This is not the column I had planned to write for my first visit with you here in the New Year. That one will have to wait for awhile.
Right now I can only focus on the empty spot inside my heart…and I’m sure inside many of yours…caused by the loss of my friend and fellow entertainer, Little Jimmy Dickens.
I was driving to the Ryman Auditorium Friday night shortly after 6:30 when I received a call from the longtime guitar player in my band, Les Singer, telling me that Jimmy had passed away. It was a shock, because only a few hours earlier I had been told that he was improving and getting stronger. My songwriting buddy, Bobby Tomberlin, had spent several hours with him at the hospital on New Year’s Eve and said Jimmy kept trying to fix him up with one of his nurses. When I heard that, I smiled and said, “Yep, he’s getting better all right!”
After the Friday Opry….where I tripped over my tongue trying to express what was in my heart…I came home and spent most of the rest of the night thinking back and remembering the many ways and countless times that Little Jim touched my life.
I first met him in the early fifties when I was a teenager and he came to Atlanta for a show. I don’t know how I managed to work my way backstage, but I did, and during the intermission I found myself standing and talking with him. I asked him about the metal clamp he had across the neck of his guitar, and he very patiently explained to me that it was called a capo. “I use it to play in different keys,” he said. “My fingers are so small that it helps me make chords I wouldn’t be able to make without it.”
The next time I recall seeing him was when some buddies and I came to Nashville a few years later and had balcony seats at the Ryman. Jimmy came on stage that night and said he hoped the audience would like a new song he had just recorded called, “We Could.” We heard him sing it live for the first time. It went on to become one of the staples of his career.
During my disc jockey days in Georgia, Jimmy performed in Athens and I interviewed him for my radio program. Later, after I moved to Nashville and began touring and playing the Opry, our paths crossed many, many times.
But it wasn’t until later, after Jimmy had left the Opry for a few years and then returned, that I felt I truly got to know him. We became fellow Kung Pao Buckaroos on the Brad Paisley records. We spent a week together up in Maine on Jimmy Dean’s yacht, the “Big Bad John,” where we went fishing during the day and sat around the piano and sang songs at night. We became co-conspirators on the Country’s Family Reunion television series. He asked me to host a live performance video he was recording for his fans, and when Big & Rich exploded on the music scene, he decided we should parody their name and tour together as Little & Po’. Those tours provided me with an even greater opportunity to know the man inside the rhinestone suits and beneath the tall western hats.
I learned that Jimmy Dickens might have been small in stature, but his heart was as big as any I’ve ever known. I never saw him be anything but gracious and kind to his fans. I’ve seen him sign autographs for young kids in an airport, then turn and lean down to have his picture made with an elderly lady in a wheel chair. In all the concerts we performed together, never once did I see him give less than 100% to the audience who had paid to come see him.
Jimmy had that rare ability to take his craft seriously but to not take himself seriously at all. Wearing a bright pink rhinestoned suit he would say, “I look like a walking, talking bottle of Pepto Bismol.” He joked about his size: “I’m Little Jimmy Dickens or Willie Nelson after taxes.” We heard those lines hundreds of times but we still laughed because he delivered them with love and with passion and with the most impeccable timing of anyone who ever performed.
Pete Fisher, our Opry general manager, hosted a 94th birthday party for Little Jim at his home back on December 14th. I presented Jim with a framed caricature drawing of himself that I had asked a friend, Jerry Dowling up in Cincinnati, to draw for the occasion. He smiled when he saw it, but that smile paled in comparison to the one he gave later to his wife, Mona, when he told everyone in the room, “I wouldn’t be alive today were it not for this incredible woman.” In a business where marital stability is a rarity, Jimmy and Mona’s union lasted for 43-years.
The following Saturday night I introduced him on stage for what would turn out to be his final appearance on the Opry. He was not listed as a performer on the program, and I told the audience they were in for a very special surprise. I told them he had turned 94-years old the day before and urged them to give him the welcome that he deserved. They sprang to their feet as I announced, “Little….Jimmy….Dickens!”
He was in rare form that night. I thought his voice was stronger and his movements on stage more confident than I had seen in quite some time. He cracked a couple of his trademark jokes then ripped into one of his signature hits, “Out Behind The Barn.” When the song was over, I moved quickly back onstage and told him not to leave, that we had something special for him. He said, “I’m not fired, am I?”
One of the Opry assistants rolled out a big cake with “Happy 94th Birthday” written on top. I turned back to the audience and invited them to join with those of us on stage in singing Happy Birthday to “Little Jimmy.” They responded beautifully, Jimmy smiled and thanked them, then turned and walked off stage to another standing ovation.
His bright blue suit faded into the darkness, and I never saw him again.
His passing marks the end of an era. As Eddie Stubbs told me just after we had both heard the news, “He was our last link to Hank Williams and that golden age of country music.” And Eddie was right. It was an era that once was and, sadly, will never be again.
The next few days will be hard as we say our final goodbyes and lay one of our heroes to rest. The Friday and Saturday nights to come will be emptier than they might have been were Little Jimmy still able to bounce onto the Opry stage and light up every corner of the building.
We’ll miss you, ‘Tater. Rest in peace, my friend, and thanks for the memories.
There will never be another one like you.