The Legend: Little Jimmy Dickens 

The People Issue 2012

The People Issue 2012
click to enlarge Photographed in his dressing room at The Grand Ole Opry

Eric England, assistant: Sinclair Kelly

Photographed in his dressing room at The Grand Ole Opry

At the entrance to the Grand Ole Opry's backstage area is a checkpoint. At the ticket area out front is another checkpoint. A guard who's traveled this route for going on two decades leads a visitor through the cavernous Opry House, past a heavy curtain, down a concrete corridor where the air rings with the sawing of unseen fiddles, to a door emblazoned with the name of Little Jimmy Dickens.

Perform on the Opry for 64 years, and you just might get your own.

It was in 1947 that Dickens caught the great Roy Acuff's ear at a Saginaw, Mich., radio station. With Acuff's help, Dickens joined the Opry in September 1948, boosting a career now going on eight decades. He remains the embodiment of the Opry of legend. For him, Hank Williams isn't some icon in Hillbilly Heaven, but the guy who nicknamed him "Tater" and (as legend has it) almost gave him "Hey Good Lookin'." Perhaps more importantly, he bears living witness to the hardships and customs that gave country music its roots, commemorated in classic singles such as "A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed" and "Take an Old Cold Tater (And Wait)."

Asked backstage if those songs still have meaning for country fans growing up in the age of Taylor Swift and the exurban South, for whom Sunday dinners with the parson are as remote as square-dance socials, the country great says matter-of-factly, "Not as much as they once did." But Dickens has kept them fresh through sheer force of personality — and timing. Contemporary stars such as Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood watch his razor-sharp delivery the way Dickens says he used to watch the late Minnie Pearl.

"The secret is getting acquainted with your audience," says Dickens, whose twinkling eyes and coiled energy before the show give him a presence roughly twice the fabled size of his 4 feet, 11 inches. He's wearing a spiffy cowboy hat, immaculate white boots and a dark Hollywood suit whose embroidered cacti, sunbursts and American Indian maidens match the wall hangings in his dressing room. As he awaits the call of his name — a prospect that sends him into a playful fighter's crouch — the suit's rhinestones give off dots of light.

"Not many of us wear rhinestones anymore," Dickens says, drumming his hand on the side of a glass tabletop as he prepares for his entrance. Maybe it's because so few today know how to carry it off so well.

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