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
As the mother of the fathers of our country
Heaven chose her as the birthplace of our land. . . .
Donna Dean penned the lyrics in the midst of a migraine attack, a story that makes her rivals snicker but one she'll recount for whoever wants to listen: There she was in bed one night with a migraine when, inspired, she got up, went into her bathroom, sat down and took about a half-hour to scribble the 12 lines that became the song "Virginia." Jimmy adapted the music from a song he'd recently written as a prospective alma mater for Varina High School.
"Tell this fellow why ours is the best," Dean urged his wife over the phone one afternoon.
Donna, a former country and nightclub performer, said solemnly, "Well, it's a very ear-catching, descriptive song. One of my favorite lines is: When the sun sets on the Shenandoah Valley/Sometimes I think I can hear the angels sing. You can see it, can't you?"
"Admit it there, boy," Jimmy Dean ordered and laughed a little, coughed a little. "As an anthem for Virginia, it's the best, no doubt. If you hear it one time, you'll be humming it everywhere."
Donna chirped in: "You sure will. It's sing-along-able. It's got real good singability."
"Singability" is a Donna Dean word. "All my life, I've tried to be part of songs with singability. . . . It's much harder than people realize to write a sing-along-able song."
Del. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax) couldn't agree more. O'Brien found himself appointed to the 12-member state song panel after he complained there were no Northern Virginians on it. Soon he was drowning in tapes sent in by would-be anthem writers. "I'd play five at a time on my car's cassette deck with my kids screaming in the back seat," O'Brien recalled. "I'd play five bars [and] my kids would be shouting, 'That stinks!'
"I'll tell you part of why this controversy so worries me," O'Brien added. "I'm afraid of anything that might make me have to listen to those songs again. My kids couldn't take it."
Some states are lucky in their songs. Oklahoma, for instance, has the Rogers and Hammerstein chest-swelling classic that found success on Broadway. Virginia, on the other hand, had "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," a song that seemed, remarkably, to both bore and offend, whose only truly memorable characteristic was that it romanticized slavery, said its critics, who made clear that they didn't want anyone carrying them back anywhere.
In 1997, "Carry Me Back" was put to pasture with the title of "state song emeritus," and the search was on for a new song for Virginia. Even before the competition was announced, though, the Deans' song was being promoted by Martin and Del. Franklin P. Hall (D-Richmond), both of whom wound up on the song subcommittee, opening the door to charges of bias.
At least one panel member is disinclined to support the Deans when the new song is voted on, which will likely occur in January. "I'm totally leaning against the Deans' song," said Margaret Morland, Virginia's poet laureate. "The words are corny and trite, but there are other matters that have troubled me, too. . . . We got notebooks from kids to whose schools the Deans had donated sausage. The kids' letters said how much they liked Jimmy Dean's sausage and his song, too. That's the kind of influence nobody else has, and it doesn't seem fair."
O'Brien and others are troubled that Martin accepted campaign donations from Dean. "Anybody who took campaign money from one of the contestants shouldn't be allowed to vote," O'Brien said.
M. Ray Allen, of Clifton Forge, a high school teacher and poet whose song was in the final 20 before being cut, agreed. "You don't have a contest in which two of the judges already have indicated a preference," he said. "That lacks integrity from the start."
Contestants did not fail to notice Martin embracing Donna Dean at one committee meeting. But Martin said that taking the Deans' money has not compromised his objectivity and that he has "nothing to apologize for."
Does that mean he might actually vote for someone else's song?
"Well, their song has easy singability," he said. "It's the best."
Yesterday, a jaunty Dean took time out from hugging Rotarians to express incredulity at his critics. "Somebody once told me, 'Everybody likes to take a shot at number one,' " he said, chuckling. "That's what selling a lot of sausage can do for you."
CAPTION: Donna and Jimmy Dean sing their entry for Virginia's new state song.
CAPTION: Onetime country star Jimmy Dean said he can't understand the fuss over his effort to have his "Virginia" become the state song.