September 14, 1994 12:00 PM

In a clearing on the Wiggins family’s three-acre property outside Waynesville, N.C., a new stone shrine marks the grave site of John C. Wiggins. He was once known as the Singing Bus Driver, but the headstone calls him simply Our Rock.

Wiggins died 21 months ago, at 56, in an automobile accident, and clearly his wife, Judy, and four children still mourn the crumbling of their Gibraltar. But for the singing duo of John and Audrey Wiggins, the loss was not only of their father but also of their most devoted champion.

In the early ’60s, John C., an aspiring singer, left Waynesville for Nashville and parlayed a job as bus driver for Ernest Tubb into a gig opening for the star as the Singing Bus Driver. He gave up the road though when he saw on his rare visits home how his little children ran from him as from a stranger. Years later, it thrilled him to see his middle kids, John Wayne and Audrey, team up to make music themselves.

“He even paid for us to have a video made,” says Audrey, 26. “It was terrible! But he was just trying to help us get a foot in the door.” During a period when John and Audrey divided time between Waynesville and Nashville, John C. and Judy would rise with them in the wee hours to offer coffee and encouragement. “Daddy would sit at the table and say, ‘Y’all need any money?’ and ‘Now go back there and knock ’em dead,’ ” remembers Audrey. “Then he and Mama would come out and wave goodbye from the porch.”

In January 1993, after 14 years’ singing together, and plenty of menial jobs and Nashville knocks, brother and sister finally had a record deal in sight. “I was going to call Daddy that night and play a demo for him over the phone,” says John, 31. That was the night they learned of his death. Their debut CD came out last summer, to positive reviews. “Losing him right before our music finally took off,” says Audrey, “that was the most sickening part of all.”

Yet just as their sorrow lies near the surface, so does their joy in making music. John and Audrey have a sweet, gentle sunniness that seems like an artifact of another era in country music. (John has a girlfriend, but “nothing serious,” and Audrey has been dating a Waynesville beau for three years.) In the two-bedroom condo they share in Nashville, a bookshelf shrine and dried flowers carefully preserved from John C.’s funeral keep his memory alive. But it’s when they sing that they feel his presence most. Says John: “You feel like for special events he gets the curtain pulled back so he can see.”

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