In Virginia, discord over a state song: Support for sausage king's anthem has rivals bellyaching

Jimmy Dean, a country music legend for his smash hit about a workingman hero, "Big Bad John," and an entrepreneur known for his sausage brand, has died. He was 81.
By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 1999; 7:00 PM

His sighing, eye-rolling body language seems to say: Don't you have something better to do?

At 71, he has no patience for questions about undue influence or whether he has the judges in his pocket. This isn't the Nobel Prize, after all, just a song, "for crying out loud," he says. He's referring to his new tune that's being considered--with seven others--in a competition for a new state song, a song that many Virginia residents will likely never hear anyway.

But the controversy across the state about the song and Jimmy Dean has been steadily building since the competition began in 1998 with 339 citizen-authored ditties--the good, the bad and the stupefyingly bad, from the Tony Orlando and Dawn sound-alikes to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir imitations.

The year-long effort to pare the list to eight finalists--one of which soon will be crowned the new state song--has been tinged by accusations from distraught losers that Dean has manipulated the process with his money and fame, not to mention his pork patties.

Yesterday, the celebrity sausagemeister, who has benefited from the letters of adoring schoolchildren praising both his song and the sausage he has donated to their schools, said he was baffled by the suspicions he's aroused. "Geez, I don't need to bribe anyone in this thing," he said.

His critics beg to differ. One of the judges on the State Song Subcommittee, Sen. Stephen H. Martin (R-Chesterfield), has accepted $1,750 in campaign contributions from Dean and was pushing his song before there even was a statewide competition--two facts that some eliminated songwriters see as riddling Martin with bias. An Alexandria contestant, Ray Parker, has even filed a lawsuit against the governor and the legislature.

Martin defended himself by saying he went into the competition with "an open mind, ready to listen to everything."

Dean, whose brief singing career in the '60s helped launch his half-billion-dollar-a-year meatpacking empire and who mentions his 1961 Grammy winner "Big Bad John" at every stop, tilted back his cowboy hat yesterday, pulled on his bejeweled belt buckle and said that Martin "likes our song because it's the best. Ours is the only one that's a genuine anthem."

"Ours" as in Dean and his 46-year-old wife, Donna, who wrote it with him. Yesterday the couple traveled up from tiny Varina, outside Richmond, to serenade a group of Rotarians in Fairfax, their music provided by a cassette player and two small speakers, giving the effect of cowboy karaoke.

The Deans passed out lyrics and invited the crowd to sing along; most of the Rotarians dutifully complied, mouthing:

From the Blue Ridge to the great Atlantic Ocean

There's a commonwealth of beauty known to man

CONTINUED     1        >

© 1999 The Washington Post Company