Little Jimmy Dickens (1920–2015)

Little Jimmy Dickens 1971 (Moeller Talent, Nashville [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I have to admit that, for a long time, I thought of Little Jimmy Dickens only as one of the many minor characters who inhabited the Grand Old Opry roster, a singer of novelty songs reduced to reprising his few hits now and then and living on past celebrity. The comic side was an image that he cultivated. “I’m Little, But I’m Loud” he trumpeted, back in 1950.  And despite his size (4′ 11″) that was “not an idle boast as he could project his voice to the back of any auditorium” (Terence McArdle in The Washington Post).  But he was more than loud; as I have only begun to discover recently, he was a terrific singer, a stylist who could fill a ballad with depth and meaning as only few can.  Listen to his live version of Felice Bryant’s “We Could,” which Jimmy recorded in 1955 (first recording of this song—The Louvin Brothers recorded it in 1958):

James Cecil Dickens came from coal-mining country in West Virginia and left high school to begin performing on local radio as “Jimmy the Kid.”  He adopted the “Little” moniker after recruited to Columbia Records by Roy Acuff, and for some time it was always surrounded by quotes, as on the 1957 compilation album “Raisin’ the Dickens.”

Raisin the Dickens

To his friends in the business, he was known affectionately as “Tater,” applied by Hank Williams, after Jimmy’s first big hit, in 1947, “Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait),”a song that seemed to suggest a hardscrabble youth for Jimmy, but a search tells us was written by one E. M. Bartlett, Sr., in the 1920s (see here):

Little Jimmy Dickens left the Opry for a few years to tour with the Phillip Morris Country Music Show.  He had a crackerjack band that could swing or even play rockabilly.  “The group’s alumni included pedal steel guitarists Curly Chalker and Buddy Emmons and lead guitarists Grady Martin and Kenneth ‘Thumbs’ Carllile,” writes Terence McArdle.  Little Jimmy Dickens’s repertoire included a lot of gospel music, in addition to ballads, and sentimental recitations.  Indeed, after watching a Youtube video of his popular “Raggedy Ann,” I came away with the impression that, had he been so inclined, he would have made a terrific actor.  Could anyone else have performed this without breaking up?

It was not merely longevity that endeared Little Jimmy Dickens to generations of country music fans.  Asked to define his career by a TV interviewer in West Virginia, Jimmy used just one word: “Honesty” (see here for Part 1, and here for Part 2).  Terence McArdle writes,

On the eve of his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Mr. Dickens reflected on his enduring popularity.

“I’ve always tried to treat audiences right and the people right and to get on their level and visit with them,” he told the Associated Press. “I never actually looked at my people who came to see me as fans but as friends helping me out, and I tried to treat them that way.”

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