CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While country music lost a beloved voice last week, West Virginia lost a beloved son. Little Jimmy Dickens, 94, died in a Nashville hospital. However, the music started in the tiny mining town of Bolt, West Virginia where he was born.
Michael Lipton, Director of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, said Dickens was well known for his small stature at 4 feet 11 inches, and for his campy homespun songs. However, Lipton said there was far more musical talent than most knew under the laughter and jokes.
“He’s called the ‘King of the Novelty Song’ with ‘Old Cold Tater’, ‘Hillbilly Fever,’ and ‘Out Behind the Barn.'” said Lipton. “But he was also a ballad singer and he sang gospel. He was particularly proud of that stuff just because it was so close to his heart.”
Lipton said Dickens’ musical roots ran deep in the hills and hollows of West Virginia. He was a member of what Lipton described as West Virginia’s first “Musical Super Group” in the late 1930’s. Jimmy sang with Molly O’Day and Johnny Bailes. Dickens was billed in the group as “The Singing Midget.” All three are today members of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
“He had a classic West Virginia upbringing of the time,” Lipton said. “He was the 13th child of the family and his whole life he embodied West Virginia and he never quit doing that.”
Lipton said Dickens was also a trail blazer. He pioneered the dual lead guitar style which became commonplace around Nashville. He was the first country music singer to tour the world and he had top 10 hits in four decades, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
Dickens grew up in Raleigh County within a few miles of another musical legend Bill Withers. However, it wasn’t until the two of them were inducted the same year in to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame they actually met one another.
During a 2010 interview at the Grand Ole Opry, Dickens commented on how he’d like to die.
“I think the happiest hours I spend in my last days are right here on that stage of the Grand Ole Opry,” Dickens said. “When I die, I want to die right out there in front of those microphones with a full house trying to make them laugh. That’s about as serious as I can be about it.”
He was the longest serving member of the Opry and delivered his last performance December 20 soon after his 94th birthday.
“It was quite remarkable,” said Lipton. “It’s great and just shows music is something you can do your entire life and still have a great time doing it and he clearly always did.”