Brow Beat

The Last Hillbilly

Little Jimmy Dickens in 2010. His hits included “Take an Old Cold Tater (and Wait).”

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

“Little” Jimmy Dickens, the spark-plug country star and decades-spanning Grand Ole Opry mainstay, died Friday in Nashville, at age 94. He’d been among country music’s most beloved figures for as long as almost anyone alive today can remember, a beloved link to that rhinestone-and-rope era known as Country & Western. He first joined the Opry cast all the way back in 1948—several months before Hank Williams debuted there—and had long since outlived every one of his mid-century C&W contemporaries. He was the Last Hillbilly.

Dickens will be most immediately remembered for two intertwined traits: He was quite short and quite funny. Dickens quickly realized that the way to get audiences past the novelty of a singer who stood, maybe, 4’ 11” was to cultivate a close-to-the-ground comic persona and to self-deprecate from the jump. Early on, he billed himself as “The Singing Midget.” He liked to joke that, as an early adopter of the bejeweled Nudie suit, he resembled “Mighty Mouse in his pajamas.” Much later, he was “Willie Nelson, after taxes.” But for members of his audience, Dickens wasn’t just short; he was one of the little guys, one of them, working class and rural-identified, humble but game. Little Jimmy was a Mickey Rooney for the country set, high energy and forever brimming with pluck and indomitable, down-to-earth American optimism. As he put it on one early recording, “I’m Little but I’m Loud.”

Dickens was only briefly a hit maker. Between 1949 and 1954, he scored seven Top Ten hits with country-ways evoking titles like “Take an Old Cold Tater (and Wait),” “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed,” “Hillbilly Fever,” “Country Boy” and “Out Behind the Barn,” then all but disappeared from the charts for the remainder of his nearly seventy-year career. He missed another potential hit when Hank Williams wrote “Hey Good Lookin’” specifically for the friend he’d nicknamed “Tater,” then decided it was too good a song not to record himself.

Little Jimmy’s early high-energy hits were both fun and funny, and together they earned Dickens a lifetime reputation as a novelty tune specialist. That reputation only intensified when, after a decade-long dry spell, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose” topped the country charts for Dickens in 1965, climbed to No. 15 on the pop charts, and landed him guest spots on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

It was as unlikely a smash as “Purple People Eater” or “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” but it was a better song than those. Sounding like an insult comic working a Pentecostal tent revival, backed by a group of Nashville Cats picking guitars strung with rubber bands, Dickens tore through “Paradise” brandishing a series of G-rated F.U.’s: “May an elephant caress you with his toes, may your wife be plagued with runners in her hose.” Its flabbergasting success sent Dickens down a novelty sinkhole for a few years (“How to Catch an African Skeeter Alive,” “When the Ship Hit the Sand”), chasing another zany hit without finding one.

Heard today, though, what the full-on novelty of “Bird of Paradise” most clearly reveals is that Dickens’ earlier hits weren’t novelties at all so much as humorously recalled slices of life—what country historian Bill C. Malone has called the “comic re-creation of experiences that were often painful.” “Take an Old Cold Tater (and Wait),” after all, was just what country boys and girls endured while the grownups ate supper. “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed” was where the young’uns inevitably wound up squeezed when company stayed the night. “Out Behind the Barn” was where farm kids got their hides tanned by their pappies. Dickens’ funny backward glances were almost always toward pasts that were funny only in hindsight. His music let the increasingly middle-class-and-citified country audience measure just how much better off they were now than then.

“Country Boy,” a Dickens Top Ten from 1949, did something else the country audience needed: Tell the world, especially those urban coastal types who “think they’re so dad-burned high-falutin’,” that being from the country was something worth being. Decades before Merle Haggard declared he was proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, and more than half a century before Montgomery Gentry, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and assorted 21st century acts crowed how damned country they were—and how sick they were of people looking down at them for it—Dickens’ “Country Boy” had already established the kiss-my-country-ass template.  Plus, you could dance to it.  

And there was always more to Dickens than novelty. His “(I Got) a Hole in My Pocket,” from 1957, rocked about as hard as rockabilly ever rocked. He was one of country music’s greatest recitation artists, too. In 1970’s  “(You’ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann,” a man grieving the death of his daughter is reduced to confiding graveside with her favorite toy and tries to walk a tight rope stretched from overwhelming sentiment to simple sanity. He doesn’t make it.

For anyone familiar only with his hits, it may be surprising to learn that Dickens was also one of the genre’s finest-ever ballad singers. His pipes and phrasing were particularly admired by peers. No less a country vocalist than George Jones cut a ballad-only tribute to him in 1964, George Jones Sings Like the Dickens. On sad, beautiful numbers such as “We Could” (which he often cited as a personal favorite), or “Take Me As I Am (or Let Me Go),” “Farewell Party,” and “Life Turned Her that Way,” Dickens’ powerful, thick-as-sorghum-molasses tenor would tremble about key notes in a deeply affecting vibrato.  

From his roots growing up in a West Virginia coal mining clan in the 1920s and ’30s to guesting in Brad Paisley videos in the 21st century, Dickens’ story has been country music’s story. And while he hadn’t scored a hit in nearly four decades—hell, he’s been a Country Music Hall of Fame member as long as Miranda Lambert has been alive—that story is ongoing. Fun-and-funny country songs about how it was back in the day; spirited anthems about how it’s cool to be country and screw the haters; we’re loud because we’re little—these remain defining elements of modern country music. And as long as they do, Jimmy Dickens stands tall.