NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Little Jimmy Dickens was remembered on Thursday for his humor and warmth at a funeral on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed regularly for decades until shortly before his death at age 94.
Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Vince Gill and other stars sang songs and told stories about the 4-foot-11 showman with the amazing 76-year career who had a reputation for making nervous, young newcomers feel welcome.
"When you're young and someone's kind to you like that, you never forget it," Gill said, recalling his own early experiences with Dickens. Then he asked the group of several hundred mourners, "Let me have a show of hands — who all thought that Little Jimmy Dickens was your best friend?"
One of Dickens' friends included gold-medal Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton, who joked that he and Dickens hit it off because they were both short and "we both made a living performing in lots of beads and spangles."
Underwood said her mother warned her to watch out for Dickens when she first performed on the Opry "'because he likes the pretty girls.'" But she said Dickens always kissed her hand whenever he saw her and "had a little piece of my heart."
Opry General Manager Pete Fisher spoke of how Dickens always was up for anything, whether it was dressing up like a Leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day or climbing onto a step ladder to get eye level with 6-foot-6 country singer Trace Adkins.
Dickens was best known for his novelty songs and his jokes: His biggest hit was "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose," which earned him a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983.
But on Thursday, fans and friends also remembered him for his heart-wrenching ballads.
Larry and Vickie Hurst drove from Kansas City, Missouri, and waited outside the Opry House in single-digit temperatures for nearly an hour before the doors opened. Interviewed before the funeral about their favorite Dickens song, Larry Hurst said, "There are so many, but one that always makes me cry is "Raggedy Ann."
In that song, listeners learn through a man's conversation with a doll of his love for a daughter who died. A Raggedy Ann doll was placed by a flower arrangement near Dickens' coffin on Thursday.
"He could break your heart out with a ballad," Vickie Hurst added.
Eddie Stubbs, who gave the eulogy, also praised Dickens' talent as a balladeer and noted that when Dickens first began performing in 1938, there were people listening to him who had been alive during the Civil War.
"His loss is incalculable to country music. It represents the end of an era. Within his lifetime the entire country music industry happened."
Stubbs and others also spoke of how tough Dickens was, growing up poor in West Virginia, sometimes struggling in his early years as a performer and suffering from numerous health problems.
"The joy of bringing happiness to others sustained him in good times and bad," Stubbs said.
At the closing, Brad Paisley teared up before leading a group of performers in singing "Will the Circle be Unbroken," a tradition that he said Dickens started.
"At 94, your journey has ended," Paisley said, stopping to choke back tears, "but we'll take it from here, little buddy."