In (doggone) memory of Jim Reeves
An Irishman’s Diary about country & western and greyhounds
And the way she might look at you: close encounters in a Hillman Avenger
For readers of a certain age, no doubt, the velvet voice of Jim Reeves will have only romantic associations. For me, however, the memories are slightly more disturbing.
Whenever I hear his songs of love and heartbreak, I am always transported back into the passenger seat of a Hillman Avenger, circa the mid-1970s. With one of my Monaghan neighbours – another Jim – I’m travelling to or from Mullingar greyhound stadium.
And the emotional twists and turns of Reeve’s lyrics, relayed via an eight-track cartridge on the car stereo (cutting edge technology then), are well matched by the meanderings of the R164 and N62, as we wind tortuously through places like Kingscourt, Kells, and Clonmellon.
But above all I can hear Reeves urging his woman, now in the company of another man, to “put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone”. And at that point, in my memory, I always feel the hot breath of a greyhound panting at me over the seat. That’s the disturbing bit.
In fairness to the other Jim, he bought a small trailer for the dogs soon afterwards. This was despite some initial misgivings about whether its suspension would be comfortable enough for transporting top-class canine athletes.
So concerned was he about the animals’ welfare in fact that he had me travel in the trailer one day while he drove at speed across a bog road, the wheels hopping off the bumps, so that I could report the experience later, like a human tachograph.
But I didn’t complain – much – because as his chief dog-walker, I was on a lucrative deal at the time, or potentially lucrative anyway.
If we won a race, I earned £10: enormous money for a 12-year-old then. In practice, it only happened once. More often, I had to rely on the precipitously sliding scale of place money: £2 for second, £1 for third. It was still better than a paper round.
I remember one of those lesser pay-days vividly, because it was an occasion when we thought our greyhound a certainty to win. In his confidence, Jim had a big bet on it – £50 at 3-1. But the dog, normally a quick starter, missed her break that night. Although she recovered magnificently, it was only enough to finish second.
On the way home, the atmosphere in the car was funereal. And yet, throughout the post-mortems, my chief concern was with the £2 contractually owed to me. I feared it might be forgotten amid the general trauma.
Then to my great relief, in mock-gloomy tones, Jim said: “I suppose you still want your money?” Whereupon, overwhelmed by guilt, I had an urge to reply: “Ah, don’t worry about it.” But heroically I said nothing until the £2 was safely in my pocket. There was no room for sentiment, even with Jim Reeves on the stereo.
Today being the 50th anniversary of his death, Reeves will probably make one of his now rare appearances on the mainstream airwaves. My money is on He’ll Have to Go to lead the tributes, although Welcome to my World and l Love You Because may get a spin too.
I suppose it’s unlikely that anyone will play his dog song, although he had at least one – it was a requirement for membership of the country and western singers’ union probably. In his case the dog was Old Tige. And he wasn’t a greyhound, but he was a remarkable athlete nonetheless.
The song’s narrator, a young soldier returning from his three years’ national service, first recalls highlights of the animal’s career to date: “How Old Tige pulled me from a creek when I had no pulse or breath / How he saved me from the charging bull that gored my Dad to death.”
Then he gets off the bus. And after an emotional reunion, we witness Tige’s crowning achievement as, guiding the soldier home through a fog, he saves him from certain demise in the dam that has just been dug where the road used to be.
Only once home does the narrator learn that – plot spoiler alert! – Old Tige has been dead (from heartbreak, naturally) these past three years. Teary-eyed and grateful, the singer realises it was his pet’s ghost that saved him.
And in my own way, I can relate to that classic Jim Reeves experience, if only to the tune of £2, rescued from disaster all those years ago by a dog’s doomed heroics.