January 4, 2015 by billysparrow
Country Music Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry Legend Jimmy Dickens passed away Friday at the age of 94. His biggest hit was “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” but his list of great songs also includes “Country Music Lover,” “Take an Old Cold Tater (And Wait),” “I’m Little But I’m Loud,” “You All Come,” “Out Behind the Barn,” “(You’ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann,” and “Life Turned Her That Way.”
I wrote about Little Jimmy back on the old blog a few times. The first was after seeing him at Carnegie Hall, a moment captured in the book The Grand Ole Opry: The Making of an American Icon (p. 240).
I don’t have to tell you that that’s me in the top level, standing next to the pole, because I could not sit down when seeing Little Jimmy Dickens live for the first time.
But that was topped when I saw him at the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on a country music legends show in 2006. Only one of the headliners from that show (Jean Shepard) is still with us, which, I suppose, isn’t all that great of a shock, as their average age at the time of the show was a tick above 80. But, still, it is sad that they’re gone and, to me, especially sad that Little Jimmy will now longer take the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Sure, he was 94 and lived a wonderful, full life (making his last Opry appearance a little less than two weeks before he died) and one couldn’t expect that he would live forever, but reading about his passing in the newspaper Saturday morning still knocked me for a loop. Here’s some of what I wrote that helps to explain why:
Finally, the time had come for Little Jimmy to take the stage. And when he gave his standard introduction of “Hello, I’m Little Jimmy Dickens, or Willie Nelson, after taxes,” I was so damn happy that I couldn’t stop smiling. And the 85-year-old Jimmy kept everybody laughing with his between-song jokes, including the obligatory Viagra joke (“I got a stiff neck. Y’know, I been taking them little blue pills people like us take sometimes. And if you don’t swallow them pills fast enough…”) and the classic whisper joke (to summarize, his little brother yells out “I need to go to the bathroom” in the middle of the department store. His mom is embarrassed and tells him not to yell out a thing like that. She tells him, “When you have to use the bathroom, just tell me you need to whisper and I’ll know what you mean.” So, the next day, Little Jimmy’s on the couch at home and his brother comes up to him and says, “I need to whisper! I need to whisper!” So Little Jimmy says, “Well, then you come on over here and whisper right in my ear…”).
And as if the jokes weren’t good enough, the song selection was spot on. When he started to introduce “Life Turned Her That Way,” I got chills. And they stayed throughout the song. It was that song, sung by Little Jimmy on one of the “Country Legends Homecoming” shows on the Nashville Network, that caused me to seek out more of his stuff and more of Harlan Howard’s (who wrote the song). And that just kept snowballing, and still does. I’d listened to country music a little when I was a kid, particularly when my dad would listen to it on WHN while he was getting ready for work or when we were driving up to Eva’s Farm for summer vacation. But it never really took, mainly because my dad loved vocal groups like the Oak Ridge Boys and the Statler Brothers, who never really did it for me (with a few exceptions–“Elvira” and “Flowers on the Wall” being the most prominent). And I liked Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, but it didn’t get much further than that. Until that Saturday night when Little Jimmy sang that song. Then, I got it. Everything opened up. And, now here I was, seeing Little Jimmy Dickens do that same song. I don’t know how to describe that feeling to you. But it was cool.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, he closed with a song I never would’ve thought he’d do: “(You’ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann.” It’s more of a recitation than anything else, as Little Jimmy talks to a Raggedy Ann doll while the band plays softly behind him. As the song goes on, you begin to realize that the doll, which belonged to his daughter, is all that the narrator has left. His wife passed away years ago and he is now talking to the doll at the grave of his daughter, who died when she was quite young. And this will be the last time he talks to the doll, because he’s not able to make it up the hill to the grave anymore, and death will call for him soon, too. The song closes like this:
“Well, I’ve gotta leave you now
I gotta go
And about the only thing that comes to my mind to say to you is God bless you
And you sure have been quite a doll, Raggedy Ann
Yessir, quite a doll”
Now, I could see how someone would find this song to be, I don’t know, a bit maudlin. And I suppose you’re entitled to think that. But when Little Jimmy said those lines and hugged the Raggedy Ann doll, tears may have been close to forming in my eyes. Or maybe they did form. Only I know for sure.
Little Jimmy was one of the last living musical links to Hank Williams (who gave him his “Tater” nickname), and with Little Jimmy’s passing, that bond to the heyday of country music frays a little more. And so, too, unfortunately, does the Grand Ole Opry. With every Opry legend that passes, it becomes a little harder to see the Opry sustaining into the future. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a knock against the younger current members (well, maybe one or two); it’s just that times have changed. And, of course, they always do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be sad when it happens, or when you see the end of something is a little nearer than it used to be. “The Grand Ole Opry did not have a better friend than Little Jimmy Dickens,” Pete Fisher, current Opry VP and general manager, said. And with that friend gone, the Opry loses someone irreplaceable, and country music as a whole suffers the same fate.
There will never be another Little Jimmy Dickens. We were lucky to have him for so long. At least the music survives. Here’s some, including that very “Country Legends Homecoming” performance that was a life changer for me.