Jimmy Rose was sitting at a stoplight in Pineville late last year when he noticed the truck in front of him.
"It had the license plate, 'Coal keeps the lights on,'" Rose says, referring to the all-black Friends of Coal specialty plate. "There were stickers on the window, 'support your local coal miners,' and 'my husband is a coal miner,' and when I saw that, I said, 'That's the song.' I got cold chills on me, and I knew that was the song I was going to write."
Rose, a singer-songwriter who was briefly a coal miner himself, had been wanting to write a song in support of miners.
Now, Coal Keeps the Lights On, the song, has turned out to be a tremendous support to Rose's musical aspirations. He recently went to New Orleans to audition for the NBC reality competition show America's Got Talent, and sang his ballad about a miner to whooping cheers from the audience and glowing comments from the judges on the show that was broadcast Tuesday night.
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Howard Stern called Coal Keeps the Lights On "a damn good song" and said that as a radio station programmer, "I would have added your record and put it on the air." Howie Mandel said, "you have a great country voice, sound, and heart, and I think you are great."
Rose received a unanimous vote to move on in the competition, which he will do this week, an NBC spokesperson said, competing in the live rounds in Las Vegas.
"If you had told me 10 years ago that I'd be going after a career like this which involves large crowds of people, getting in front of celebrity judges, I'd have laughed at you," Rose says.
Ten years ago, he was serving in the Marines, just starting to explore song-writing and guitar playing. He joined the corps in July 2001 and was introduced to guitar playing by a fellow Marine while deployed to Japan.
"I immediately picked up the writing aspect of it," Rose says. "Being away from home and getting that sensation of missing home and family and friends, that drove me into writing and putting my feelings and expressions into words, and that's where my writing just took off."
Rose spent the end of his Marine career in Iraq, and says that it was hard for him to return to civilian life. Large groups of people and even mundane tasks such as going to Wal-mart made him anxious and fearful.
"You're so used to having to watch your back and sleeping with a weapon in your hand or in a fighting hole, and you constantly have to be aware of who's around you," Rose says of his time in Iraq. "You take someone out of a situation like that and slam them back into civilian life, it takes a while to adjust to that.
"The military and the VA (Veteran's Administration) helped me a lot with that, and I've hurdled those problems and pretty much smashed through them. I hope I can be a light to other veterans out there that have had the same troubles I have had, and I overcame them."
Like many aspiring musicians, Rose gave living in Nashville a shot, but found himself stymied in his efforts to break through in a town where it all depends on who know and, "I didn't know anyone down there."
Rose found inspiration in Kevin Skinner, the Mayfield musician who won the 2009 edition of America's Got Talent.
"He's a Kentucky boy, like me," Rose says. "He's a country boy, proud of who he is, where he's from and ain't ashamed of it. That persuaded me that this could happen, even for someone like me."
When he got to the auditions, Rose says show producers strongly advised him not to do an original song.
"They said, even the Rolling Stones did other people's songs when they were starting," Rose says.
But he had his song.
"I told my girlfriend, if I get the opportunity to walk out on that stage, Coal Keeps the Lights On is my song," Rose says. "I'll represent my hometown and that I am a singer-songwriter on that stage."
He says he quickly knew he had made the right decision as he sang and the audience began to cheer and stand. So he will have a second act, but Rose is not sure yet what he will play, another original or maybe a favorite from one of his heroes like fellow-Kentuckian Keith Whitley or recently-deceased George Jones.
"I've done already made my statement, I've done already seized the opportunity to be noticed as a singer-songwriter, and I've represented my area well, so I have that in mind," Rose says. "I'm still up in the air as to what's next ... but hopefully I've gained some respect and an audience that will watch what's next."
Whatever it is, it will be on national television.
'America's Got Talent'
9 p.m. Tues. and Weds. NBC.