"This is the Merle Kilgore show," Marty Stuart told the crowd while emphasizing that applause was definitely encouraged during the gathering that featured musical performances by Kid Rock, Big & Rich, Wynonna and others.
Kilgore, one of the country music industry's most beloved characters, died Feb. 6. During two hours of great music, lots of laughs and a few tears, family and friends celebrated his life during a gathering Tuesday (Feb. 15) at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville.
Kilgore enjoyed a successful songwriting career (including co-writing "Ring of Fire" with June Carter Cash) before spending almost two decades as Hank Williams Jr.'s personal manager.
Aside from the music, Kilgore would have taken pleasure in being remembered for his wicked sense of humor, his savvy business sense and, not the least of all, his collection of gold jewelry. In fact, mentions of him flashing his rings became a recurring theme Tuesday.
Kilgore apparently even wanted an impressive funeral procession as he made his way to the Hendersonville Memory Gardens. As his friend, talent agent Greg Oswald, explained to the crowd, "One announcement: On our trip to the graveside, there will be no carpooling. Any of you who do try to carpool will be removed, given a car and moved to the back of the line."
Stuart and Travis Tritt hosted the memorial service. In one of his recollections, Tritt said he and Williams once interrupted a fishing trip in Paris, Tenn., to have lunch with Kilgore at the local marina. When his management client was not present, Kilgore told Tritt, "I'm just trying to get Bocephus [Williams] to look at some of these prospective dates out there. There's a lot of money on the table, brother. A lot of money."
Tritt continued, "He said, 'You know, Travis, in this world that we live in, there are no guarantees. You know, Jesus could come next week, next month, next year. But if we took these dates now, at least we'd have the deposits."
Wiping tears from his eyes, Williams' voice trembled briefly when he began to read a message he had written. It appeared in the printed program at the service.
I went to the office today,
But found out you weren't there.
And yet the more I searched,
I realized that you were everywhere.
'64, '79, '80s, '90s, Millennium too.
There were so many pictures,
So many memories,
Together me and you.
You carried Dad's guitar in Shreveport.
You were my link to him.
Like a brother, like a father,
And always, always no matter what ... my friend!
I had a dream so beautiful and serene.
Do not grieve, for from Heaven He's called.
"Brother you won't believe ... I've made the biggest deal of all!"
The musical performances began early in the service when Stuart revamped Tom T. Hall's "Me and Jesus" into an a cappella version as "Merle and Jesus." Stuart accompanied his wife, Connie Smith, on "Wayfaring Stranger." Singer-songwriter Holly Williams, Hank Jr.'s daughter, accompanied herself on piano to sing "Say Goodbye." Kid Rock showed up in a black suit and acoustic guitar to perform "I Saw the Light." After a spoken word introduction by Big Kenny, Big & Rich sang "I Pray for You." Wynonna closed the service with "How Great Thou Art." Other performances were provided by Penny DeHaven and Kilgore's granddaughters, Leah and Sara McBee.
Country Music Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee offered one of the most eloquent observations of the day.
"Merle brought laughter to every room he entered, and he was a friend to all within the reach of my voice," she said. "He challenged us in the industry to remember the dream that brought us into this industry that he so passionately loved. He was more than a big man with a big heart. He was a huge man, with a big, big, big heart. If riches can be counted in the legacy of the lives you touch and the hearts that will never forget you, look around this room today, and it tells me that Merle Kilgore indeed did just fine."
Among those attending the service were Kenny Chesney, George Jones and Brooks & Dunn's Kix Brooks.