Austin Hicks, whose pugilistic yet nimble drumming powered the feral, stripped down blues duo the Low Counts, died unexpectedly on Thursday.
Matt Walsh, the duo’s guitarist and vocalist, declined to give the cause of death out of respect for Hicks’ family, but said the news came as a shock. The duo was booked to play a gig in Salisbury on Friday night.
The 22-year-old drummer lived in Pilot Mountain, but the duo claimed High Point, where Walsh lives, as their base.
“He was the sweetest, gentlest, kindest good person,” Walsh said. “He touched so many people. Today the number of people who are coming out of the woodwork and grieving over him just shows you how much impact he had. He had a listening ear for anyone. To me he was like a brother. He was also like a son; I’m older than him. He was my equal; I never saw him as anything but being equal. I think that’s why we got along so well.”
When the Walsh met Hicks, who was almost half his age, in 2012, he was at a creative dead-end, as he told Triad City Beat in a January 2016 interview. Walsh, who is now 39, had been playing rockabilly and roots music for years, but his music had started to feel too safe and comfortable. He had lost the motivation to share his music, and wasn’t able to find anyone suitable to play with. Hicks was a week away from graduating from high school. He didn’t want to go to college; the only thing he really wanted to do was play music. When Hicks’ responded to Walsh’s notice on Craigslist, the guitarist drove to Pilot Mountain to audition the teenage drummer. He recalled that his expectations were low.
“Everything’s been built off our first encounter,” Walsh said. “We instantly started playing together, and it was like we were meant to play together. It sounded like we had been playing together for a year. We did our first gig unprepared. It was like, ‘We can do this. We know we can do this. So let’s go do it.’”
Since joining forces in 2013, Hicks and Walsh released two albums, a self-titled debut in March 2014 and Years Pass By in December 2015, along with an EP in between. They toured the Mid-South relentlessly, attracting enthusiastic audiences and approving press clips from Bristol, Va. to Charleston, SC.
“He’s the best drummer I’ve ever known, he really was,” Walsh said. “I don’t know anybody out here playing music anywhere who played how hard he played. He played so hard he would make himself sick. A couple times he’d get off stage and go puke. He was right there with me every time; he meant business. He was the only person I ever considered my musical partner, and I felt like it was our music. What we had was special. It can’t be duplicated, you know.”
Walsh said he is retiring the Low Counts to honor an agreement they made early on that the group would only continue with both of them. The two were working on a new album, and Walsh said Hicks had high hopes for the future.
“Austin was dedicated to the Low Counts,” Walsh said. “He ate, breathed and drank the Low Counts. It’s what he thought about all day. He knew that we were going to get to where we wanted to go. He never threw in the towel, no matter how tough things go. If we broke down on the side of the road, he held his nose high. We believed in each other and loved each other a lot. I’ll never meet another musician like him again, I know.”
Walsh said he doubts he’ll ever play the Low Counts’ music again.
“I’ll probably just move on and leave that where it was,” he said. “I don’t want to tarnish that. That was our thing. I don’t want to share it with anyone else. When we do a memorial, I’ll probably play a couple of the songs just for him. I’ll do it myself. I’ll probably put his bass drum beside me and do it that way.”
While he’s retiring the Low Counts, Walsh said that doesn’t mean he won’t be making music in the future.
“If I ever gave up music, he’d be mad at me,” Walsh said. “He probably wouldn’t talk to me when I saw him in heaven.”