MILLERS CREEK, NC -- On a blustery Sunday afternoon in March, dozens of mourners filed into Peace Haven Baptist Church for the funeral of Geraldine Reid Thompson, whose son died during combat in Iraq in 2005. Up front sat country musician Rockie Lynne and his Martin D-28 guitar.
Lynne, who was abandoned as an infant in Charlotte, taken to Barium Springs Home for Children and adopted by a Statesville couple, reached No. 1 on Billboard's country singles sales chart for 10 weeks straight in 2006 with his debut single, "Lipstick."
He's performed 14 times at the Grand Ole Opry and before 65,000 fans at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He's appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and played with such musical greats as Charlie Daniels and George Clinton.
But on this chilly day in a Wilkes County town of 2,000 northwest of North Wilkesboro, Lynne, 48, was right where he knows he's always needed to be. The week before the funeral, he composed a tribute song to Thompson called "Angel By My Side," sang it at the funeral and gave copies to her family.
Lynne, an Army veteran who lives in Statesville, has devoted much of his professional music career to soldiers -- and the families of those who've died in combat.
Ten years ago, while living in Minnesota, Lynne co-founded a nonprofit organization, Tribute to the Troops, that visits families of slain soldiers "to show that their loss and sacrifice will never be forgotten," he said.
The organization sometimes arrives with a 40- or 50-strong cavalcade of motorcyclists who are there only to say thanks. Tribute to the Troops has raised about $200,000 for families of fallen soldiers.
Tribute to the Troops has since formed other chapters in Illinois, Oregon and North Carolina, with plans for others in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Arizona.
Lynne's first visit in North Carolina was to Larry and Geraldine Thompson's home in May 2012. Son Chris, a 25-year-old Navy hospital corpsman, was killed by an explosive in Al Anbar province.
Tribute to the Troops has led four rides memorializing soldiers in North Carolina.
Lynne said he decided to do something for the families of slain soldiers after watching a TV newscast in Coon Rapids, Minn., where he lived. The death of a local soldier was the third item on the broadcast. They deserve better, he thought.
"I wanted to say thanks to these young men and women," Lynne said during an interview at the recording studio he built at WSIC-AM (1400) in Statesville. "I wanted to tell them, 'We're proud of what you're doing, and you should be proud.' "
In the 1980s, after graduating from North Iredell High School, where he played in the jazz band and sang baritone in the chorus, Lynne served three years of active duty in the Army's Fort Bragg-based 82nd Airborne. He served another three years on inactive reserve.
He's also been an ambassador for the USO, playing in Afghanistan, southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf to small groups of soldiers at a time and to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He's played at national conventions of the VFW, National Guard and Vietnam Veterans of America.
In 2010, he produced the 11-song CD, "Songs for Soldiers," and gives copies away to everyone in attendance when he's asked to speak to community groups.
Lynne is soft-spoken, 6-foot-3, 205 pounds. He lives with his wife, Susan Levy Rash, and son, Hogan, 15, off a dirt road near Interstate 40 in Statesville, in the single-story home where he was raised by devout Baptists Fred and Ethel Rash and which he has since refurbished. Ethel died in 1997. Fred, a retired maintenance manager who worked for Kewaunee Scientific Corp. for 43 years, has lived for decades in Salisbury.
Lynne also has two daughters: Allie, 21, attends the University of Alabama, and Morgan, 9, lives in Minnesota. Lynne met his current wife when she was head of publicity for Universal South Records in Nashville.
Lynne said he's never been bitter about having been abandoned when he was only months old.
"I'm a sole survivor, a fatherless son," he writes in a song about not knowing his birth parents.
"But that's OK. That's where songs come from."
Now his mission is to be there for soldiers -- and the survivors of those killed in action.
After Geraldine Thompson was buried that chilly March day, Lynne hugged her husband, a Vietnam veteran, and told him he loved him.
"I love you, too, Rockie," Larry Thompson replied.