Country Music Hall of Famer Jimmy Dickens, the Grand Ole Opry’s most beloved and diminutive ambassador, died Friday at a Nashville area hospital. He was 94.
Mr. Dickens starred for decades on the “Opry,” where he was a vital part of the scene both onstage and backstage. His dressing room was an essential stop for performers on the show, and it was there that he held court for a variety of artists, some of whom came to the Opry more than a half century after Mr. Dickens’ 1948 debut.
He remained a vital performer throughout his life, last playing the “Opry” on Dec. 20, a day after his 94th birthday and five days before he would be admitted to the hospital after suffering a stroke on Christmas Day. He died of cardiac arrest on Friday.
When the spotlight shone on him, Mr. Dickens would make fun of his size (“I’m Little Jimmy Dickens, or Willie Nelson after taxes”), his rhinestone-studded outfits (“There goes Mighty Mouse in his pajamas”) and his old-timer status (He would often introduce his “latest hit,” from 1965).
“The Grand Ole Opry did not have a better friend than Little Jimmy Dickens,” Opry vice president and general manager Pete Fisher said in a statement Friday. “He loved the audience and his Opry family, and all of us loved him back. He was a one-of-kind entertainer and a great soul whose spirit will live on for years to come.”
In the final decades of his career, Mr. Dickens’ kindness, affability and hospitality were his calling cards. Where others would say “goodnight,” Mr. Dickens would shake hands and offer, “We appreciate you.” But some of those who laughed with him and sang along to the songs he regularly performed on the “Opry” were unaware of what a potent, even groundbreaking performer he was in the 1950s.
Ever since the illness and death of Porter Wagoner, Dickens had become the single most visible ambassador for, and the living legacy of, the Grand Ole Opry. Yes, there were all those cameos and appearances with Brad Paisley, which were his primary introduction to more recent country fans. But the Opry was his home and he was the star there, not the sidekick.
A musician since receiving his first guitar at age eight, Brad Paisley emerged in the late nineties and became the most consistently successful radio artist in the decade that followed.
Paisley’s career began in earnest when he penned his first song at age twelve, “Born On Christmas Day.” His junior high principal invited him to perform at a local function. He was spotted by a representative of Jamboree USA, and after one performance, he was invited to join the cast.
Over the next eight years, Paisley performed in West Virginia, opening up for major country acts when they visited the area. After completing a two year stint at Belmont University in Nashville, he was immediately signed to a publishing deal with EMI. After penning hits for David Kersh and David Ball, he signed with Arista Records.
His debut album, Who Needs Pictures, featured two top #1 hits. The first one, “He Didn’t Have to Be”, began a string of award show nominations that continues through this day. As the 2000s progressed, he reaped awards for his collaborations with Alison Krauss, Keith Urban, Dolly Parton, Little Jimmy Dickens, and George Jones.
Paisley was the first male artist since Earl Thomas Conley to score ten consecutive #1 hits on the Billboard charts. His innovative videos incorporated appearances from Hollywood television stars, often satirizing their own public images to humorous effect. At the peak of his popularity, Paisley showcased his Grammy-winning instrumental skills. With Play, he became the first mainstream country artist since Steve Wariner to release a largely instrumental album.
Now a touring powerhouse, Paisley collected his first Entertainer trophy from the CMA in 2010, joining shelves full of awards for Male Vocalist, Single, Album, Music Video, and Musical Event from all three major industry organizations. Most recently, he has scored #1 hits collaborating with Alabama and then Carrie Underwood. The latter collaboration, “Remind Me”, became his fourth platinum-selling digital single, following “Whiskey Lullaby”, “She’s Everything”, and “Then.”
He Didn’t Have to Be, 1999
I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song), 2002
Whiskey Lullaby (with Alison Krauss), 2004
When I Get Where I’m Going (with Dolly Parton), 2005
New fans of country music in the nineties were hit over the head with the assertion that country music was one big family. Nothing demonstrated this mythos better than the all star jams that cropped up during the boom years.
There were some variants of this approach. A popular one found a veteran star teaming up with one or more of the boom artists to increase their chances of radio airplay. George Jones was big on this approach, with the most high profile attempt being “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Seventeen years later, it’s amazing to see how young everyone looks – even Jones himself!
Jones shared the CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for that collaboration with Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and Travis Tritt. He’d continue with this approach by teaming up with his vocal chameleon Sammy Kershaw on “Never Bit a Bullet Like This”, and he recorded an entire album of his own songs as duets with mostly younger stars. The Bradley Barn Sessions was represented at radio with “A Good Year For the Roses”, which found him singing one of his best hits with Alan Jackson:
Among the legends, the only other one to be successful with this approach was Dolly Parton, who used collaborations with young stars to score consecutive platinum albums for the first and only time in her career. Her 1991 set Eagle When She Flies was powered by the #1 single “Rockin’ Years”, co-written by her brother and sung with Ricky Van Shelton:
That album also included a duet with Lorrie Morgan on “Best Woman Wins.” She upped the bandwagon ante on Slow Dancing With the Moon, bringing a whole caravan of young stars on board with her line dance cash-in “Romeo.”
That’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, and Tanya Tucker in the video. Pam Tillis isn’t in the clip, but she sings on the record with them. Parton also duets with Billy Dean on that album on “(You Got Me Over a) Heartache Tonight.”
Her next collaboration was with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in several younger stars in the video for “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Alongside veterans like Chet Atkins, Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, you’ll catch cameos from Mark Collie, Confederate Railroad, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, and Marty Stuart.
Parton scored a CMA award when she resurrected “I Will Always Love You” as a duet with Vince Gill:
And while it didn’t burn up the charts, her version of “Just When I Needed You Most” with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski:
Tammy Wynette made an attempt to connect with the new country audience with her own album of duets, Without Walls. Her pairing with Wynonna on “Girl Thang” earned some unsolicited airplay:
Perhaps the most endearing project in this vein came from Roy Rogers. How cool is it to hear him singing with Clint Black?
The new stars liked pairing up with each other, too. A popular trend was to have other stars pop up in music videos. There’s the classic “Women of Country” version of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, for starters. Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds pretty darn good with Suzy Bogguss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood on backup:
That’s a live collaboration, so at least you hear the voices of the other stars. But Vince Gill put together an all-star band for his “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” video without getting them to actually play. That’s Little Jimmy Dickens, Kentucky Headhunters, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Carl Perkins, Pam Tillis, and Kelly Willis behind him, with Reba McEntire reprising her waitress role from her own “Is There Life Out There” clip.
My personal favorite was Tracy Lawrence’s slightly less A-list spin on the above, with “My Second Home” featuring the future superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain, along with John Anderson, Holly Dunn, Hank Flamingo, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, Clay Walker, and a few people that I just can’t identify.
For pure star wattage, it took the bright lights of Hollywood to get a truly amazing group together. The Maverick Choir assembled to cover “Amazing Grace”, and it doesn’t get much better than country gospel delivered in a barn by John Anderson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, Radney Foster, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton, Joy Lynn White, and Tammy Wynette.
What’s your favorite of the bunch? Any good ones I missed?