West Virginia musicians lend their talents to a Little Jimmy Dickens tribute album.
When Raleigh county’s pint-sized, rhinestone-studded country star Little Jimmy Dickens died in January 2015, Michael Lipton wasted no time putting together a string of tribute shows for the Grand Ole Opry favorite, known to his friends as “Tater.” But even after the curtains closed, his co-conspirators weren’t ready to let Dickens’ memory go. “Somebody said, ‘We should do a record,’” says Lipton, who is executive director of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
Lipton realized a Dickens tribute album could be “a much more diverse, cooler record than most.” He decided to create an album of Dickens’ lesser-known songs and allow the artists to get creative with their performances. The result is Rhinestone Hillbilly: A Tribute to Little Jimmy Dickens. The track list features longtime Mountain State music scene favorites like Todd Burge, John Lilly, and Mountain Stage host Larry Groce as well as notable expats like Ann Magnuson, Kathy Mattea, Connie Smith, Tim O’Brien, and more.
But the shiniest rhinestone in this metaphorical Nudie suit is the recording of Dickens’ “(You’ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann,” which features none other than Bill Withers. “When I was going over songs and thinking of people to do them, I came across this recitation thing, ‘Raggedy Ann.’ It popped into my head, ‘I bet he’d like to do this,’” Lipton says.
Withers, who notched hit after hit in the 1970s and early ’80s, retired from music in 1985 and hasn’t released a solo recording since. Lipton knew there was a slim chance he’d want to contribute to the tribute album, but decided to ask anyway. “He wrote back immediately and said ‘I’d love to do this,’” Lipton says. Withers recorded a recitation of the song and sent the files to Lipton. “I don’t like to use this word, but it’s pretty close to brilliant. It’s kind of like James Earl Jones reading ‘Teddy Bear,’ except better,” he says, referencing Red Sovine’s chart-topping 1976 weeper.
Lipton and producer Don Dixon recorded a funkified backing track to match Withers’ honeyed voice. It’s quite different from the steel guitar-rich backing on Dickens’ recording but preserves the original’s sense of foreboding. “I’m really excited about the way the stuff turned out. We tried to take some liberties with the songs,” Lipton says. “My philosophy is, there’s no point in trying to recreate them note for note. The interesting part is to try to do something different with the song that’s really in the spirit of it.”
The Hall of Fame has released three other albums to date: A Cry from the Mountains by the Nichols Family, Strangest Dream by dulcimer master Alan Freeman and flatpicking guitar legend Robert Shafer, and Always Lift Him Up, a tribute album for the blind old-timey fiddler Alfred Reed, one of the hall’s inaugural inductees. Proceeds from album sales go to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
Rhinestone Hillbilly was released in 2017. For more information, or to purchase Hall of Fame memorabilia, visit wvmusichalloffame.com.