Accomplished musician turns mandolin and turkey call craftsman
Turkey hunting and bluegrass music are two things that aren’t usually closely associated, but for Clarke County’s Winky Hicks, the two go hand in hand.
Hicks grew up in Grove Hill hunting turkeys and listening to his family play music. He began turkey hunting when he was a young boy and killed his first on a hunt with his uncle when he was just seven years old. Along the same time, he learned his first chords on the guitar and has been hunting and picking ever since.
Coming from a musical family, Hicks believes he was destined to become a musician. As a talented guitar and banjo player, Hicks has played alongside some of the biggest names in music including Charlie Louvin. Louvin recently passed away, but will forever be remembered as a country music great. He also played with Wilma Lee Cooper, Dr. Hook, Mac Wiseman, Marty Stuart and more.
"Marty (Stuart) was just a young boy when I met him. We used to pick on him and give him a hard time," Hicks said.
Stuart, a member of the Grand Ole Opry, had a string of hits in the 90s, including several peaking high in the Top 40. He now hosts, on RFD-TV, his own television show, "The Marty Stuart Show," featuring traditional country and bluegrass music.
"He could play a mandolin better at 12 years old than most musicians ever can," Hicks recalled of Stuart.
Throughout the years, Hicks has also played with several legendary bluegrass musicians like The Osborn Brothers, Earl Scruggs and "The Father of Bluegrass," Bill Monroe.
Today, Hicks plays mostly bluegrass music with his band "Frontier Bluegrass," which he started almost 12 years ago along with three other friends and fellow musicians. "Frontier Bluegrass" plays several local charity events and benefits to raise money for special causes and have also been featured on television and radio shows numerous times.
In 2000, Hicks decided he would try his hand at making some of the instruments he had played for so many years and created his first mandolin.
"I have made 63 F5 mandolins, one A model, 17 guitars, 10 or 12 dobro guitars, one mandola, three fiddles, and several mistakes," Hicks joked.
Hicks makes his instruments primarily from rosewood and red spruce. He insists it takes the correct type of wood to make instruments in order for it to have the precise sound and tone he strives for when crafting his instruments. In addition to making instruments, Hicks also restores old, damaged instruments. In fact, the banjo he plays today is a 1934 Gibson he completely re-built after finding it years ago at a store in Mississippi.
A number of of his instruments can be seen on the musical stages of Nashville in the hands of world-renowned musicians and heard on the records of today’s most popular stars.
"My instruments are featured on more than 100 country albums out today," Hicks said. "They are on all of Carrie Underwood’s and on some of The Judd’s, Rascal Flatt’s, Trisha Yearwood’s, Faith Hill’s and several more."
Hick’s instruments really burst onto Nashville’s music scene when popular studio musician, Jonathan Yudkin, heard one of his mandolins being played in the all-girl country band, SheDaisy.
"Jonathan heard one of my mandolins and had to have one," Hicks said. "Since then I have built a lot more for him and he even says they are some of the best instruments he has ever played."
Hicks’s woodworking and crafting doesn’t stop with only musical instruments. Before he began making instruments, he was making turkey calls. For years, Hicks had recognized the correlation between the sound of a turkey gobble and music with his keen ear. So in 1995, Hicks combined his passion for hunting and outdoors with his ear for music, and began making turkey yelpers.
"I always wanted to be number one at whatever I was doing," Hicks said about his decision to begin making turkey calls. "I just never liked the sound of a bought one.
"Turkeys have a musical voice and being a musician I can recognize that. I feel like that gives me an advantage over the people who just make turkey calls with no background in music."
Today, Hicks has made and sold more than 4,500 turkey yelpers for avid hunters throughout the country including several celebrity musicians and athletes.
"I have made turkey calls for Aaron Tippin and John Anderson, who bought over 20 each," Hicks said about the country music stars who have purchased some of his yelpers. "They gave them to everybody—friends, lawyers and more."
Like with his musical instruments, Hicks knows it takes the right wood for the yelper to have just the right sound. Hicks uses wood from old pianos and cedar to make his calls. He sells most of the popular turkey yelpers simply through word of mouth—hunters telling other hunters about the great call they have found. The turkey yelpers can also be found at Black Belt Treasures, a gallery in Camden featuring arts and crafts showcasing artists from Alabama’s Black Belt region. Black Belt Treasure also sells Hicks’s turkey yelpers online at www.blackbelttreasures.com.
With his musical talents and turkey yelpers combined with his witty sense of humor and outgoing personality, Hicks is a local celebrity throughout South Alabama. He even hosts his own radio show, "Dixie Outdoors," alongside friend and fellow band member, Shawn Seay, on Dixie 95.4 and Bama 106.1 in Jackson every Saturday morning at 10 a.m.
During the hour-and-a-half show, the entertaining pair cover everything from offering up hunting and fishing tips, and outdoor stories from around the world. They cut up and tell jokes, and even play a few bluegrass tunes. They take calls from listeners, announce upcoming events and, of course, count down the days to the opening days of turkey season.
Mary-Glenn Smith is a freelance writer from Snead.