A Palace For Little Jimmy
The last time Tim O’Brien played Music City Roots, he was focusing on his album Where The River Meets The Road, something of a love letter to his home state of West Virginia. It mixes original songs with compositions by other natives, including Bill Withers and Billy Edd Wheeler. Tim told us on stage: “Being farther away from the state, which I have for these 40-some years, I’m nostalgic for it more than I used to be. I love going back to that music. And through the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, I’ve learned more about it. I knew a lot about it before, but I had to dig deeper. And I’m always finding out new people I didn’t know were from the state who’ve made a mark.”
Recently, Tim and his fellow West Virginian Todd Burge came to us with the idea of a WV-focused tribute show for the late great Little Jimmy Dickens, we flipped out a little. They delivered a star-studded, edu-taining show to us virtually plug and play. And the venue will suit the subject matter perfectly. This edition of Roots on the Road will take place April 11 at the Nashville Palace, the dance-hall/honky tonk hotbed of traditional country up in the Grand Ole Opry’s back yard.
Todd Burge is 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 I 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 in WV.
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 mentioned 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 his passing at age 94.