RICHMOND, Va. - Jimmy Dean, 81, a country-music star known for his smash hit about a workingman hero, "Big Bad John," and an entrepreneur known for his sausage brand, died Sunday.

His wife, Donna Meade Dean, said her husband died at their Henrico County, Va., home.

Born in 1928, Mr. Dean was raised in poverty in Plainview, Texas, and dropped out of high school after the ninth grade. He went on to a successful entertainment career in the 1950s and '60s that included the nationally televised The Jimmy Dean Show.

In 1969, he went into the sausage business, starting the Jimmy Dean Meat Co. in Plainview. He sold the company to the Sara Lee Corp. in 1984.

In 2009 a fire gutted their home. Lost were a collection of celebrity-autographed books, posters of Mr. Dean with Elvis Presley, and other prized possessions. Donna Dean said the couple had just moved back into their reconstructed home.

With his drawled wisecracks, Mr. Dean charmed fans. But he was also known for a tough side. He fired bandmate Roy Clark, who went on to Hee Haw fame, for showing up late for gigs.

A scrap with Sara Lee made headlines. When it let him go as spokesman in 2003, he issued a statement titled, "Somebody doesn't like Sara Lee," contending he was dumped because he got old. The title spoofed a company slogan that went, "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee."

Mr. Dean grew up in a musical household. His mother showed him how to play his first chord on the piano. His father, who left the family, was a songwriter and singer. Mr. Dean taught himself the accordion and the harmonica.

His start in the music business came as an accordionist at a tavern near Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, where he was stationed in the 1940s. After leaving the Air Force in 1948, he fronted his band, the Texas Wildcats.

"Big Bad John," which is about a coal miner who saves fellow workers when a mine roof collapses, became a big hit in 1961 and won a Grammy. The star wrote it in less than two hours. In February, he was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

He was the first guest host on The Tonight Show and also was an actor with parts on television and in the movies, including a 1971 James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Dean entered the hog business - something he knew well: His family had butchered hogs, with the young Mr. Dean whacking them over the head with the blunt end of an ax.