(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
Little Jimmy Dickens’ death is a loss to his many fans, the Grand Ole Opry and country music in general, but I feel especially sad for those who never had the opportunity to watch him perform in person.
I’ve got a lot of friends who could be described as casual country fans, at best. However, when they make their first trip to Nashville, a visit to the Opry is near the top of their list of things to do. They might be interested in seeing some of the contemporary country stars, but their primary interest in the Opry is because it’s one of the things that made Nashville famous. From a tourist’s perspective, it’s like visiting the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower.
When I’d ask for their opinions of the Opry performances, they invariably mentioned Dickens, a 4-foot, 11-inch firecracker who never failed to rule the stage.
“He said he overheard somebody referring to him as ‘Mighty Mouse in pajamas,’” my friends would laugh and tell me.
“And did he say the line about looking like Willie Nelson after taxes?” I’d always ask with a smile.
Those were the same jokes he’d been telling for years, but an old joke is still funny if you’ve never heard it. And Dickens’ demeanor onstage was so warm and neighborly, you had to laugh even when you saw the punchline coming.
People never stopped “discovering” Dickens. Aside from somebody like Tony Bennett, how many singers can claim such a distinction?
To a lot of people, Dickens was a novelty act, but he truly was a fully-rounded entertainer — a job description that’s become a lost art. Sure, his hits included “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed,” “Out Behind the Barn,” “Take an Old Cold ‘Tater (and Wait)” and “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” and he capitalized on his diminutive stature by wearing flashy sequined suits and a cowboy hat while brandishing a Gibson J-200 guitar — one of the largest production instruments ever manufactured.
On the other hand, he was a great singer, as evidenced in recordings such as “Life Turned Her That Way,” “We Could,” “I’m Making Love to a Stranger” and “Another Bridge to Burn.” In an all-but-forgotten country subgenre — the tear-jerker — Dickens could go straight for the heart with songs such as “Raggedy Ann” and “Letter to Santa.” Those two numbers were recitations, a form which, with the possible exception of Bill Anderson, has become a lost art, too.
Dickens scored his first hit in 1949, the same year Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley were topping the country chart. In 1965, the year he had his one and only No. 1 single with “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” the chart was dominated by artists such as Buck Owens, Roger Miller and Marty Robbins. All of them are now deceased, and Dickens was one of the last performers alive who could count Williams as one of his peers.
Dickens joined the Opry in 1948 and never wavered in his love and support of the institution. I regret not being there on Dec. 20 when he made his final performance as part of his 94th birthday celebration. Still, I’ve got a feeling someone was in the audience that night who heard him for the first time and walked away feeling like they’d made a personal discovery of a guy who was always a legend to the rest of us.