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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