Merle Kilgore, a distinctive songwriter, singer, manager and behind-the-scenes influence throughout country music during the past five decades, died Sunday (Feb. 6) in Mexico at age 70. His cause of death, said his publicist, was congestive heart failure due to complications related to cancer treatment.
Perhaps best known in recent years for his songwriting credit (along with June Carter Cash) for Johnny Cash’s epochal song “Ring of Fire,” as well as for “Wolverton Mountain” for Claude King, Kilgore was equally lauded in country music circles for his careful guidance of the career of Hank Williams Jr. Kilgore liked to tell the story of the days when as a boy he carried Hank Williams’ guitar case at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La. Then, he became the guide and manager to Hank Williams Jr. through some difficult years for the young Hank.
“Merle was more to me than a manager,” Williams said Monday (Feb. 7) in a written statement to CMT News. “He was a father figure, he was a mentor, he was my business advisor, but most of all, Merle Kilgore was my best friend. He’s shared the good times with me and carried me through the bad — without judgment and without hesitation. He had heart, soul, compassion, business savvy and a sense of humor. He’s the definition of gentleman and scholar. I shall never know a greater man. The industry has lost an icon. I have lost a forever friend.”
Born Wyatt Merle Kilgore on Aug. 9, 1934, in Chickasha, Okla., he grew up in Shreveport and gravitated to music and radio, working as a DJ and singing on local stations as “The Tall Texan.” In 1953, Webb Pierce turned Kilgore’s composition “More and More” into a No. 1 country hit and was so impressed by Kilgore’s performances that he recommended him to Imperial Records of Los Angeles. Kilgore recorded for the label for five years. He wrote the hit “Johnny Reb” for the country singer Johnny Horton.
Kilgore’s recordings for Imperial included pop sessions in New Orleans with producer Dave Bartholomew, best known for his work with Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis. Teenager’s Holiday, a collection of Kilgore’s early recordings, was released in November 2004 by German-based Bear Family Records.
Kilgore also recorded for the Starday, Mercury, MGM, Epic and Columbia labels during the ’60s before moving to Warner Bros. and Elektra in the ’70s and ’80s. As a recording artist, his greatest chart success came in 1960 with “Dear Mama” (his debut single that reached No. 12 on the country chart) and “Love Has Made You Beautiful” (which peaked at No. 10). His 1982 recording of “Mister Garfield” featured backing vocals by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr. He was last on the charts in 1985 with the single, “Guilty.”
Behind the scenes, Kilgore became a key player in the country music industry after moving to Nashville in 1961 after being hired by veteran music publisher Al Gallico to operate Shapiro-Bernstein Music. Kilgore later managed the Nashville office of Al Gallico Publishing.
His film work began with an appearance in the 1963 feature, Country Music on Broadway. His other film credits include Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar (1965), Sing a Song for Heaven’s Sake (1966), Nevada Smith (1966), Five Card Stud (1968), Educated Heart (1970), W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1974), Nashville (1975), Roadie (1979) and Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). In 1981, he appeared as himself in Living Proof, an NBC movie about the life of Hank Williams Jr.
Kilgore began serving as Hank Williams Jr.’s opening act in 1964 and continued in that role for more than two decades. He began managing Williams’ music publishing companies in 1969. Realizing that his own future lay in management, Kilgore officially became the singer’s manager in 1986 to guide his career in a stable fashion through some occasionally turbulent times. He also became an influential power behind the scenes in Nashville, privately advising Music Row movers and shakers.
Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1997, Kilgore’s songs have been recorded by numerous artists. “Ring of Fire” was covered by Ray Charles, Olivia Newton-John, Jerry Lee Lewis, Blondie, Tom Jones, Kitty Wells, Lynn Anderson, Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Burl Ives and others. Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong recorded separate versions of “Wolverton Mountain.” Kilgore’s other songs were recorded by Marty Robbins, Faron Young, Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold, Jim Ed Brown, Sammi Smith, Tommy Roe, Ricky Nelson, Bobby Vinton, John Anderson, Patti Page, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Dale Hawkins, Tammy Wynette, Teresa Brewer, Rex Allen, Mel Tillis, Lorne Greene and Vaughn Monroe.
Kilgore is survived by his wife, Judy, sons Steve and Duane Kilgore, daughters Pam Compton, Kim Pomeroy and Shane McBee, eight grandchildren and a great granddaughter.
A funeral service will be held Feb. 15 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Arrangements are being coordinated by Hendersonville Funeral Home in Hendersonville, Tenn.