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Who Merle Kilgore
When February 7, 2005
Where Nashville, TN
What Country icon Merle Kilgore dies at age 70
 

Had Merle Kilgore only been a bit player in country music history had he never co-written Ring of Fire with June Carter or managed Hank Williams Jr. to great career heights he would still have been one of Nashville's great characters.

A remarkable teller of stories and writer of songs, Mr. Kilgore died last night of congestive heart failure in Mexico, where he had been undergoing cancer treatments. He was 70.

Born Wyatt Merle Kilgore in Chickasha, Okla., Mr. Kilgore grew up in Shreveport, La. He often hung around the Louisiana Hayride radio show, where he introduced himself to numerous performers including Hank Williams.

At age 18, Mr. Kilgore wrote his first hit song: Country star Webb Pierce covered his More and More and turned it into a No. 1 hit in 1954. Pierce also saw promise in Mr. Kilgore as an artist and helped him get a contract with Imperial Records. Mr. Kilgore augmented his artistry with work as a disc jockey and a songwriter. He wrote the Johnny Horton hit Johnny Reb, and he scored a top 10 solo hit on Mercury Records with Love Has Made You Beautiful.

After a move to Nashville in 1961, Mr. Kilgore continued to record his own songs while writing songs for others, including Claude King's single Wolverton Mountain. His biggest hit came with Ring of Fire, which he wrote with Carter when she was falling in love with Johnny Cash. He attended the session in which Cash recorded that song, which became one of Cash's signature singles.

"I knew it was an instant hit," Kilgore told The Tennessean. "We'd heard they (Columbia Records) were going to drop Johnny 'cause his sales were so bad for the last couple of albums. But they weren't bad after that. Man, did he hit a home run with that. Saved his career."

In an interview, Mr. Kilgore said that he was at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to continue as a recording artist or to manage Williams Jr. According to Mr. Kilgore, the turning point came when Williams Jr. wrote down a figure on a piece of paper, slid it across a table to Mr. Kilgore and said, "This is what you'll be making each year managing me." Mr. Kilgore immediately renounced his own recording career and began a long and loyal second career as Williams Jr.'s adviser, confidante and deal-maker.

As manager to Williams Jr., Mr. Kilgore blended smarts and humor. When rap-rocker Kid Rock's manager called to express Rock's interest in meeting and possibly working with Williams Jr., Mr. Kilgore stalled the manager while thumbing quickly through a Billboard magazine until he found a page that listed Rock's Cowboy at the top of the pop charts.

In addition to Ring of Fire, Wolverton Mountain, Johnny Reb and More and More (which was also recorded as a duet by Van Morrison and Bob Dylan), Mr. Kilgore wrote notable songs including John Anderson's Let Somebody Else Drive, Eddy Arnold's The Easy Way and The Folk Singer and Ricky Nelson's Old Enough To Love.

A part of the country music industry for a half-century, Mr. Kilgore remained a popular figure throughout his life. Last year, he fought through heart surgery, two back surgeries and lung cancer, and he was heartened by the reaction among the Nashville community to his plight.

"Man, I had to get a room at Saint Thomas just for the flowers," he said. "And it makes a difference when people care enough about you to come and see you. If you're a real (jerk), nobody comes by. That must be real depressing."

Mr. Kilgore is survived by his wife, Judy; sons, Steve and Duane Kilgore; daughters, Pam Compton, Kim Pomeroy and Shane McBee; eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

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Contact Peter Cooper
The Tennessean
pcooper@tennessean.com


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