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Little Jimmy Dickens, Keith Bilbrey and a Palace for Music City Roots

Let’s be clear. When it comes to hangin’ out with Little Jimmy Dickens, the coolest cat who ever donned a rhinestone Nudie suit, unless you are Brad Paisley, you’ve got nothing to compare to our own Keith Bilbrey. Bilbrey was with WSM and/or the Grand Ole Opry for 35 years, and while it would be impolite for him to say that his dear friend Little Jimmy was his favorite star, we know Keith well enough to suspect it’s true. Charismatic, ultra-professional and attuned to all the other talents around him old and young, Dickens was the epitome of country music grandeur and theater right up to his death in 2015 at the age of 94.

Keith Bilbrey and Little Jimmy at the Nashville Palace.

A few days later, Bilbrey told the Williamson Herald that he and Dickens had bonded over their youthful passion for getting on the radio whatever it took.

“You know, Jimmy was real,” Bilbrey said. “(The Grand Ole Opry) was a stage show, but it was also a radio show. He grew up in radio. He would open the radio station every morning in his hometown by crowing like a rooster at 13 years old. He told me, ‘I’d have done anything to get on air.’”

Sounds like us. As Music City Roots makes its home town tour of awesome venues, we turn this week to the Nashville Palace, right there in the Opry’s back yard, for a tribute to Little Jimmy Dickens and his home state of West Virginia. And of course, Mr. Keith Bilbrey will be our master of ceremonies, which is ever our honor.

The night’s concept came from WV native and Nashville roots superstar Tim O’Brien and his musical friend Todd Burge, a stellar songwriter and artist who opted to stay in West Virginia to pursue his career, thus his regular spots with the great Charleston-based NPR show Mountain Stage and his accolades from that show’s producer Larry Groce as the state’s “premiere songwriter.”

So we asked Todd to share some thoughts on Little Jimmy to set up the night. He wrote back to say that coming from tiny, Depression-era Bolt, WV and making it big in Nashville in the 1950s and beyond was a “huge deal.”

Little Jimmy Dickens showed West Virginia musicians and songwriters what was possible. That little man helped us see over the hills and hollers. We all need this in our lives, but it’s possible that no one needs it more than the aspiring musicians born and raised here.

Dickens was rockin’, swingin’, upbeat, fun and funny. He made stages shine all over the world. He could also pull you into a dark place which reflected his West Virginia upbringing with songs like “Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed,” “Raggedy Ann Doll” and “Shopping for Dresses.” Humor was at times mixed with sorrow. Maybe this was his way of processing the sad times in his life. His possible self-induced therapy connected with so many listeners. He had a way of mixing up emotions, yet always left his audience with smiles on their faces.

Thus we have a great icon to think and talk about and, in Burge, an astute curator of talent who brings pride and artistic power to the Roots stage. Now, Tim is involved with the WV Music Hall of Fame, where he is a board member and an inductee (he didn’t vote on himself, he assures us). The ten-year-old institution has celebrated music as rangy and wild as the state itself, including jazz man Chu Berry, Hendrix bass player Billy Cox and blues singer Nat Reese among many others. Last fall, the Hall released a tribute album to Little Jimmy with performances by many of the artists (some of them hall of famers themselves) who’ll be joining us at this next show.

For example, Connie Smith sang “We Could” a magnificently melodic and romantic country song from the era Smith helped define, the Nashville Sound of the 60s and 70s. For those of us who didn’t grow up steeped in country music history but were learning it as adults, it was fortuitous that Smith launched a comeback in the late 90s with the help of her producer and would-be husband Marty Stuart. For me and others, she came like a voice from the present and the past at the same time. Who WAS this amazing country singer? Well we did our homework. We discovered “Once A Day” and so many other scintillating and emotional songs. We found out why she’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame and a living legend.

Smith spent only a tiny bit of her childhood in WV, but Kathy Mattea is 100% from the Mountain State and a 100% servant of great music. She’s dedicated recent years to refining and distilling the lovely hybrid of folk and country that made her a star in the 1980s and 90s, releasing albums patiently and steadily, each with its own story and clear reason to be. It is always a heart-lifting joy to listen to Kathy’s sets, and even more to spend time with her.

We’ll hear as well from the Carpenter Ants, a friendly and versatile band that’s been together for more than a quarter century playing what they describe as old style rhythm and blues, gospel soul and country funk. We enjoyed their company at the Loveless Barn many years ago and they livened up the room with spirit, optimism and a joyful noise. They did a song on the Little Jimmy tribute album called “How To Catch An African Skeeter Alive,” and if they don’t perform that at MCR, I will stage rush them.

A late-breaking addition to the bill and a very nice surprise is John Ellison. As a member of the Soul Brothers Six on Atlantic Records in the 1960s, he wrote “Some Kind of Wonderful,” one of the more widely recorded and broadcast songs in American history. A native of tiny Montgomery and Landgraff, WV, he’s spent his career partly in Canada. And he was inducted into the WV Music Hall of Fame in 2015.


And of course there’s Tim O’Brien. If you’re this far into this piece and this far into the story of Music City Roots, you don’t need a refresher on his hugely influential career. We’re still working out issues of flow and show order, but it’s pretty clear that Tim will be an anchoring presence. He also tells us his pal Russ Hicks, pedal steel star, will be coming along to be part of the band. Tim and Kathy Mattea go way back. He’s been a collaborator and producer with Todd Burge as well. So it’s going to be a family affair with some mountain mojo and an air of love for a feisty and funny country music mega-star who kept it real on-stage and off until right up to the end.