Country Music Hall of Famer Jimmy Dickens, the Grand Ole Opry's most beloved and diminutive ambassador, died Friday at a Nashville area hospital. He was 94.
Mr. Dickens starred for decades on the "Opry," where he was a vital part of the scene both onstage and backstage. His dressing room was an essential stop for performers on the show, and it was there that he held court for a variety of artists, some of whom came to the Opry more than a half century after Mr. Dickens' 1948 debut.
He remained a vital performer throughout his life, last playing the "Opry" on Dec. 20, a day after his 94th birthday and five days before he would be admitted to the hospital after suffering a stroke on Christmas Day. He died of cardiac arrest on Friday.
When the spotlight shone on him, Mr. Dickens would make fun of his size ("I'm Little Jimmy Dickens, or Willie Nelson after taxes"), his rhinestone-studded outfits ("There goes Mighty Mouse in his pajamas") and his old-timer status (He would often introduce his "latest hit," from 1965).
"The Grand Ole Opry did not have a better friend than Little Jimmy Dickens," Opry vice president and general manager Pete Fisher said in a statement Friday. "He loved the audience and his Opry family, and all of us loved him back. He was a one-of-kind entertainer and a great soul whose spirit will live on for years to come."
In the final decades of his career, Mr. Dickens' kindness, affability and hospitality were his calling cards. Where others would say "goodnight," Mr. Dickens would shake hands and offer, "We appreciate you." But some of those who laughed with him and sang along to the songs he regularly performed on the "Opry" were unaware of what a potent, even groundbreaking performer he was in the 1950s.
While the newly popular genre called rock 'n' roll threatened country's viability, Mr. Dickens toured with a Country Boys band that featured two electric guitars, a steel guitar and more volume than Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry could muster. The classic Country Boys bands of the 1950s included spectacular players such as steel guitarists Walter Haynes and Buddy Emmons, guitarists Jabbo Arrington, Howard Rhoton and Spider Wilson and bass man Bob Moore.
"Their complex musical minds coupled with the fire of their teenaged youthful exuberance made for an instrumental combination which wouldn't be bettered," wrote Eddie Stubbs in the liner notes of Dickens' Bear Family boxed set. Rhoton and Wilson often engaged in twin leads that were precursors to the sounds used by The Allman Brothers Band in the 1970s. And though Mr. Dickens often downplayed his own rock 'n' roll efforts, records such as "(I Got) a Hole in My Pocket" and "Hey Ma! (Hide the Daughter)" were visceral and invigorating.