Ray Hicks epitomized the art of traditional Appalachian folk storytelling, and was primarily known for his "Jack tales," about a poor but clever hero who outwitted ghosts, witches, dragons, thieves, and death itself. The sources of Hicks' stories dated back to centuries-old Celtic and European folk tales that had similar descendants in other cultures as well. While the details were adapted to fit the Appalachian lifestyle and landscape, and while each storyteller personalized the tales to keep them fresh and lively, the basic elements were preserved intact for hundreds of years thanks to the region's strong oral tradition. Much like his stories, Hicks' mountain dialect was handed down over generations, and with little outside influence to boot; thus, his language in itself became the object of academic interest, as many scholars looked to his tales for a window into the everyday speech of the area's earliest white settlers.
Hicks was born in 1922 in his family's home on Beech Mountain, NC, an area his direct ancestors first settled in the late 1700s. He learned the art of storytelling from his grandfather, and was the only one of his parents' ten children to do so. His family lived off the land, farming and gathering whatever they could, and Hicks remained in the family home when he married and had children of his own. In addition to farming, he also worked as a mechanic, carpenter, and lumberman, among other odd jobs here and there, but spent most of his life in poverty-level conditions. In 1960, a nearby elementary school invited Hicks to tell stories for a small fee, and a local community college did the same not long after. Word of his talent spread quickly, and soon Hicks had storytelling engagements all over the region, though he was reluctant to travel more than a day's journey from his home. He welcomed visitors, though, and countless language and folklore scholars, not to mention simple curiosity seekers, made their way to Beech Mountain to hear him. Several documentary films of Hicks telling stories, singing and playing the harmonica, and recounting the area's way of life were also made, and in 1963 Sandy Paton recorded four of Hicks' stories for release on the Folk-Legacy LP Jack Tales. In 1973, Hicks participated in the inaugural National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN, and became a regular festival highlight most years afterwards. He was profiled in The New Yorker, and also appeared in the PBS documentary series The Story of English, which spotlighted his unique dialect. In 1983, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him its National Heritage Fellowship. However, Hicks' wariness of wealth and materialism, as well as his distaste for travel, led him to turn down engagements in England and on national TV programs like The Tonight Show. A battle with prostate cancer took Hicks away from his mountain home and into a nursing home in the nearby town of Boone, where he passed away on April 20, 2003.