NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Many a son or daughter has asked for a guitar when they were young, only to abandon it later. But when 23-year career Crete driver Ray Wilmoth took his youngest son, Kelly, on the road with him some 20 years ago, the young teen would take his guitar along and often leave truckers in tears over his emotion-filled renditions of country songs.
And when only 15 or 16, Kelly began writing his own heart-felt tunes, sometimes with the help of his truck-driving daddy.
Ray Wilmoth likes to recount a story about when he first realized his son had a special gift.
At about age 16 or 17 Kelly accompanied him on a run to California and back. He was also begging his dad for a Stetson hat, which the elder Wilmoth readily agreed to until he found out at a stop in El Paso that they cost around $200.
But when they went through El Paso again on the way back Wilmoth relented and bought his son the Stetson and told him about how close he had been to his own dad although his dad died when Ray Wilmoth was young.
When they returned home Kelly played him a song he had written from their conversation about his grandfather called “Daddy Is My Hero,” now one of Kelly’s most moving songs.
Ray Wilmoth was blown away. “That’s when I realized he really had a talent,” he said, and he and his son began planning for Kelly to embark upon a successful country music career.
Kelly used to play at Nashville’s fabled Bluebird Café, where aspiring singer/songwriters are sometimes discovered, and he had a steady gig for awhile at a country club, along with other engagements.
And although Ray Wilmoth said he “groomed” Kelly for a career as a professional singer-songwriter, “when he came of age he decided he didn’t want to do that and I respect that,” he said.
Kelly “didn’t want to do music [professionally] after he found out what they require of you,” said the elder Wilmoth, adding that to make it in the music business “you have to stay on the road forever; it’s worse than driving a truck.”
Kelly, 38, now has a successful cleaning business in Cookeville, Tenn. His oldest brother, Larry, 50, drives for UPS and has his pilot’s license and the middle brother, Wayne, 43, also is in the cleaning business and sings semi professionally for parties and gatherings.
So far, Kelly has recorded three CDs that are proudly carried around by has father. They deal with love, loss, dreams and family, for the most part, and are just as good as ones heard on most country radio stations.
Ray Wilmoth has co-written several songs with his son. The words for one, “Love Song,” he wrote at a TA in Boise, Idaho, when he realized he wasn’t going to be able to make it home for his wedding anniversary and decided to write a song for his wife, instead. Kelly later put it to music.
One could say Kelly Wilmoth comes by his talent naturally. Not only does his father co-write songs but his aunt, Edith Holloway, has written religious poems such as “The Great Artist,” “I Just Stopped By To Get Acquainted,” and “God Needed Another Angel,” about a daughter who died as a baby, all of them narrated to music.
Kelly has written some more songs that he hasn’t had the time to record, yet. He said he’s been inspired, for sure, by his trips over the road with his dad.
“Going with dad had a lot of influence” on his songwriting Kelly said, but he added that “I’ve been out with him on the road and I said, ‘oh, truck driving’s not the life for me.’ ”
Trucking has been good to Kelly, however; there’s quite a following for his music among his father’s fellow truckers.
“There’s not a week or two goes by without someone asking about Kelly and how his music career is doing,” said the elder Wilmoth at a Central Arkansas truck stop recently.
Sometimes they’re disappointed to learn that Kelly decided not to pursue music full time for the same reason he didn’t want anything to do with trucking: too much time away from family.
Ray Wilmoth can understand where his youngest son is coming from. After all, he didn’t get into trucking, himself, until he was 47 and his children were out of school.
“I’ve been with Crete the whole time and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said Ray Wilmoth, but he warns that “I don’t recommend trucking for young people. They need to be home with their kids.
“Once they get used to the income they get stuck with it [trucking]” as a lifestyle.
Ray Wilmoth, a fit 70 years old with 3 million safe miles and only one ticket, apparently finds it heard to quit trucking, himself. He said he keeps telling his wife “just one more load.”
But he said after having been “through all the major snow storms this year I don’t want to do that, not again.”
Time will tell. One thing’s for sure, he’ll be plugging Kelly’s music whether on or off the road.
Dorothy Cox of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.