Mountain Melodies: The New Rock ‘n’ Roll

“We thought if we could take bluegrass and tweak it a little bit, we could make the younger generation like it. It seems to be working.” – John Hicks, guitarist and lead vocalist

“We thought if we could take bluegrass and tweak it a little bit, we could make the younger generation like it. It seems to be working.”
– John Hicks, guitarist and lead vocalist

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The young musicians of Pickett’s Charge draw on rich Appalachian roots and their  own unique inspirations to create an original, increasingly popular  bluegrass sound.

by Anita Stiefel  |  photography by Steven Stiefel

It’s no secret the hills and valleys of northeast Alabama echo with an abundance of musical talent. Perched atop Sand Mountain, the small community of Fyffe is home to a group of young men who are keeping alive the legacy of Appalachian bluegrass.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Fyffe High School’s FFA String Band “Pickett’s Charge” won their district musical competitions in both 2012 and 2013 before giving a performance thatlanded them the 2013 state champion title.

“I know I’m coming from a place of bias, but I really do think – and the judges agreed – they were the best group there,” says Fyffe FFA Advisor Marty Meyers. “They wrote all the songs. They played their own instruments and sangtheir own lyrics, and that’s real talent.”

Three of the four members of Pickett’s Charge graduated last spring, but the band is still going strong, playing at festivals and concerts throughout Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. They recorded their first, self-titled CD during the summer of 2013, and their second CD was released in February.

“The highlight so far was going to Louisville, Kentucky – the bluegrass state – and playing on RFD-TV,” says John Hicks, guitarist and lead vocalist. “We played in front of thousands at Freedom Hall at the Kentucky Expo Center.”

“One of my dad’s cousins saw us on TV in Alaska,” adds Tom George, who plays mandolin and sings baritone vocals. “I thought that was cool.”

“It was definitely the biggest crowd we’ve had,” says Jesse McClendon, who plays upright bass and sings tenor vocals. “That’s what we wanted, for people to hear us.”

Rounding out the band is Levi Thompson on banjo, now in his senior year at Fyffe High School. Levi started playing the banjo at age 13 when he attended a bluegrass program sponsored by the Alabama Arts Council.

“It was when we were in fifth and sixth grades, and local musicians would come teach us how to play  instruments,” Thompson explains. “That’s where Tom and Jesse and I became friends and started playing music together.”

George started making music at age 7 on the ukulele, followed by piano and mandolin, then trombone and tuba in the marching band.

“Tom’s dad started teaching me to play the bass guitar when I was 10 years old,” says McClendon, who also played in Fyffe High School’s marching band. Both he and George are now attending Northeast Alabama Community College, McClendon studying computer science and George continuing to focus on music.

“Music is in our blood,” says Hicks, whose parents Morris and Tricia Hicks played bluegrass shows with “The Family Band” on the Grand Ole Opry show.

While honoring their roots, the young men of Pickett’s Charge are forging new ground to come up with an original bluegrass sound.

“We don’t sound like old-time music, like Bill Monroe, and we don’t sound like Mountain Heart, which is contemporary bluegrass,” Hicks explains.

The band’s favorite songs are covers of “Hickory Wind,” “Miami My Amy” and “Bluegrass Breakdown,” as well as the original tunes “Sleep Tight,” “Mississippi” and “Hung the Moon.”

Hicks, a Civil War buff who named the band after an ill-fated attack at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, writes the lyrics for the band’s original songs. “I draw inspiration from normal, everyday things that happen,” he says. “I’ll hear a phrase or something will hit me and I come up with the basic story line for a song.”

Hicks collaborates with George, who adds the melody and develops the chord progressions. “The inspirations I draw from are bands like The Seldom Scene and modern indie rock in general,” he explains.

When asked why they aren’t playing rock or country music like most musicians their age, they just laugh.

“Bluegrass is the new rock ‘n’ roll,” George says. “Or maybe rock ‘n’ roll is the new bluegrass, since bluegrass has been around 10 times longer.”

“We thought if we could take bluegrass and tweak it a little bit, we could make the younger generation like it,” Hicks adds. “It seems to be working.”

For now, the boys of Pickett’s Charge are enjoying playing at churches, wedding receptions and business events. They served as grand marshals of their town’s Christmas parade and played during a holiday program at the Fort Payne Opera House.

“We just want to be able to play out on the circuit and keep working to improve all aspects of what we do,” Hicks says. “Being on stage and playing for people is a lot of fun.”

For information on upcoming performances by Pickett’s Charge, see facebook.com/PickettsChargeBand.
The young musicians of Pickett’s Charge draw on rich Appalachian roots and their own unique inspirations to create an original, increasingly popular bluegrass sound.[/s2If]