A feature story written by yours truly that originally ran in Camellia Magazine, a publication of The Greenville Advocate. My cousin is quite a talented fellow and good raconteur. He gave my family a large collection of albums given to him by RCA early in his music career, when he was still concentrating on folk singing. As a small child, I listened to everything from Bing Crosby to the Ink Spots, the Chuckwagon Gang and Lester Lanin’s Orchestra “Waltzing on the Continent,” all thanks to Arthur Lloyd’s gift of music. I still have eclectic musical tastes . . . and some very interesting relatives.
The Songwriter in Liberty Overalls: ‘Baptized into Music’
Like the man himself, Butler County native Arthur Lloyd “Rock” Killough’s favorite pair of Liberty overalls has a story to tell.
There’s a well-rubbed spot on the left pants leg of the faded blue fabric, a spot made by the body of his guitar resting there during an untold number of jam sessions, rehearsals and concerts.
Check out the musician and songwriter’s guitar and you’ll find a corresponding spot rubbed on the wood.
“I reckon I’ve had this pair of overalls for, oh – a good twenty-five years. They became my trademark. People expected to see me in them when I performed,” Killough says with a smile.
There’s a twinkle in his blue eyes when he talks about the subject that has dominated his life for six decades and counting: music.
“Mama always had the radio on at our house. I started singing in a trio with my parents when I was just seven or eight,” he recalls.
Killough and his dad Arthur Lloyd Sr., also known by the nickname “Rock,” and mother, Lurline, harmonized together at funerals, church singings, school events and more venues across Butler County and even further afield (the Killoughs were also a part of a group known as the Greenville Singers who performed on local radio stations).
“I liked singing the uptempo songs with Mama and Daddy, like ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ I liked the kickers. But I grew out of that,” Killough, who considers himself first and foremost a balladeer, recalls.
During the years Killough’s family lived in the country near his grandfather L.A. Killough’s big farm east of Greenville, he recalls walking to the home of a black couple, Tut and Celestine Marsh, to hear the “Game of the Week” on the radio.
The old cotton barn on Rock’s grandfather’s farm, which became his Uncle Joe’s farm. Rock loved spending time with his aunt and uncle, and after moving to town, would tell his mother he had to “get his farmin’ britches on” to pay them a visit. “Aunt Ovie,” he said, “looked just like a movie star,” adding, “I just adored that woman.”
“It was usually the Brooklyn Dodgers playing – and they had some great black players on their team - so folks would come from all around to listen, drink and talk. Some of them would bring their guitars, too, and play and sing together. That’s the first place I ever saw a slide guitar,” Killough says.
He pauses to lift his Auburn cap and run a hand over his close-shaven salt-and-pepper hair, a head once covered with dark curls.
“I guess you would have to say I was baptized into all kinds of music as a kid – gospel, big band, bluegrass, the blues, country. And I decided all I wanted to do was play and write my songs.”
He discovered songwriters like Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael . But it was that lanky local songwriter in the cowboy hat who struck a special chord in his heart.
The legendary Hank Williams Sr., a native of Garland, Ala. Yours truly has sung live on the same stage where Hank debuted his new band, the Drifting Cowboys–the Ga-Ana Theatre.
“Here was Hank Williams, this guy from the woods, without a lot of formal education, and he was able to write songs that captured what ordinary people felt like. Guys like Porter and Mercer wrote about high society, and they were great. But Hank’s the one most people could relate to.”
He shrugs. “If I could have written songs like Johnny Mercer, I would have done it. But that wasn’t meant to be.”
Instead, Killough focused on penning country tunes, infused with touches of blues, gospel and even a little rock and roll along the way.
The cover of Rock’s “Rusty Plows” album.
By the time he was “discovered” by Hall of Fame songwriter Hank Cochran, Killough was already a seasoned tunesmith.
“I was 33 when Hank took me with him to Nashville. They loved what I did and kept me there for ten years . . . but I never really felt I found a home for my music. So I hit the road,” he says.
And he loved performing live.
Songwriting, he says, is “a real kick. It’s better than a psychologist.” Killough nods.
“Songwriting is great.” He smiles with glee beneath his brushy white mustache as he throws his arms open wide.
“But actually being out there and playing for people – now, that is the real deal.”
Killough estimates he logged in more than one million miles traveling over a good chunk of the U.S.
One of the places he became a regular was the famed Flora-Bama Lounge, located on the Florida/Alabama line in Perdido Keys. It’s a musical partnership that started in the late 1980s.
“I got invited to come down there to the 3rd Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival. I went and performed a couple of songs . . . the owner of the Flora-Bama, Joe Gilchrist, was someone I knew from college. I’ve been to every one since then,” Killough recalls.
Almost leveled in a hurricane a few years ago, the Flora-Bama was rebuilt and is as popular as ever, still the home of the World Famous Mullet Toss.
“I told Joe I’d come down and play for him, and that’s where my band the Dixie Flyers came together. The Flora-Bama has never had a house band as such, but we played there as regularly as anybody.”
Killough discovered what it was like to hit it really big when he toured as the opening act for Willie Nelson in 1980.
“We traveled all over, playing at Madison Square Gardens, state fairs, you name it. That experience convinced me I did not want to be an artist, but a songwriter . . . there were fans everywhere wanting to meet Willie,” he says.
“Even at the hotels, the employees would be lined up with menus and napkins and what have you for him to sign. Sometimes he would stay holed up in his room just to get some peace.”
He pauses for a moment, lost in thought. “The difference is, Hank Williams could have gone anywhere, a restaurant, a movie theater, and nobody would have known who he was except in Nashville. I don’t think Willie could even go to the bathroom in peace.”
Killough pats his chest, shaking his head adamantly.
“I couldn’t live like that.”
And while he didn’t earn great fame and fortune in his musical career, Killough says he has no regrets.
“I consider myself to be one of the luckiest people in the world. Not everybody gets to do what I’ve done, to earn a living using the talent God gave me. I got to meet great people along the way, like James Garner. Stayed at his house when Willie was filming ‘Honeysuckle Rose.’” Killough gestures toward the doorway.
“Garner is a big guy, as big as that doorway – but just the nicest fellow. I found out the bigger the stars, the nicer they usually are.” He peers over the tops of his wire-rimmed spectacles.
“It’s the ones on the way up that are so difficult.”
Killough chuckles. “One day I am gonna write a book, but I’ve got to wait for a few more folks to die first.”
When asked to name his favorites among the songs he’s written, he stops to think.
“Well – I do love ballads. ‘Still Loving You.’ ‘Absence of Love.’ Those are songs with stories, messages. And kids love ‘The Lord Will Provide,’ but I just arranged that one, I didn’t write it,” he says.
These days, the man who traversed the country playing his songs, who performed on “Austin City Limits” and had songs recorded by musical luminaries like the Oak Ridge Boys, Hank, Jr., Waylon Jennings, Randy Travis, Carole King and Sammy Kershaw, among other, is now a happy “house husband” with his wife of 25 years, Kandys, and also serves part-time as a bank courier.
“Now, if Kandys wants me to perform for the humane society, or something like that, fine. But my gigging days are over,” he says firmly.
Killough may not have pots of money, but he says he’s made a lot of friends during his life-long musical odyssey.
“There’s a good part of this country where I know I can travel and never have to pay for a hotel room or buy a meal. I’m one of the richest guys I know of. I’ve had a good life.”
Randy Travis performing a song written by my cousin.