Rock(y) road still full of music

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sixty-five-year-old Rock Killough, harmonica draped around his neck, one guitar tucked under his arms with another leaning on a nearby chair, sat by himself on a stage here Saturday night, singing to listeners who didn't come to hear him perform.

It didn't bother him at all.

He's been an opening act and back-up musician all his colorful life, tasting fame in a music career that started at age 7, but mostly through the success of others singing his songs, sharing his words and collecting both hefty rounds of applause and paychecks.

As a soft and appreciated breeze provided momentary relief from a sweltering Watermelon Jubilee, hundreds of Bluegrass and country music fans lugged lawn chairs and spread out on the thick, lush Greenville YMCA Stadium turf to hear local favorite Marty Raybon and his group cap a busy, hot day with two hours of seed spittin' fun.

Killough got it all started with four numbers, then slipped silently into the background, just like always.

&#8220Hey,” he grinned, just after greeting a man who said he might be a relative, &#8220somebody's got to do it. And I am imminently qualified to be an opening act.”

You sensed he would have liked to be the star, a man for whom the spotlight shined brighter, a headliner mobbed by adoring fans, but all that is likely past now. A self-professed ol' geezer, the rigors of traveling, touches of arthritis and the style of his music have combined to limit his options.

&#8220I have no idea what will happen,” Killough said of his next gig. &#8220I don't have plans to sing anywhere at the moment. I was supposed to sing five songs tonight and I had to rehearse for that.”

So he is off the road and home in Greenville with wife Candace, friends and family. No more traveling, writing and playing. No more carrying an 88-key piano, performing for three hours, packing, going and doing it again.

&#8220That's hard,” he said.

Instead, he collects social security, serves as artist in residence for Sam Roberts' Corstone Industries and while he says he has no intent of slowing down, what that means, truly, is anyone's guess.

His schedule won't be like that as a child when he sang with mom and dad in the Greenville Singers on radio and at virtually every church meeting, funeral, wedding and club function imaginable.

It won't be like the tedious road trips through the Carolinas and at festivals galore.

And it won't be like the period at Orange Beach's famous Flora Bama between 1988 and &#8220when Ivan blew it away” where he and his Dixie Flyers were nightly favorites of the older patrons at the main bar.

Yet the uncertainty of what lies ahead seems relatively unimportant.

&#8220All my life,” Killough admitted, looking back, &#8220I've done exactly what I wanted. I had 40-45 cuts that others sang. People like Sam Kershaw, Hank (Williams) Jr., Randy Travis and the Oak Ridge Boys. We never had a big hit that made the really big money, but I've made a living, paid the bills.

&#8220I never made a fortune, but I'm happy. And happy counts, happy counts a lot.”

After dodging his share of life-altering events, using a big portion of his nine cat lives and surviving his own attempts at self-destruction, words like &#8220lucky” and phrases like &#8220heavenly purpose” flow freely and gratefully as he talks about his life and the fact he is still here.

&#8220I did everything I could in my 30s to kill myself,” Killough said, bluntly. &#8220Drugs. I did everything you can imagine. Pot, cocaine, everything.

I kicked more bad habits than most people even think about, so that I am still here tells me God must have a plan that includes me.”

His stint in jail was the rock bottom.

Busted in 1988 for growing pot and sentenced a year later to three years in the pungent Butler County jail, Killough served 90 days &#8220because the judge must have taken mercy on me.”

It was a memorable time.

Son of a former member of the state house and a onetime tax assessor, he came from a good, prominent family. Hurting it and embarrassing it is a painful feeling that remains even today. But his sense that &#8220dark clouds do have silver linings” and &#8220negatives can turn into positives” grew deeply during the period.

&#8220I had time to sit and to think,” he said.

He wrote 11 new songs while behind bars. He determined to turn his life around. And he did.

You hear it in his music today. He sings brain songs and heart songs and he limits his own opportunities because he wants to sing only his songs, not those of other artists. Titles like &#8220Pre-frontal lobotomy,” &#8220Uncle Joe's TV,” &#8220The Stadium” and &#8220The Lord Will Provide” are plain, simple, earthy and personal.

&#8220I learned a long time ago,” he explained, &#8220you've got to put some truth in your songs. We all experience the same emotions. People get divorced, kids get on drugs, miners die. We all deal with the same feelings and songs can share that, songs can heal.”

Killough, still a kid at heart, will keep on writing and singing no matter who listens.

&#8220Imminently qualified” to be an opening act, his is a story worth spotlighting, a message worth hearing. The voice, the guitar and the harmonica only serve to make it better.

Ed Darling is president and publisher of Greenville Newspapers LLC. You can contact him at 382-3111 or Read his previous columns at