Musician, collector and yarn spinner Rick Norcross aims to get his show on the road
Rick Norcross leans back in his office chair, arms crossed over his generous belly. His eyes twinkle as he surveys the array of music memorabilia and Vermont ephemera filling the Burlington waterfront apartment he’s called home for 26 years. “Man, I’m going out of here feet first. Can you imagine?” he says with a chuckle.
You certainly can’t imagine having to cart all this stuff — this history — out of here. Norcross, 67, a singer-guitarist and leader of the Western swing band Rick & the Ramblers , has been collecting for decades. Many, though not all, of his finds are music related — including a 1957 Flxible Starliner, which has been his band’s tour bus for some dozen years. Normally parked outside on Battery Street, it’s currently in the shop for repairs. More on that later.
In Norcross’ office, leaning up against a wall, are four “gold guitar awards” that Columbia Records gave to country and rockabilly singer Johnny Horton in the 1950s. Each award — a golden guitar relief mounted on a dark, wooden plaque with a little gold record in place of the instrument’s sound hole — commemorates 250,000 sales of Horton’s hit singles “Sink the Bismarck” and “North To Alaska.”
Norcross pushes himself up out of his chair and walks across the room to point out another of Horton’s awards, the gold record that was presented to the singer on the stage of the country-music show “Louisiana Hayride.” It acknowledged 2 million sales of Horton’s 1959 single “The Battle of New Orleans.”
Norcross says he bought it on eBay for $100. “It shoulda been in the Hall of Fame, for sure,” he adds.
Instead, Norcross explains, the award ended up in a small-time country-music museum in Many, La., along with many of Horton’s possessions. After Norcross purchased it, the museum’s owner offered him the rest of his Horton stash. He was ready to get out of the business.
So what does a one-of-a-kind collection of country-music history cost? About $700.
Norcross easily turns a conversation into a tour of his apartment, and he’s a gregarious guide. Nearby are several framed promotional posters for movies starring country singer and actor Gene Autry. Each of the posters promoted an Autry flick featuring a singer and actress named Mary Lee. She was Norcross’ mother’s best friend when their families lived next door to each other at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester during the 1940s.
Just past the posters is a Southwestern-style carpet that belonged to the ex-wife of country-music legend Hank Williams. Norcross owns two of her carpets. Not surprisingly, there’s a side story about how they were chosen by Burlington resident Maggie Sherman’s father, who was once Mrs. Williams’ decorator.
In the aptly named Steamer Room is Williams’ other carpet, a vintage wood-frame bed and a cache of memorabilia related to the famous Vermont steamship the Ticonderoga, which Norcross calls the Ti. Over his bed hangs a wooden model of the ship. Nearby is a photo of its final voyage on Lake Champlain in 1954. Norcross and his parents were all part of the crowd on deck, looking out at the photographer on shore.
Then Norcross drops this detail: He acquired his knack for collecting — and possibly storytelling — during the time he lived with his mother in the Shelburne Museum.
From many men, this flurry of dropped names and incredible stories accompanying the display of a lifetime’s worth of collectibles could come off as boasting. But Norcross, with his white handlebar mustache and Northeast Kingdom accent, makes every tale of connection to the talented and famous feel as honest and natural as mud season. There’s an earnestness to him, and a genuine reverence for history.
The wonderment is contagious — just ask Stephen Russell Payne. A physician and instructor at the University of Vermont Medical School, he’s also a fiction and nonfiction writer and is working on a biography of Norcross. “I’ve written a lot of nonfiction, and this is by far the most fascinating person I’ve ever met,” Payne says during a later conversation. He says he’s spent “hundreds of hours” with his subject to research the book. “Rick is just an iconic Northeast Kingdom-ite who really went out in the world and brought the best of the world back with him.”
Norcross left the Kingdom after he graduated from Hardwick Academy in 1963. He was a folk singer back then, and in 1965, after a few years of college in Florida, he ended up working the folk circuit in England — around the same time as “some guy named Paul Simon.”
As Norcross remembers well, that was the year Bob Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival. Suddenly, folk wasn’t so cool anymore.
Norcross returned to Florida and college, and by 1969 he was a music writer and photographer for the Tampa Bay Times. For the next five years, he covered every major rock-and-roll act, from Elvis Presley to Dylan to Led Zeppelin to Janis Joplin. Norcross still has “thousands of negatives” in his collection, he says; dozens of his black-and-white prints of rock legends plaster the entryway to his apartment.
After Norcross left the Times, he spent the next 20 years as a professional songwriter, musician and entrepreneur, splitting his time between Vermont summers and Florida winters. Along the way, he created the Green Mountain Chew Chew Food and Music Festival in Burlington. By 1994, the business was such a success that Norcross became a full-time Vemonter for the first time in three decades.
After a couple of rainy, debt-inducing summers, the Chew Chew came to an end in 2009. These days, Norcross mainly plays gigs with his Ramblers. Each summer, he partners with local corporate sponsors and takes the band on a tour of Vermont state parks and festivals. The sponsors cover costs so that anyone can come out to listen and dance, even if they can’t pay for a ticket.
This year, things are a little different: Norcross’ beloved tour bus — the crown jewel of his collection — has fallen on hard times. Known to Ramblers fans as the Pickle, the green-and-white Flxible Starliner is a now-rare model of touring bus that was once the choice coach of legendary musicians such as Buck Owens, B.B. King and Merle Haggard. Norcross purchased his Starliner in 1998 for $13,000, and it has served as a trusty transport for him and the Ramblers — until now.
The bus was pimped out decades ago with such kingly customizations as two zones for heat and air conditioning, a hot shower, a galley kitchen and bar, and a 10kW generator that powers the Ramblers at outdoor gigs during the summers. But Vermont winters have taken their toll.
“I got to the point last summer where I was just sick looking at it,” Norcross says. “The body’s going to hell.”
The cost of repairs is beyond what he can handle, so he’s started a fundraising campaign on his website and through a mailing to friends and fans. This homegrown version of Kickstarter is called “Preserve the Pickle.”
The goal is to get the bus back in fighting shape and on the road this summer for Norcross’ 50th anniversary in the music business. So far, the campaign is going better than expected. Though he’s only halfway toward the $15,000 goal, Norcross believes he may be able to show off a renovated Pickle within a few months.
Payne sees Norcross’ fundraising drive as more than just a guy trying to get his bus back on the road. In his mind, the Pickle, and its voluble owner, are singular parts of Vermont’s culture. “There’s only a few of these Flxible Starliners left in the world,” Payne observes. “They didn’t make very many … The fact that we’ve got this guy and his band and this history — and this bus — in the Burlington area is really kind of extraordinary.”
Rick of the Ramblers, with special guest LeRoy Preston, play the Pickle Party on Sunday, April 15, 2-4 p.m., at the St. John’s Club in Burlington. Silent and live auctions. Info, 864-6674. rickandtheramblers.com/bus.html