was one of the more prolific ballad singers ever documented in the United States. Dee’s wife Delta Hicks was also a fine singer with a significant repertoire. The Hicks Family balladry was first recorded by folklorist Bobby Fulcher during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“I learned to sing these songs from my father,” Carmen explains. “He taught just how the sounds should be held onto all the different ways in any of the songs. My aunt Nancy Hicks Winningham had a beautiful, clear, pure voice as she sang. We would go to her house every Christmas and my dad and she, of course, would sing. My memories of singing really began by the time I was ten years old. If we had company in the house my dad would bring me in and tell me to sing several of the songs. I sang in church with some of my sisters. In the eighth grade I sang in the school’s music festival. In 1978 Bob Fulcher came to my mother’s house and recorded some of the songs that our family sang. It seems to me that music was in my heart when I was born. It is a mysterious connection for me. It speaks to every day of my life.”
As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Carmen will guide apprentice Ian Kirkpatrick as he studies the distinctive Hicks family style and repertoire. Already an experienced singer and student of balladry, Ian is also the descendant of ballad singers from the Claiborne County area of East Tennessee. “At one time, this art form was commonly practiced by my family and my community,” Ian says. “Ballad singing is something my family has done for 6 generations. However, the a capella, old-time style of singing has largely died out in Claiborne County. I have friends and relatives who continue to sing those ballads that were able to survive in the bluegrass and country genres, though they often do not know the history of those particular songs.”
Over the past several years, Ian has been an active participant and leader in the wider ballad singing community. He studied the CD collection of James H Montgomery as a Hart-Melvin Scholar at Mars Hill University in 2016-2017. Ian also performed in the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival Ballad Swap for several years and hosted a ballad swap in Harrogate, TN in 2018. In 2020, he was awarded the prestigious “In These Mountains” Cross-Borders Mentor Apprenticeship from South Arts for his project with NEA National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams. “I have continued to grow as a performer and singer during this process,” Ian explains. “But there are still several songs I do not know and a few stylistic qualities I need to master before I would even attempt to call myself a “tradition bearer.”
Working with Carmen provides another opportunity to grow and learn in the tradition. “Many of the Tennessee families that once sang folk ballads began singing country songs, and the few ballads they preferred were modernized and sung to musical accompaniment to survive. That is what makes Carmen’s family so unique and why I think it is important to learn from her. We have an opportunity to preserve this tradition into the next generation. The more knowledge and experience I have with this tradition, the more I can pass down to succeeding ones.”