By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE (Reuters) - Country music stars sang a farewell on Thursday to Grand Ole Opry icon Little Jimmy Dickens, who died last week at 94 after decades performing at the landmark Nashville venue.
Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Chris Young and Old Crow Medicine Show took the stage near Dickens' casket in songful tribute during a two-hour memorial service.
When it was over, the curtain was lowered and Dickens left the stage for the last time at the theater where he brought laughter and toe-tapping to country fans for generations.
Dickens - who sang novelty numbers such as "Out Behind the Barn," and "May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose" as well as traditional country hits - joined the Opry in 1948.
The comical 4-foot-11-inch performer died Jan. 2 of cardiac arrest at a Nashville hospital after suffering a stroke on Christmas Day.
"We need to remember that smile, that personality and that one-of-a-kind sense of humor," said Paisley, who was among the younger generation of performers who embraced Dickens, the Opry's oldest living member.
Underwood broke into tears after telling a story about how her mother warned her to "watch out for Little Jimmy Dickens, because he likes the pretty girls" before her first Opry appearance. She went on to say her hero kissed her hand every time he saw her.
Underwood and Gill sang the latter's "Go Rest High On That Mountain," which has become a staple of country music funerals.
"If they say that only the good die young, well, evidently the greatest of all live to be 94 and sing two weeks before they pass on," Gill said at the memorial. Dickens' final Opry appearance was Dec. 20, the day after his 94th birthday.
He was often referred to by his friends as "Tater," a nickname bestowed by his pal Hank Williams after Dickens' early hit "Take An Old Cold Tater (and Wait)."
Dickens' memory lives on not just in the music but in the wardrobe of country stars. He has been credited with introducing rhinestone-studded suits to the Opry.
Some of his suits, his empty white cowboy boots and his white hat joined the floral arrangements on the stage.
Paisley called on the mourners to sing "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," adding that Dickens began the tradition of closing country music funerals with that song.
"We'll take it from here, little buddy," a tearful Paisley said.
(Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Dan Grebler)