Not that it should have mattered. But I’m Southern so it did. It mattered a lot.
As long back as I can remember, whenever someone told Mama and Daddy about a person who, all a sudden just up and died, the conversation would, with some variation, go like this:
“Did you hear ‘bout Jamison Jackson? Found him dead this morning.”
“Oh no! Are you serious?” Mama or Daddy would ask. Not that anyone would joke about someone being dead but when a surprise comes, we often say things that don’t make a lot of sense.
Then, without variation, the next question would be, “What kilt him?”
Now, “kilt” is an Appalachian word. On the coast or in the Delta, people will be more dignified and say “killed” or ask, “What happened?”
Yankees don’t ask this question. Dead is dead to them. It doesn’t matter how it happened. He died. End of story. But with Southerners, the end of the story needs to be detailed. The way someone dies is part of their story. The final act.
So, that’s how it came to be that I started tracking down what “kilt” a songwriter named Roger Bowling back on Christmas Day of 1982. Bowling was one of the finest storytelling songwriters to come through Nashville in the 1970s. He rose up out of Harlan, Kentucky, a place that is fabled for the hard times it’ll put in a man and the stories that will be born out of a man born in a place where the hours of daylight are short and the coal dust blackens the skies. Underneath the scab of surviving such difficult times will always be a tender sore that gives forth to rich storytelling.
Bowling’s first number one record was the 1975 hit, “Blanket on the Ground.” He also co-wrote my favorite Tammy Wynette/George Jones duet, “Southern California.” But it would be a 1977 record he co-wrote with Hal Bynum that would become his legacy, the song that carved his name into Nashville greatness. “Lucille” would also revive the nearly dead career of Kenny Rogers. Two years later, he co-wrote another Kenny Rogers smash, “Coward of the County.”
Both songs are extremely well-crafted story songs. In our minds, we can see the poor farmer who mourns at the bar over Lucille who left him or pretty Becky whose assault made a hero out of her formerly cowardly husband. Billy Currington re-recorded “Lucille” a few years ago and it is as well done as the Kenny Rogers version.
Back to what kilt him. He was only 38 years old. The New York Times, usually completely informative about death, reported that he was found dead at his home, an autopsy was performed, results still unknown, but it was believed to be natural. Bowling, at the time, was living in the picturesque mountain town of Clayton, Georgia. As long as you were born in Georgia, you will always know someone else born in Georgia who knows the story. So, I called one of my dearest friends and favorite people who grew up in Clayton.
“Aw, Roger. He was a good ‘un,” my friend said, his voice misting a bit with the recall. “Me and him played many a poker game together. He had him a little juke joint place called ‘The Pickin’ Parlor.’ We had a lot of fun there, too.”
He told a couple of stories then I asked, “What kilt him?”
“Well, I don’t think he meant to do it but he went and done it anyway. There was some drinkin’ involved. Maybe cold medicine, too. It was surely accidental.”
I was stunned. I didn’t expect that. But as I mulled over it later, I realized that we Southerners are right: how death comes is significant to a person’s life story.
A challenging beginning can lead to a hard ending. That’s how the story sometimes goes.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.]