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Born in Newton, North Carolina, Hicks took up the fiddle after being dropped as the mandolin player in his brother's band. Self-taught, Hicks' perseverance paid off when he was brought into Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1954, earning Monroe's deep respect. In 1960, he moved on from Monroe to join Porter Wagoner for three years, after which he settled in Las Vegas as the bandleader for the Judy Lynn show, a position that kept him occupied until 1970.
On the road until 1975, Hicks finally chose to return to North Carolina, where he developed a friendship with Ricky Skaggs and released the well-regarded Texas Crapshooter in 1977 (reissued in 1994 by County Records). Darkness of the Delta, a twin fiddle set with Kenny Baker, followed in 1980, as did the Bluegrass Album Band, a traditional bluegrass project that saw Hicks joining guitarist Tony Rice and others. Hicks left the informal band in the four years between the production of The Bluegrass Album Vol. 4 and The Bluegrass Album Vol. 5, but would return for 1996's The Bluegrass Album Vol. 6.
In 1981, Hicks was drafted into the Ricky Skaggs Band, which evolved into Kentucky Thunder over the years, with Hicks being the only original member left. While remaining a member of the Skaggs recording and touring unit as of 1998, Hicks has continued to play on sessions, as well as recording and releasing the star-studded 1998 solo set Fiddle Patch, on which he uses his now-standard five-string fiddle, a 1976 custom creation of the late Harvey Keck.