Monday, December 19, 2011

A reflection of Christmas lights and birthdays with Little Jimmy Dickens, a giant of a human being

Little Jimmy Dickens is one of my favorite people, deservingly loved for his charm and personality. People sometimes forget he's one hell of an artist. But that's an aside. Saw him Saturday night at the Preds game and we all sang Happy Birthday to Little Jim. Anyway, in appreciation of a great man's 91 years -- his birthday is today -- I thought I'd resurrect a story I wrote for my friend, Susan Leathers, and her Brentwoood Home Page last Christmas. Remember,this story is a year old, so it doesn't reflect anything happening today. I haven't been out to see if Jimmy has his lights back. In any case, the story you are about to read is true.

Little Jimmy Dickens sits in his house on West Concord Road in Brentwood and chirps, softly, about the activity on his one-acre lot.
“I’m just kicking back and watching the birds,” says the Grand Ole Opry legend, adding quickly that something is missing from his yard this year.
For the first time in more than two decades, the homestead in Brentwood Hills is absent the elaborate light display that has raised children’s smiles and bedazzled holiday sightseers.
Closing in on his 90th birthday, he simply decided not to partake in the elaborate decorating this year. You see, he’s not one to hire yard decorators. This salt-of-the-earth soul always has done it himself.
“It’s such a struggle to put them up by myself. I just let it go this year,” says Dickens on a blustery Williamson County afternoon.
Then he pauses. “I miss it. A lot. I been doing it for so long.”
He explains that this year he and his wife, Mona, and their two daughters and their families – “I’ve got two granddaughters and a great-grandbaby, a girl. I’m surrounded by pretty girls” – are going to spend Christmas away from Brentwood.
“We have a chalet up on the mountain in Gatlinburg that we’re being given to use,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
While up there, they’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Christmas Eve marriage to Mona. “We’ll just be with everybody,” he says, of that celebration.
Because of the plans to Christmas in the mountains rather than home in Brentwood, the genial heart of the Opry figured he’d limit the decorating to a lonely wreath or two.
He doesn’t blame age, although he could, of course. He was a mere youth, perhaps not even 70, when he began turning his home place into a holiday showplace.
It sounds like even he has a hard time believing it when he says: “I’ll be 90 Dec. 19.”
That birthday, by the way, will be celebrated at home. But Dickens doesn’t know yet what’s in store for him.
“My wife is full of secrets. She don’t tell me much, but I’ll be in the middle of it,” he says, breaking into the laughter that has delighted Opry fans since he joined that historic broadcast family in 1948.
“Tater” – as his pal Hank Williams dubbed Dickens after the 4-foot-11 performer’s song “Take an Old Cold ’Tater (And Wait)” --reckons that since his birthday is on a Sunday, at least it will be one of his days off. He still works the Opry regularly, performing Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights as well as being available whenever the show needs him.
“They keep me busy,” he says. “But I don’t do any recording or any touring much anymore. Oh, I’ll do a few things with Bill Anderson and the casinos here and there.”
Other than that, he’s content with his work for the Opry. He also admits delight at the newest generation of fans hatched after he began appearing in videos and televised appearances with reigning CMA entertainer of the year Brad Paisley, who as a teenager opened for Dickens and who still regards the older, smaller man as a mentor.
“Brad’s been so very kind to me to use me in his videos and stuff. He’s just a prince,” says Dickens, who began his show biz career in 1938 on the radio in West Virginia.
For the next decade, he plied his musical trade for radio stations throughout the Midwest, where in addition to singing and picking “I was selling anything from baby chicks to trees.”
He found his permanent home in 1948, when “Mr. (Roy) Acuff brought me to the Opry.”
That King of Country Music died in 1992, but this firecracker of an entertainer continues to thrive.
When Dickens isn’t at the Opry, there’s a good chance he’s talking about it. “I do a lot of interviews and things like that. I enjoy talking to people. I appreciate their interest. I worry when they don’t call me.”
When he’s not engaged in Opry pursuits, he keeps busy taking care of the house and his acre yard in Brentwood Hills.
“There’s always something to do around here daily,” he says, of the chores he’s tended to in the four decades or so spent in “the third house built on this hill.”
As noted earlier, the wildlife rank pretty highly on his list of passions. “We feed a lot of birds,” he says, pointing out “at least a dozen” feeders within eyeshot.
“We have those little bitty wrens and whatever you call them. They’re beautiful. Got a lot of redbirds, too.”
He also tends to the pond filled with “big Japanese coy. They go to the bottom, though, this time of year.”
But on this cold and gray December day, he admits regrets about not putting the lights up this year.
“Oh it’s a lot of work. It takes me about a week to put them up,” says this lively nonagenarian.
He’s unlike many holiday decorating enthusiasts, in that he can’t quantify his work by rattling off the number of lights he has put up in years past.
“Golly, I have no idea. I just kept putting them up until I ran out.”
And there are some special reasons he laments not taking the effort to get his yard decorated and lighted up by the day after Thanksgiving, as has been his tradition.
“I like it when the kids in the neighborhood come by and look at them. And down at the Orphans Home, well, they bring the children by and see them lights. That was worth it.
“They would just bring them buses by. That’s the part I miss more than anything. The people in the neighborhood thanking me for putting them up and the kids enjoying them.
“That meant a lot to me.”
There is a long pause and a twinkle. “I think I’ll probably do them again next year.”

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