It was a Friday night but not just any Friday night. In the moments leading up to the Grand Ole Opry’s first weekend episode in the new year of 2015, word came that it had lost one of its own, the 94-year-old balladeer known as Little Jimmy Dickens.
As Larry Gatlin took the stage with his brothers Steve and Rudy, he reminded the audience that Jimmy would want us to have a good time. But tonight called for reflection and Gatlin understood the moment. Gatlin began recalling the night he received a call from his good friend Johnny Cash, who had called him “Pilgrim” for 30 years. Cash got Gatlin on the line and made a request. Pilgrim, the call went, it was time for him and his “rascal brothers” to get ready to sing. June was really sick. Eight days later, the Gatlins found themselves doing just that at what Gatlin called “June’s going-away party.”
He couldn’t have known it then but five months later, Gatlin would be carrying his “brother JR” to rest. The Pilgrim made a vow to dedicate “Help Me” to Cash at every show thereafter. But tonight’s tribute would include JR and one other. Tonight it would be played for Dickens, the heart and soul of the Opry family and the man known as “the little guy with the big voice.”
“A Flat,” he summoned. “Let’s do this for Jimmy.”
And so began the majestic beauty of a cappella and three part harmony and a song about never ending praise for the good lord.
“That’s for you Tater.”
Tater was the nickname Hank Williams gave him all those years ago when Dickens sang the song “Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait).” Dickens was with Williams on a plane once and when they got off, Williams had written a new song called “Hey There Good Lookin’.” That was long before Dickens began appearing in Brad Paisley videos and went to the Country Music Awards once dressed up like Justin Bieber for a comical skit with Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Jimmy, who was one of 13 children and called himself the runt of the litter, came from Belt, Virginia where he was once known as Jimmy The Kid. He began his career in radio and was said to have kicked off a show by crowing like a rooster.
Three years after World War II had ended, Dickens was asked by Roy Acuff to sing in the Grand Ole Opry in 1948, a year before “Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait)” went to number seven on the country charts. It seemed that the 4 foot 11 inch Little Jimmy, who once sang “I’m Little But I’m Loud,” never stopped singing or telling jokes. Along the way he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983 and was heralded as the first major country star to travel around the globe.
Although his great wit and comic timing created a larger than life personality, there was no doubt he was a great balladeer and played with some of the great session players. None other than George Jones made the point that Dickens was more than just a novelty singer. The Possum chose to release an all-Dickens long player called “George Jones Sings Like The Dickens.” Dickens is also the subject of a four-cd Bear Family Records box set called “Out Behind The Barn,” featuring over 95 songs recorded over a decade when he was with Columbia, including his number one country song “May The Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.”
Earlier in the night, Opry Vice President and General Manager Pete Fisher had the unenviable task of opening the show and sharing the news that Dickens had just passed from cardiac arrest after having suffered a stroke on Christmas day. Fisher went on to say in his time the show has not known a more entertaining personality or a better friend. Fisher was the one who once sent Dickens out onstage in the middle of a performance by Trace Adkins. With the help of a step ladder, Dickens got eye level with the singer to ask the question: “Just how bad would you like to become a member of the Grand Old Opry?”
Adkins took off his cowboy hat and gave the largest smile of his life in a nod of acceptance and Dickens told him to mark down August 23 as the date he would become the newest member of the Opry. The camera caught Fisher grinning for a brief moment that night and here he was eleven years later all alone on the Ryman stage with the sad news and the weight of heaviness in his heart. He was doing just fine until he came to the last lines when his voice broke and he was overcome with emotion.
“We love you Jimmy Dickens and we will never forget what you meant to the Opry.”
In the days following Christmas, social media began lighting up to let people know Little Jimmy was very sick and was in the prayers of Rhonda Vincent, Brad Paisley, the young singer Payton Taylor and numerous others in the country community. Paisley had developed a special bond with Dickens since a fishing trip years earlier. He had once introduced Dickens by saying if he had to name one hero at the top, Dickens stood taller than anyone.
In a gallery of Dickens clips on the Opry website, you can see Paisley showing reverence for Dickens as the two trade verses in “Out Behind The Barn.” Paisley also featured Dickens in some of his videos which were shown throughout his tours. Dickens had a cameo in “Mud On The Tires” in which he and Paisley are watching a hilarious spoof of a Miller Lite commercial in which two women are mud wrestling over Paisley. Dickens is quoted as saying: “Holy moly.. I’ll buy what they’re selling.”
Paisley had featured enlisted Dickens, Bill Anderson and George Jones in his own band of merrymakers and pranksters known as the Kung Pao Buckaroos. They were a cross between the Three Musketeers and a modern day country version of The Rat Pack. On the album “Brad Paisley Christmas,” they did a hilarious take on the political correctness of saying “Merry Christmas.” This Christmas seemed an eternity from a few days before when on December 20, just one day after his 94th birthday, Dickens performed for the last time on the Opry, told jokes, sang “Out Behind The Barn” and bantered backstage. It was just another day at the office and custom for the man who Judi Myrick at the Ernest Tubb Record Store nearby the Ryman summed up best: “He was the Opry.”
The details of the funeral would not come for a few days. But tonight felt like a heavenly send-off and a night meant to be by the radio, just as it had been for all those nights before when we caught a clear channel signal and Little Jimmy Dickens and his friends had entertained us.
“There are no words, no words,” Bill Anderson offered with repeated emphasis. Anderson, also known as “Whispering Bill” and one of the most successful songwriters of his time, had introduced Dickens on his last night at the Opry. As Dickens left the stage, Anderson felt he was stronger and sounding better than ever. His dear friend was making everyone smile like he had done his whole life. “I wish I had time to tell you all the stories….maybe someday I will.”
Positioned tonight as the star of the show, Anderson sang the song “Still” but really wanted to talk more about Dickens. When Big & Rich became stars, Dickens suggested they form their own duo Little and Po. “By George,” Anderson exclaimed, that’s what we did. We went all over the world.”
The Whites, a fixture on the show, chose to sing first and talk later lest things become too emotional. The song chosen for tonight represented Jimmy’s origins as a country music balladeer. It was “The Violet and The Rose” written by Mel Tillis. Tillis knew Dickens for 60 years and called him the best entertainer that ever stepped on the Opry stage.
By the time Ricky Skaggs stepped forward, he warned the audience “We’re liable to start telling his jokes and I know every one of them.” Skaggs tried to keep it light and said he hoped he could play and sing when he was 94 and judging by the look of his hair it wouldn’t be that much longer. Skaggs was reflective as he talked, not just about Dickens, but the Opry as an institution.
“The circle, when it gets broken, we all have to come back together and tighten up even more as a family.”
Yes, we miss Jimmy, he went on, but he was in a special place and wasn’t going to miss us where he was.
The Henningsens seemed to corroborate this, talking of heaven’s gate opening as they sang the gorgeous melody of “It Don’t Cost Me Anything To Believe.” It was a reminder of Anderson’s comment when he said he couldn’t help but think how Dickens had passed and gone to heaven to see songwriter Roger Miller on his birthday.
Marty Stuart introduced the Chuck Wagon Gang which gave us a little history lesson, noting that back in 1950 the original group played its first show on a country package show in Dallas. The star of the show? It was none other than Little Jimmy Dickens. Playing one of their new songs written by Stuart, they sang in tribute to one of their heroes who had gone home.
Someday we’ll go home
Someday our Lord will see
A welcome in heaven waits for me
Someday comes as it always does. This time it came for Tater.
This time it chose a Friday.
(This article originally appeared in For The Country Record.)