Rolling down the highway in my Jimmy hauling freight
From Chicago to St Louis Lord I see her every day
A double clutching weasel like me can hardly ever get a girl to look at him that way
Like the girl wearing nothing but a smile
And a towel in the picture on the billboard in the field near the big old highway”
— “Girl On The Billboard,” Del Reeves
The death of Del Reeves on New Year’s Day amounted to no more than a blip on the wide screen of popular culture. In our new age of high definition television, iPods, and glossy assembly line country music, Del Reeves had long since gone out of fashion since his heyday in the 1960s, when he recorded a string of country music hits — mostly about watching pretty girls or driving a transfer truck or both, as in the case of the only number one hit he ever had, the indelible “Girl On The Billboard.” Reeves made a name for himself in the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed for the next 40 years. He appeared in several movies and even had his own syndicated television show, “The Del Reeves Country Carnival,” in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Most likely, you haven’t heard of him, but if you are of a certain age and a certain background, you may remember him. If you remember standing in the kitchen washing the dishes on a hot summer’s day with all the windows open and all the fans on full blast, smoking a cigarette and listening to the local country music station on the transistor radio while the kids ran wild in the yard, spraying each other with a garden hose. If you remember driving a big shiny Buick that had a radio with big, balky push buttons programmed to your favorite country music stations and one classic rock station that your son had, by stealth, programmed when you stopped off at the Cash and Carry to grab a carton of Marlboros and a bottle of Coca Cola.
If you lived in the 1960s and didn’t give two cents about the Beatles, the Stones, the British Invasion, Woodstock, or Jimi Hendrix, but still listened to the radio all day long and felt personally implicated every time Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, or Loretta Lynn came on to sing about cheating, or wanting to, about drinking, or wanting to, about hanging in there during the hard times, or trying to, or even about “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” then you probably remember Del Reeves.
I was only 3 years old when “Girl On The Billboard” became a number one hit, but I remember Del Reeves because we were born in the same town, Sparta, N.C., a small town of about 1,900 people in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The town was so proud of Del for putting it on the map that it erected a sign at the city limits that read, “Welcome to Sparta, Home of Del Reeves.” As far as I know, the sign still remains although, like Del’s celebrity status, it is not so prominent as it once was. The years have taken a toll, and I’m not sure if they keep the brush around it cut back the way they once did. Even so, Del is Sparta’s answer to Thomas Jefferson, a founding father who in escaping the factories and tobacco farms proved that one of ours could make it to the big time and was as good as anybody.
Del left Sparta for the bright promise of Nashville the year I was born, so I never met him personally, but his older brother, Homer, lived across the gravel road from my grandparents, and Homer’s daughter Laurene lived just on the other side of Homer with her two kids, Greg and Laurinda. Greg and I were pretty close in age and grew up playing baseball and going fishing together. Countless nights, he stayed at my house or I stayed at his, and we would listen to the Atlanta Braves’ games on the radio, or trade baseball cards late into the night. He would give me all of his Dodgers for my Reds. We could hear Laurene down the hall listening to the country music station on her radio, singing sometimes or just humming along.
A couple of days ago, I called my grandmother to see how she is getting along. While we were talking, somebody knocked on her door.
“Let me see who this is, honey,” she said.
It was somebody wanting to know if Homer’s house was for rent. Homer died a few years back, and the old house has been vacant ever since. The gravel road has been paved, and Greg and Laurinda have grown up and moved away.
Del is gone now, too. But if I listen carefully, I can still hear him singing on that transistor radio through the kitchen window on a hot summer day, while Laurene mixes us up a pitcher of iced tea.