Pioneering Country Songwriter Jimbeau Hinson Has Died

Most certainly, country music has always been a bastion for more conservative and traditional viewpoints, for the most part. But there has always been exceptions and counter-balances within that narrative, expressing a lot more open-mindedness within the industry than some would want you to believe. In some instances, individuals look to outright erase important contributors and moments that run counter to the country music stereotype to continue to use country music as a punching bag for their cultural signaling.

Take the case of songwriter and performer Jimbeau Hinson, a.k.a. “Beautiful Jim.” One of country music’s most accomplished songwriters through the 80’s, he penned songs for some of country music’s most buttoned-up acts such as The Oak Ridge Boys, Porter Wagoner, and Ricky Skaggs. In fact, Jimbeau ran the publishing company for The Oak Ridge Boys for a number of years, and was a close collaborator with the Gospel country group. Jimbeau Hinson also happened to be openly bisexual since the early 70’s, and eventually, a survivor of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Born James Leon Hinson Jr. in 1952 in Newton, Mississippi, Jimbeau was the son of blue collar parents. Hinson taught himself piano at an early age, and began performing at local honky tonks and barn dances by the age of 10. He was only 11 when he landed his own radio show at the local station in Newton.

Jimbeau Hinson went on to be discovered by Loretta Lynn when he was just 14. Hinson and his father went to see Loretta in concert, and talked their way backstage where an impromptu audition ensued. Duly impressed, Loretta brought Hinson up on stage to sing, and invited him to Nashville. Soon the young singer had three separate Nashville labels pursuing him. Unfortunately though, shortly thereafter, Jimbeau went through puberty, which not only changed his voice, but caused him to struggle to find pitch, and sometimes his singing only sounded like a whisper. Soon the labels were no longer interested.

Distraught, Jimbeau climbed the water tower in his hometown of Newton, and was going to jump off it, feeling his purpose in life was over. But he ultimately decided against it. Later learning of “Whispering” Bill Anderson and how he’d made his way in country music primarily as a songwriter in spite of his soft voice, Jimbeau decided to move to Nashville, and pursue a career as a lyricist.

In 1970, Anthony Armstrong Jones recorded Jimbeau Hinson’s song “Sugar in the Flowers,” and Jimbeau had officially penned his first of many Top 40 hits while still a teenager. Anthony Armstrong Jones was signed to Chart Records, and another Chart Records artist Lynn Anderson recorded multiple of Jimbeau’s songs to some success as well. The label soon signed Jimbeau as a performer too, but his first three singles failed to chart.

Hinson eventually moved to the label Royal American, and this is when he started officially going by the name Jimbeau as to not to be confused with the creator of The Muppets. He took the name from the Jefferson Davis estate called Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi—“beau” being short for “beautiful.” But Jimbeau continued to struggle as a performer, even as artists such as Mel Street and Carol Channing recorded his songs.

At one point Hinson moved to Los Angeles, thinking it would be a more open-minded scene where he could graduate to becoming a performer. But he had no better luck there, and with disco being all the rage and Hinson wanting to write quality songs, he headed back to Nashville, fully embracing his role as a country music songwriter. Country music embraced him back.

“Jimbeau is one of my favorite writers,” says Country Music Hall of Famer Brenda Lee. “He writes the songs a singer loves to sing because he is such a great lyricist, probably because he also sings them himself. I just think he’s wonderful.”

Brenda Lee recorded her first Jimbeau Hinson song “Find Yourself Another Puppet” in 1976, then had a Top 10 hit with “Broken Trust” in 1980 that she recorded with The Oak Ridge Boys. By that time, Hinson was working for the Oaks’ publishing company full time, and the band scored a #1 with “(I’m Settin’) Fancy Free” written by Hinson in 1981—one of the dozen songs Jimbeau wrote for the group. Jimbeau Hinson also married Brenda Fielder in 1980, and kept a monogamous relationship with her.

Throughout the 80’s, artists such as Rita Coolidge, John Conlee, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and others recorded Jimbeau Hinson songs. He became a collaborator with Steve Earle on his debut album Guitar Town from 1986, co-writing the tracks “Hillbilly Highway” and “Down The Road.” He also wrote with David Lee Murphy, and Reba McEntire recorded the song “Red Roses” the two co-wrote together. Years later, David Lee and Jimbeau would collaborate again on the Top 10 hit “Party Crowd.”

But in 1985, Jimbeau Hinson got some life-changing news. He’d been declared HIV positive, and was given only had six month to two years to live. Though the country music community had embraced Jimbeau without discriminating against his sexuality (at least for the most part), he was worried how those in the country music industry would react to the diagnosis. In 1985, there was a lot of misunderstanding surrounding HIV/AIDS, and a stigma about the disease.

Fearing retribution against himself and his family, Hinson kept the illness a secret for the next 12 years, but as his career entered the 90’s, Jimbeau’s health began to catch up with him. At one point in 1996, Jimbeau reportedly weight only 110 pounds, went into a coma, and spent eight weeks in the hospital.

But as treatments for HIV improved, so did Jimbeau’s health until he had fully recovered from the grips of the illness, and was deemed HIV-undetectable. Soon it was nothing more than underlying chronic condition he could keep at bay with medication. And when he did come out publicly about his illness, similar to the revelations about his sexuality, the country community embraced him, though at that time, many of the initial stigmas had been eradicated about HIV. It may have been different if Hinson revealed his illness in 1985.

“Being LGBT or HIV-positive, it wasn’t like a curse or an unacceptable thing in country music, but to the audience it was quite taboo. They had to walk that line,” Hinson said in 2013. “Nowadays I think the whole nation has opened up a lot more, not just the music business.”

In 2013, with his health mostly recovered, Jimbeau launched a solo recording and performing career with his album Strong Medicine, which very much spoke to his experience with HIV/AIDS. He also would regularly perform in Nashville. In 2013, Hinson also became the subject of the documentary Beautiful Jim. He also worked as a mentor to many younger songwriters.

Jimbo Hinson had quadruple bypass surgery on June 30th of 2021, and while in recovery, suffered a stroke on July 1st. Though he initially recovered, he fell ill again, and while in hospice care, suffered another stroke the first week of March. He died on the afternoon of March 4th at the age of 70—beating the odds after being told he only had six months to two years to live in 1985. Jimbo Hinson is survived by his wife Brenda Fielder, who never tested positive for HIV, and stayed by his side for 42 years.

It’s fair to wonder if Jimbeau Hinson could have made it as a performer in country music if he wasn’t openly bisexual during an era when it was considered taboo. But a lot of aspiring performers find their way in songwriting, and some quite successfully so, just like Jimbeau. Some like Dean Dillon and Bobby Braddock are in the Country Music Hall of Fame right beside the entertainers, where they belong, while more current songwriters like Shane McAnally have Jimbeau to thank for helping to break down barriers for LGBT songwriters in country music.

For all the talk of country music’s stuffy conservative environment hostile to alternative lifestyles and viewpoints, Jimbeau Hinson was able to have a successful and accomplished career. Even some of country music’s most religious acts like The Oak Ridge Boys didn’t just tolerate Jimbeau, they embraced him. Ultimately, the power of song broke down stigmas and fostered understanding.

© 2022 Saving Country Music
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