Jim Graves holding a copy of his 2016 country music CD Corpus Christi, featuring cover art by my son Joshua - one of his first professional gigs as a photographer. (Photo by John A. Small)

It was late 2012 - I can’t remember now the exact date, only that it was a Thursday and I was alone at the old Johnston County Capital-Democrat - the newspaper in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, where I was working at the time - sitting at my desk and trying to dream up an idea for my column for the next week’s issue. The bell on the front door jingled, and I rose from my desk to go to the front office and greet whoever it was who had come in.

The gentleman standing there at the front desk looked vaguely familiar; I didn’t know his name but I was sure I had probably seen him around town at some point or another. He knew my name, though, and started the conversation telling me how much he enjoyed reading my column every week and had been meaning to write a letter to the editor saying as much, but hadn’t yet gotten around to it.

It’s always nice to get positive feedback for your work - especially in this business, where writing a column simply stating that the sky is blue and the grass is green is liable to result in angry arguments to the contrary and accusations of being a Godless liberal from certain corners - and so I thanked him for the kind words. And with that introduction out of the way, he finally got around to the real reason for his visit.

Earlier that year, he explained, his home in rural Johnston County had been saved from a fast-moving wildfire. Ever since he had been searching for a way to properly express his gratitude to the county’s firefighters, not simply for their efforts to save his property but for everything they do for the people of Johnston County. As he explained, it was his wife who finally provided the inspiration he had been looking for, suggesting that he put his musical talents to use by organizing a benefit concert for the firefighters. And the reason he had come to me was that he was hoping that I and the newspaper could help promote the planned event.

I thought it was a great idea and pledged to do whatever I could to help make it a reality. Over the next few months I wrote articles promoting the event, and those efforts proved to be - to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca - the start of a beautiful friendship between myself and Jim Graves.

My family and I were there in the audience when the concert finally took place in February 2013 at Murray State College’s Fletcher Auditorium. Jim, along with our mutual buddy Johnny Shackleford and other local entertainers - calling themselves the All-American Volunteers - raised money for all of Johnston County’s fire departments and emergency responders. I’d thought to bring along the little video camera I had at the time, in hopes of recording the entire concert and perhaps putting together a DVD in hopes of raising some additional funds for the cause. 

Alas, the camera chose that particular night to not work properly, and as a result all I got for my efforts was a video of Jim singing the 1974 Bobby Bare hit “Marie Laveau.” (The video can be found on the Sentinel’s website if you’re interested: https://johnstoncosentinel.com/2018/06/from-the-c-d-archives-firefighters-benefit-concert-2013/.)

The benefit concert also benefitted Jim on a personal level, allowing him to reconnect with his passion for entertaining. He began writing new songs, and occasionally performing at the Reagan Jubilee. Those performances in turn led to Jim joining Johnny Shackleford’s troupe of gunfight re-enactors at Sipokni West, our local Old West attraction, thus providing still another outlet for his love of performing.

But from a purely personal - and probably somewhat selfish - point of view, perhaps the greatest benefit to have come out of Jim’s “Thank You’ to the firefighters was the friendship that arose between the two of us as a result. Hardly a week would go by when Jim wouldn’t show up at the newspaper office, just to sit down and shoot the breeze for a little while - always wearing that familiar trademark smile, always quick to apologize for showing up unannounced and saying “If you’re too busy just say so and I’ll come back another time.” 

With one or two exceptions I was never too busy, and more often than not Jim’s visits would prove to be the high point of my work week. We swapped stories about our pasts - he seemed to honestly enjoy hearing all about some of the road trips I had taken over the years and the time I was invited to speak at the San Diego Comic-Con and my encounters with Adam West and Arlo Guthrie and Ray Bradbury. I, in turn, enjoyed hearing about his life as an entertainer: how he had once been a member of a Sherman-based band called Diamondback and how, in 1989, Jim had gained a small measure of popularity among Texas sports fans when he wrote and recorded a song entitled “The Ballad of Tom Landry,” about the firing of the popular longtime coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The popularity of that single resulted in Graves being invited to perform the tune live at that year’s March of Dimes Texas Sports Awards Banquet in San Antonio - where among those in the audience that night was none other than Tom Landry himself.

Jim and I became each other’s biggest cheerleaders. When it came to my writing efforts outside the newspaper, Jim was almost always the first person to buy a copy of each new book as it came out. I returned the favor, using the newspaper to promote a couple of new country music CDs he recorded after he started getting back into the music business following that 2013 concert. 

The first of those CDs, 2016’s Corpus Christi, featured a cover photo that proved to be my son Joshua’s first professional gig as a photographer. Because that’s the kind of guy Jim was. He took a special interest in my entire family and became especially close to my wife, whom he always referred to as “St. Melissa.” Every time he called her that her eyes would light up.

Jim became something akin to a special uncle. He was one of the strongest shoulders I had to lean on when my parents died, and I tried my best to return the favor when his wife died a few years back. Nobody was prouder than I was when, in 2019, Jim was invited to perform one of his best compositions - a tribute to war veterans entitled “Some Gave It All They Had” - at the Oklahoma State Capitol. And during my brief and admittedly awful experimentation with musical compositions, Jim was kind enough to record a demo of the one set of lyrics I wrote - a bad attempt at a Harry Chapin-style story song entitled “Pilgrim In Disguise.” Jim liked the song and kept trying to get me to submit it to some professional acts; I never worked up the nerve to do it - to paraphrase a certain well-known science fiction character, I’m a journalist not a songwriter - but he did eventually persuade me to put out a CD of my musical meanderings (entitled Souvlaki And Ouzo and available here) and insisted that I include his demo on it. I’m still not so sure it was the thing to do - and yet I let him talk me into it.

And I’m kind of glad I did.

When COVID-19 came along our meetings grew less frequent. Every now and then I’d run into him at the gas station or grocery store, and one day he followed me in his car all the way from the post office to the newspaper office just to roll down the window and holler “Hi!”

And then one day he was gone. On the very day that St. Melissa tested positive for COVID-19, we got word that Jim had passed away two days earlier in an Oklahoma City hospital - the victim of an agressive brain tumor, I was later told. One last kick in the gut from 2020.

Jim was a lot of things to a lot of people. To me he was the guy who always had that great big smile on his face, always liked to shoot the breeze about our mutual love of music and old movies or TV shows, the guy who always asked about St. Melissa and our sons, the guy who wanted to meet me before I knew who he was because he was a fan of my newspaper column. He was a wonderful friend and one of those rare human beings truly worth all the wonderful adjectives used to describe him. 

I had wanted to write this tribute sooner, but my own recent bout with the virus kind of got in the way. It’s been several weeks now and I’m still having trouble finding the words, because my heart still aches over his loss. 

Ave Atque Vale, my dear and trusted friend. I hope you knew how much you meant to my family and me. 

(Column copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)