"IT'S LIKE comin' home," says country entertainer/pork sausage magnate Jimmy Dean about his return to Washington. "I still have a farm in Loudoun County. And my wife, Sue, is a rarity--she was actually born in Washington, D.C., grew up in Takoma Park." Dean, 55, got his start in Washington--he had his first radio and TV shows and recorded his first record, "Bummin' Around," here. He's in town for tonight's Country Music Association gala at Constitution Hall, where he will sing with Eddy Arnold and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Born in Plainview, Tex., Dean originally planned a career in irrigation engineering. After two years with the merchant marine, he signed up with the Air Force and was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base outside Washington. With three buddies, he formed a band called the Tennessee Haymakers, playing service clubs and local dives.
"Most of the places we were playin' had no television, but we had fights every night," recalls Dean, who ends a lot of his words with apostrophes. "[Washington] was a super town for country music. I imagine it's even better now, because country is so much more accepted now. The days are gone when you had to be a closet country-lover."
After he was signed by Washington country impresario Connie B. Gay in 1951, Dean and his new band, the Texas Wildcats, landed a spot on Arlington radio station WARL. Dean was soon host of his own television series, "Town and Country Time" on WMAL, which led to a short-lived CBS morning show.
Dean's first big national hit, "Big Bad John," was also the first song he had written. It sold 4 million copies. "It's like eveything in my life that's been worth a damn," Dean says, "pretty much accidental.
"I was on a plane to Nashville to record some demos. I had three sides and I needed a fourth. Well, I was doing summer stock that year with a guy named John Mesto. He was 6-foot-5--the only guy I had to look up to--so I used to say 'Biiig John.' In the song I put him in a mine and killed him.
"They're making a TV movie out of it now, after all this time," Dean says, adding that he will be doing the soundtrack for the movie and hopes to play a part, too. It won't be his first acting role. Dean appears now and then on "Fantasy Island" and played the Howard Hughes figure in the James Bond picture "Diamonds Are Forever."
As a result of his success in his entertainment and business enterprises, Dean says he and his wife spend six months of the year on their 61-foot yacht, the "Big Bad John."
But Dean is probably better known these days for his pork sausages and pigskin jackets than for his singing. "If you saw my act, you would have realized that diversification was imperative," Dean jokes. "Really, I got into the pork sausage business because of basic insecurity, not really trusting the stability of show business."
He hasn't given up on entertaining, though. Next week, he is scheduled to record a remake of his Mother's Day hit, "I.O.U.," then plans to begin work on an album with Phil Harris. When he makes live appearances, Dean travels with the Four Guys, his Nashville nucleus band.
"Opinions are like navels. Eveyone's got one," Dean says when asked to explain country music's recent boom. "But I attribute the new popularity to the honesty of kids. Back then it was a reflection on your intelligence if you liked country. Now it doesn't matter if it has steel guitar or a twang--if kids like it, they aren't afraid to say they like it.
"Anything that stands still stagnates and dies," Dean says about the trend toward country crossing over to the pop charts. "You hear people complainin' about all these strings and horns and everything these days. But I'm glad to see it. I fought a lot of battles for country music in New York City when I was doing that old network TV show. People up there didn't know anything about country. You'd say 'country' and they'd come in with wagons and hay bales. "It's the music of this nation," Dean says. "The great thing is when the writers write like we talk. You don't have to gussie it up and you don't have to hayseed it."