For those of us who lean country, it was kind of a rough weekend as we learned of the almost simultaneous passings of Donna Douglas, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Miller Williams. Blame it all on my roots, but I’m lucky to have some memories involving each of them.
Donna Douglas is best known for playing Elly May Clampett on the popular 1960s sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” although she also starred in the silly Elvis Presley movie Frankie and Johnny. Long before Laurie Partridge, Elly May was my first celebrity crush. These kinds of fascinations cannot be precisely explained, but when I about six years old, Elly May was my kind of beautiful. When “The Beverly Hillbillies” was on, my mom liked to encourage me to pucker up and zero in to plant a kiss on Elly May’s black-and-white image on our television. Of course, the funniest thing in the world was when the shot changed at the last second and I ended up smacking Granny instead.
Little Jimmy Dickens was a Grand Ole Opry fixture for more than sixty years. Although small in stature, his stage presence and raucous singing made a big impression. I don’t recall my grandpa having many opinions about music, but I remember my dad saying that Grandpa liked that Little Jimmy Dickens song “Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait.” I can’t blame him because it’s a pretty good song, but two other Little Jimmy Dickens songs were probably the first things I learned by heart, and I still sing them to myself on a fairly regular basis. “Truck Load of Starvin’ Kangaroos” and “When the Ship Hit the Sand” were the two sides of a 1966 Little Jimmy Dickens single that we had around the house. When I was eight or nine years old, I thought they were hilarious, and I listened to that record over and over.
Miller Williams was a great American poet with a common touch. Although I wouldn’t say he appealed to the cornball side of life as much as Donna Douglas and Little Jimmy Dickens, I always thought his poems were likely to appeal to people who don’t interact much with poetry. Miller was also known as the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and as the 1997 Inaugural Poet at President Clinton’s second swearing-in. I was privileged to spend the better part of a couple of days with him as he visited our school’s Writers Week a few weeks after those inaugural festivities.
Tony Romano and I arranged to meet Miller at a book signing in downtown Chicago and then bring him out to the suburbs for his school visit the next day. After the signing, he wanted to unwind a bit before getting in the car, so we went to a place next door and made quite a bit of wine disappear. (I think Tony was the designated driver.) Miller liked to talk, and Tony and I had a master class in poetry as we visited in the bar and during the car ride. I remember him saying that he liked to write by getting comfortable in a chair with a pen and a legal pad, and then just starting to play around with a phrase or a line or two. Miller made us feel like honorary family members as he showed us the little photo album he carried with him on his travels. One picture showed a cookout at his house. Lucinda was there, along with country singer Tom T. Hall and some fellow named Jimmy Carter. (A couple years later, our principal sent Tony and me to a Jimmy Carter event with the hope of also luring him to our Writers Week. Meeting the former president was a thrill for us, of course, and when Tony mentioned “our mutual friend Miller Williams,” President Carter said, “Oh,yes! Miller helped me write my novel.”)
During his time at our school, Miller Williams was warm and generous and funny and friendly. His presentations were amazing. He began one poem and then stumbled over some words. He stopped, grinned, look at the students in our auditorium and said, “It’s your fault. You’re so beautiful that I lost my place.” He also held court in our hospitality room, charming everyone he met there. The week before his visit, our school newspaper had published “Of History and Hope,” the poem Miller composed for the Clinton inauguration. Unfortunately, there was a word or two that appeared incorrectly. The newspaper adviser suggested that the student editor show it to Miller Williams and admit responsibility. That was probably a difficult confession, but the young man did it with maturity. I wish I could remember exactly what Miller Williams said, but it was something to the effect that the misprinted version was just another version that might actually have value. We communicated with Miller a few times after his visit, and he was always helpful, kind, and liked to say that his time with us was one of his most memorable school visits.
Their work on earth might be finished, but I’m grateful for my memories of Donna Douglas, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Miller Williams. Your memories of them are welcome here too.