Sunday, May 16, 2021

For the Love of Law and Music

Jess Dickinson is the presiding justice of the Supreme Court of Mississippi. As he maintains peace in the courtroom with sharp raps from his gavel, he too coaxes soothing music from his hammered dulcimer away from the office.

Dickinson and other musicians
Dickinson and other musicians

A dulcimer, according to the Encyclopedia Smithsonian, is trapezoid-shaped percussion instrument in which strings are picked with small hammers, much like a guitar. Dickinson became enchanted with hammered dulcimers in 1989 when he and his wife stopped for pizza in Mountain View, Ark. A musician tapped at a hammered dulcimer in the pizza joint. Dickinson couldn’t resist. He bought one of his own from McSpadden Dulcimer Shop just outside of Mountain View.
On the ten-hour road trip home to Gulfport, Miss., where Dickinson practiced law, he taught himself, with a tuner and a 12 page instruction book, a single song: “Send the Light.”
Dickinson’s love for the hammered dulcimer must have started in 1961, he says, when he snuck into the smoky Delta juke joints to listen to the blues. His grandparents, nicknamed Gussie and Dee Dee Hays, raised the Charleston, Miss. native.
“When Jess was thirteen, he wanted to play guitar but didn’t have one,” Linda Sayle Allison, a childhood friend and fellow musician, remembered. “Well, my best friend Jenny Trout wanted one too. She asked her mother and got it as a present, but never really could learn to catch on. So, Jess borrowed it. He taught himself how to play that guitar. He didn’t give it back for several years!”
Dickinson specialty was church songs, like ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’. He even took his talent to meetings of the Rotary and Lions Clubs.
“I saw Jess had a pretty voice,” Allison said. “Jess and another guy, now a pastor, played and sang together for a while and entertained a lot of people in Charleston.”
Carson Hughes, Dickinson’s classmate, teammate and good friend throughout school, recounted those musical days. Hughes was an audience to his friends’ talents taking root, which he reported grew immensely after graduation in 1965.
Jess and Janet Dickinson
Jess and Janet Dickinson

“[Dickinson] exhibited his musical talent from time to time back in the day and even played for high school proms,” Hughes said. “He bloomed following graduation and is now an accomplished award winner with many music instruments. Some say he could play thirty, and I believe them.”
Dickinson formed a band in college that once shared the stage with B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs during a Christmas tour in south Texas. He then dropped out of college and dove headfirst into music business, an idea he flirted with since his Charleston childhood, as a studio musician in Los Angeles.
He realized then that his love of music couldn’t pay the bills. He partnered with David Corriveau and opened Cash McCools, the first nightclub in Little Rock, Ark. A few successful years later, David Corriveau moved to Texas and founded Dave & Busters, the popular adult arcade/restaurant.
Dickinson went back to college and experienced competing sides of Mississippi. He earned his undergraduate degree from Mississippi State University in 1978 and a law degree from University of Mississippi in 1982.
His musical love never faltered though. It was seven years after law school graduation when he discovered hammered dulcimer. That instrument fell to the center of his musical focus.
“Music really has three dimensions. It has melody, orchestration, and rhythm. The hammered dulcimer allows you to do all three at once,” Dickinson explained. “I’ve played guitar, keyboard and a number of different instruments, but the hammered dulcimer allows so much versatility, so many different options. I love playing it. I love the very unique sound no other instruments can make.”
Dickinson won three First Place Awards last year from the annual Southern Regional Hammered Dulcimer Championship in Mountain View, Ark. with friend Jeff Hanes. Hanes played the mountain dulcimer, a curious elongated instrument that looks like two violins fused together. They each won First Place in the competition’s separate dulcimer categories, then they came together to win first place in the ensemble.
The hammered dulcimer
The hammered dulcimer

They played Irish music and what folk musicians called traditional fiddle tunes. There was gospel too, Dickinson said.
His achievements with the dulcimer have become a melodic storm. He wrote and published The Essential Hammered Dulcimer: Basic Instruction Manual. He’s released two albums so far. One with his band, Bluegrass Appeal, titled “From Dublin to Delta”, and one on his own, “Christmas Seasoned Hammered Dulcimer”.
He’s even recorded his own instructional videos and released them in three DVDs. He regularly travels back to Mountain View to teach hammered dulcimer workshops.
Looking back, Dickinson said he enjoyed pursuing his musical love alongside his fruitful law in Gulfport. His hammering, wherever heard on the bench or a dulcimer, is his life’s work.
“I love both of them,” he said, “I love the law. I practiced for many years and being a Supreme Court Justice is a hope for any lawyer. It’s always an honor. I am fortunate to have two interests that I’m able to pursue at the same time. I do love them both so much.”
Learn more about Dickinson and his music at www.dickinsondulcimer.com. His CDs, DVDs and touring schedule are available online, as well as an article chronicling his first time playing hammered dulcimer in front of an audience on one cold November. (Spoiler Alert: his audience reacted with a “play another one, Jess!”)
– Callie Daniels is a staff writer for HottyToddy.com. She can be reached via email at cadanie2@go.olemiss.edu.

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