Jimmy Dickens: Iconic
By Rick Kelly
Dictionary defines the word "icon" as: 1) an
image or representation; 2) an important or enduring symbol.
American popular culture is rich in icons, from Marilyn Monroe
to James Dean to Albert Einstein, very few represent an
institution as effectively as Little Jimmy Dickens represents
the Grand Ole Opry. It is nearly impossible to conjure an image
of the Opry without seeing the diminutive Dickens in his
sparkling rhinestone suits and Stetson cowboy hat, dwarfed by
his enormous Gibson J-200 guitar.
was born James Cecil Dickens in 1920 in the town of Bolt, W.Va.,
the oldest of 12 children. Dickens started his career in
Country Music playing live on WJLS/W.Va. radio in the late
1930s. His involvement in Country radio lasted more than a
decade, and included stints in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Topeka,
Kan. and Saginaw, Mich. In Cincinnati in 1945, Dickens met Opry
star Roy Acuff and appeared as a guest at Acuff's concert.
The two singers became friends, and in 1947, when Dickens was
working at WKMX/Saginaw, Acuff's tour came through town and
Dickens filled the opening slot. Acuff told Dickens that Saginaw
was far too harsh a climate and promised to help his friend find
work in Nashville's milder environment.
came to Nashville as a guest on the Red Foley show. He returned
to WKMX, but was asked by Acuff to come back to Nashville and
stay. Dickens spent the next six months making guest appearances
on Acuff's portion of the Opry and in 1948 he was inducted as an
1949, Dickens signed with Columbia Records who released his
first single, "Take an Old Cold Tater (and Wait)."
Dickens recording career spanned more than two decades and
several record labels, including Decca and United Artists. He
was primarily known for his humorous, novelty songs. Memorable
titles include "I'm Little but I'm Loud," "A-sleepin'
at the Foot of the Bed," and his only career No. 1, the
1965 hit "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose."
The popularity of these humorous songs sometimes overshadowed
Dickens' artful performances on ballads "Life Made Her That
Way" and "A Violet and a Rose."
addition to his Opry performances, Dickens maintained a grueling
tour schedule in the 1950s and 1960s, playing as many as four
shows a day at theaters throughout the country. His band was one
of the best in Country Music and at various times included
legendary musicians including Grady Moore, "Spider"
Wilson and steel guitar pioneer Buddy Emmons.
Music Hall of Fame member Dickens currently concentrates on his
Opry performances, but continues to perform in casinos and
theaters each year.
to list a few of the highlights of his long career, Dickens
doesn't hesitate to answer, "Three trips to Vietnam and
thirteen trips to Europe. All to entertain our troops."
also remembers with fondness the package tours with Acuff, Bill
Monroe and Hank Williams. He was profoundly influenced by the
time he spent in the company of these legendary artists and the
lessons of professionalism and showmanship that he learned from
them. He was close friends with Williams, who used the title of
Dickens' debut single to give him the nickname "Tater"
that is emblazoned on his rhinestone encrusted guitar strap to
was as close to Hank as anyone. He was moody, but was usually
fun to be around. I used to visit him at his house a lot,"
the road, Williams would "peek out from behind the curtain
at the audience and say 'Tater, I drew you a good crowd, now go
out there and entertain 'em.'"
Opry icon Dickens recalls fondly is the late Minnie Pearl, who
helped him hone the comic timing on the jokes that pepper his
of Dickens' most memorable Opry moments was the night he
introduced Bob Hope.
got that picture on my wall . and the night that Hank Williams
played. I lost count of the encores he did, maybe six or seven.
When Hank sang 'Lovesick Blues,' the audience just came
undone," Dickens recalled.
84, Dickens is as active and vital as many performers half his
age. He has as many as five Opry performances each week,
frequently adding hosting duties. He spends his days at his
Brentwood, Tenn. home with his wife, Mona - working in their
expansive garden in the warm months and decorating his property
with Christmas lights during the holidays.
drives himself to the Opry complex roughly two hours prior to
show time to greet fans who have requested a backstage meeting
with him, including photos of him dressed in one of the
rhinestone studded suits that have become his trademark. He
estimates that he owns around 40 custom-made costumes.
had the first rhinestone custom suit that Nudie ever made,"
he said, referring to the California tailor who created the
suits favored by so many honky-tonk singers. Each of the suits
costs an estimated $4,000.
that's my limit, so they know not to go over that," Dickens
explained with a chuckle. While several of the costumes have
been sold to benefit various charities, Mona has most of them in
storage. "They'll be collectors' items one day," he
the longest tenured member of the longest running radio show in
broadcast history, Dickens has seen many changes to his beloved
Opry. One of the most drastic came in 1974, when Nashville's
urban blight made the Downtown location of the Ryman Auditorium
unappealing to fans and the Opry moved into its current home.
think we all like it better here at the new Opry House," he
said. "At the Ryman, there was no room backstage, hardly
any dressing rooms at all."
notes that the changes to the renovated Ryman make the Opry's
occasional return engagements much more pleasant. However, it's
clear that he prefers the considerable comfort offered by the
newer facility, although he does admit to having a soft spot for
the Ryman is the birthplace of Little Jimmy Dickens," he
to Opry General Manager Pete Fisher, Dickens is as important to
the Opry as the Opry is to Dickens.
difficult to explain how much Little Jimmy Dickens means to the
Opry. I have enormous respect for him. He has such amazing
leadership qualities. In times of change at the Opry, I look to
him for support. Jimmy always takes the high road in any
situation, which has been a great benefit to the Opry. He's got
so much class. He has a genuine love and concern for others that
translates from the stage to the crowd. It's unusual to have a
conversation with Jimmy that doesn't include a hug or an 'I love
you,'" Fisher said. "I consider him one of the great
gifts in my life."
is apparent when talking with Dickens that the most vital
element of the Opry is the audience.
learned from watching Miss Minnie and Mr. Acuff that the most
important thing is to show kindness to your audience," he
kindness and his enthusiasm for his brand of traditional Country
Music remain undiminished after more than half a century of
entertaining fans from around the world.
2005 CMA Close Up News Service
the Web: www.littlejimmydickens.com