On Willie and Jim

What a magical occurrence when revered friends who have passed away come back from the Great Beyond to tell stories and laugh as if they are very much alive. And maybe they are.


What a magical occurrence when revered friends who have passed away come back from the Great Beyond to tell stories and laugh as if they are very much alive. And maybe they are.

Willie Morris was Writer-in Residence at Ole Miss for ten years (1980-1990). His sports memoir, “Always Stand In Against The Curve,” has just been re-issued by Oxford-based Yoknapatawpha Press. When Willie arrived in Oxford, the only other writer in town was Mr. Faulkner and he was in St. Peter’s Cemetery. Willie brought legit literary cache and invited his accomplished New York pals to come to Oxford to lecture and soak up our town’s literary rays.

Locally, Willie was the Great Encourager, which in 1980 included such young up-and-comers as John Grisham and Donna Tarrtt. Willie died in Jackson in 1999.

Jim Dickinson lived in Coldwater but played a weekly piano gig in Oxford from 2005 until his death in 2009. His memoir of his rock-and-roll life has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi: “I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone.” And what a life! Dickinson went from scruffy Memphis jug bands to become a confidante and idea man for Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Big Star to, literally, name just a few. His production credits run for pages and include names like Arlo Guthrie, Ry Cooder and The Replacements. For his Oxford gigs, Jim was always in the company of his wife and fellow traveler, Mary Lindsay.

I was lucky enough to become friends with both Willie and Jim and never thought of them as some type of dual gurus until now. Though the two were worlds apart, they shared common traits. Both were good ol’ boys who made good. Both reached the highest pinnacles of their profession. They both came “home” to finish out their careers and lives. In so doing, they befriended locals, the home folk, and imparted congenial wisdom without even trying.

And now, years after we bade them farewell, they’re back with new books and new tales.

Willie’s essay after which the memoir was named serves as solid baseball advice and a metaphor for life. He recalls his American Legion baseball coach instilling those words in a fruitless effort for Willie to get a hit against a Louisiana fireballer named Seth Morehead. Years later, Willie is half-watching a Chicago Cubs game when Seth Morehead is announced and he looks up in time to see Hank Aaron take an inside curve for a strike. It’s that kind of a book.

Jim Dickinson learned how to record in a backroom studio – “Granny’s Sewing Room” — set up in producer John Fry’s Memphis home. Years later Bob Dylan would visit Jim at Dickinson’s own recording compound, Zebra Ranch, in Tate County. “When you have Dickinson, that’s all you need,” the Nobel Laureate would later say. The album they worked on together, Time Out of Mind, went on to win Record of the Year at the 1998 Grammys. Dylan not only accepted the award, but appeared at the podium to “thank my brother, Jim Dickinson,” before walking off.

As far as I know, Willie and Jim never met. Willie tolerated rock and roll but he was more of a “Moon River” kind of guy. Indeed, when he died, his best pal Dean Faulkner Wells remarked, “I’ve lost my Huckleberry friend.”

Oxford served as a favorable landing spot for both of these geniuses. Willie was on the rebound from personal and professional upheaval but developed a loving network of pals in Oxford. Jim played a weekly live radio show every Thursday before hitting Ajax for a quick post-gig meal. Then he and Mary Lindsay hurried home so he could watch wrestling.

How lucky we are that Oxford offers shelter from the storm to such talent. The fact that Willie and Jim were temporary residents — just here for a hot minute – only adds to how precious a life can be. All the more so when you are crazy in a good way; a backwoods genius, book-smart and funny as hell. This is one of the intangibles of our little burg.

Thinking of Willie and Jim one realizes that Jim was right. Yes, they are both dead, but thanks to the work of their lives, including these two new, wonderful books, they’ll never be gone.