Forty years after Hope Nicholls and Aaron Pitkin started Fetchin Bones in Charlotte, the band takes its place in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
by David Menconi
Hope Nicholls has been a much-loved presence in Charlotte’s music scene for so long that it seems like a perfect capper for her 1980s-vintage rock band Fetchin Bones to go into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in October. Even though Fetchin Bones broke up three decades ago, their iconic local status is a more recent development.
“Nobody in Charlotte liked us at first!” Nicholls says with a cackle, on a warm summer afternoon from behind the counter of her vintage-clothing boutique Boris & Natasha in Plaza Midwood. “But then we opened for an Athens band called Art in the Dark and they loved us, told us to come down and play with them. We did, and people in Georgia understood us right away. It wasn’t until our last record that we were a big deal in Charlotte.”
Except for a handful of one-off reunion shows over the years, Fetchin Bones has been gone since 1990. Nicholls and her husband/bandmate Aaron Pitkin have kept making music in a series of bands, Sugarsmack and It’s Snakes among them. Still, Fetchin Bones remains the most memorable group any of its seven members were ever in.
Left: Errol Stewart. Middle image, from left: Hope Nicholls, Clay Richardson, Errol Stewart, Aaron Pitkin and Danna Pentes. Photograph by Lis Winkler. Right: Hope Nicholls.
Fetchin Bones’ heyday came in an era when ringing jingle-jangle guitar hooks were in fashion, with R.E.M. leading the pack. While that was part of Fetchin Bones’ sound, their music was also steeped in blues, country and punk, topped off by Nicholls’ overpowering sonic-boom yowl of a voice.
“They were the perfect concoction of punk rock meets the beautiful blue-collar palette of the southern Piedmont,” says North Carolina Music Hall of Fame board member (and Avett Brothers manager) Dolphus Ramseur. “Fetchin Bones’ go-for-broke-and-die-with-your-boots-on attitude helped pave the way for countless other bands from North Carolina and beyond. They made me proud to be from the South, and that can be a hard thing to do.”
The roots of Fetchin Bones go back 40 years, when Nicholls and Pitkin met at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. It didn’t take long for them to start a band.
“When we met, about the third thing out of my mouth was, ‘I wanna be in a band,’” Nicholls recalls. “Aaron said he did, too. ‘I’m learning guitar.’ ‘I’m trying to be a singer.’ And that was it, in under like five minutes. We always took it seriously and did it exactly the way we wanted. Everything was ‘Do It Yourself.’ We were a DIY band, 100 percent.”
Early on, Fetchin Bones started out as a duo plus rhythm machine — “very weird and avant-garde, country and new wave mashed together,” Nicholls says. Even as they added members and expanded to a quintet, the group’s music remained highly idiosyncratic, standing apart from the rest of its generation.
“They were a really good band,” says Don Dixon, the R.E.M. co-producer who produced Fetchin Bones’ first three albums. “To have the feel those albums did, you had to be able to play. They were fun, too, incredibly entertaining to watch. Hope was almost like Mick Jagger. Them going into the Hall of Fame is fabulous and well-deserved. They were much more influential than they get credit for.”
Left: Hope Nicholls and Aaron Pitkin at Boris & Natasha, Hope’s Plaza Midwood boutique, in September. Photograph by Justin Driscoll. Right image, from left: Aaron Pitkin, Marc Mueller, Danna Pentes, Gary White and Hope Nicholls
Nevertheless, news of their Hall of Fame nod came as a shock, given that Fetchin Bones was a cult act that only had one album reach the Billboard charts (peaking at a modest No. 175 with the 1989 album Monster). Guitarist Errol Stewart says he was “floored” when he got the call about the Hall of Fame.
“It was the last thing I ever expected,” Stewart says. “But I was elated, too, honored and flattered. Still kind of in awe.”
Fetchin Bones will be part of the Hall of Fame’s 2023 class alongside underground funk legend Betty Davis, gospel singer George Beverly Shea, “American Idol” country star Scotty McCreery, singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and disco bandleader Bill “Fatback” Curtis. At the ceremony, Oct. 19 at the Mooresville Performing Arts Center, Fetchin Bones will reunite to play a four-song set with all seven members of the lineup participating.
It’s possible they’ll play another show or two in the future, especially if their long-out-of-print 1985 debut album Cabin Flounder (to which they recently acquired the rights) comes back into print. But members are scattered all over the country now, and Nicholls’ main focus is running her shop and playing drums in her current band, It’s Snakes. She calls it “my crossword puzzle” because of the challenge of singing while drumming.
“Everything I’ve ever done was for the fun of it, whether opening this store or being in a band,” she says. “Anything I do, I’m all in. The goal was never to be rich or famous, but to be artists. The best thing about being musicians is you can wear what you want, make music, write lyrics, make posters, travel, perform. If it makes money, good, ’cause you’ve gotta eat. But it’s art. My life in a nutshell.” SP
Feature photograph by Jim Leatherman