Webster's Dictionary defines the word "icon" as: 1) an image or representation; 2) an important or enduring symbol.
While American popular culture is rich in icons, from Marilyn Monroe to James Dean to Albert Einstein, very few represent an institution as effectively as Little Jimmy Dickens represents the Grand Ole Opry. It is nearly impossible to conjure an image of the Opry without seeing the diminutive Dickens in his sparkling rhinestone suits and Stetson cowboy hat, dwarfed by his enormous Gibson J-200 guitar.
He was born James Cecil Dickens in 1920 in the town of Bolt, W.Va., the oldest of 12 children. Dickens started his career in Country Music playing live on WJLS/W.Va. radio in the late 1930s. His involvement in Country radio lasted more than a decade, and included stints in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Topeka, Kan. and Saginaw, Mich. In Cincinnati in 1945, Dickens met Opry star Roy Acuff and appeared as a guest at Acuff's concert. The two singers became friends, and in 1947, when Dickens was working at WKMX/Saginaw, Acuff's tour came through town and Dickens filled the opening slot. Acuff told Dickens that Saginaw was far too harsh a climate and promised to help his friend find work in Nashville's milder environment.
Dickens came to Nashville as a guest on the Red Foley show. He returned to WKMX, but was asked by Acuff to come back to Nashville and stay. Dickens spent the next six months making guest appearances on Acuff's portion of the Opry and
in 1948 he was inducted as an Opry member.
In 1949, Dickens signed with Columbia Records who released his first single, "Take an Old Cold Tater (and Wait)." Dickens recording career spanned more than two decades and several record labels, including Decca and United Artists. He was primarily known for his humorous, novelty songs. Memorable titles include "I'm Little but I'm Loud," "A-sleepin' at the Foot of the Bed," and his only career No. 1, the 1965 hit "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose." The popularity of these humorous songs sometimes overshadowed Dickens' artful performances on ballads "Life Made Her That Way" and "A Violet and a Rose."
In addition to his Opry performances, Dickens maintained a grueling tour schedule in the 1950s and 1960s, playing as many as four shows a day at theaters throughout the country. His band was one of the best in Country Music and at various times included legendary musicians including Grady Moore, "Spider" Wilson and steel guitar pioneer Buddy Emmons.
Country Music Hall of Fame member Dickens currently concentrates on his Opry performances, but continues to perform in casinos and theaters each year.
Asked to list a few of the highlights of his long career, Dickens doesn't hesitate to answer, "Three trips to Vietnam and thirteen trips to Europe. All to entertain our troops."
Dickens also remembers with fondness the package tours with Acuff, Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. He was profoundly influenced by the time he spent in the company of these legendary artists and the lessons of professionalism and showmanship that he learned from them. He was close friends with Williams, who used the title of Dickens' debut single to give him the nickname "Tater" that is emblazoned on his rhinestone encrusted guitar strap to this day.
"I was as close to Hank as anyone. He was moody, but was usually fun to be around. I used to visit him at his house a lot," Dickens said.
On the road, Williams would "peek out from behind the curtain at the audience and say 'Tater, I drew you a good crowd, now go out there and entertain 'em.'"
Another Opry icon Dickens recalls fondly is the late Minnie Pearl, who helped him hone the comic timing on the jokes that pepper his performances.
One of Dickens' most memorable Opry moments was the night he introduced Bob Hope.
"I've got that picture on my wall . and the night that Hank Williams played. I lost count of the encores he did, maybe six or seven. When Hank sang 'Lovesick Blues,' the audience just came undone," Dickens recalled.
At 84, Dickens is as active and vital as many performers half his age. He has as many as five Opry performances each week, frequently adding hosting duties. He spends his days at his Brentwood, Tenn. home with his wife, Mona - working in their expansive garden in the warm months and decorating his property with Christmas lights during the holidays.
He drives himself to the Opry complex roughly two hours prior to show time to greet fans who have requested a backstage meeting with him, including photos of him dressed in one of the rhinestone studded suits that have become his trademark. He estimates that he owns around 40 custom-made costumes.
"I had the first rhinestone custom suit that Nudie ever made," he said, referring to the California tailor who created the suits favored by so many honky-tonk singers. Each of the suits costs an estimated $4,000.
"Well, that's my limit, so they know not to go over that," Dickens explained with a chuckle. While several of the costumes have been sold to benefit various charities, Mona has most of them in storage. "They'll be collectors' items one day," he said.
As the longest tenured member of the longest running radio show in broadcast history, Dickens has seen many changes to his beloved Opry. One of the most drastic came in 1974, when Nashville's urban blight made the Downtown location of the Ryman Auditorium unappealing to fans and the Opry moved into its current home.
"I think we all like it better here at the new Opry House," he said. "At the Ryman, there was no room backstage, hardly any dressing rooms at all."
He notes that the changes to the renovated Ryman make the Opry's occasional return engagements much more pleasant. However, it's clear that he prefers the considerable comfort offered by the newer facility, although he does admit to having a soft spot for the Ryman.
"Well, the Ryman is the birthplace of Little Jimmy Dickens," he said.
According to Opry General Manager Pete Fisher, Dickens is as important to the Opry as the Opry is to Dickens.
"It's difficult to explain how much Little Jimmy Dickens means to the Opry. I have enormous respect for him. He has such amazing leadership qualities. In times of change at the Opry, I look to him for support. Jimmy always takes the high road in any situation, which has been a great benefit to the Opry. He's got so much class. He has a genuine love and concern for others that translates from the stage to the crowd. It's unusual to have a conversation with Jimmy that doesn't include a hug or an 'I love you,'" Fisher said. "I consider him one of the great gifts in my life."
It is apparent when talking with Dickens that the most vital element of the Opry is the audience.
"I learned from watching Miss Minnie and Mr. Acuff that the most important thing is to show kindness to your audience," he said.
This kindness and his enthusiasm for his brand of traditional Country Music remain undiminished after more than half a century of entertaining fans from around the world.