Merle Kilgore Dies At 70

Posted in News on February 7, 2005
Merle Kilgore, award-winning BMI songwriter and longtime manager of Hank Williams Jr., died Sunday, February 6, of congestive heart failure in Mexico, where he had been undergoing cancer treatments. He was 70.

Merle Kilgore, Al Gallico, BMI's Frances Preston

Born Wyatt Merle Kilgore in Chickasha, Oklahoma, he grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. As a teenager, he often hung around the "Louisiana Hayride" radio show, meeting numerous performers including Hank Williams Sr., whose guitar case he carried for his first job, at 14, in the music business.

(Bottom row) Leon Butler, Gary Walker, Emil LaViola, (top row) BMI's Frances Preston and (partially obscured) Robert J. Burton, June Carter, Merle Kilgore

At age 18, Mr. Kilgore wrote his first hit song: "More and More," which Webb Pierce took to No. 1 in 1954. Mr. Kilgore also worked as a disc jockey, TV show host and radio station manager in Louisiana throughout most of the 1950s. With Pierce's help, he landed his first recording contract with Imperial Records in Los Angeles; during a 20+ year singing career, he also recorded for Starday (producing a Top 10 hit with "Dear Mama"), Mercury (a Top 10 with "Love Has Made You Beautiful"), MGM, Epic, Columbia, Ashley and Warner Bros.

Justin Bradshaw, Judy & Merle Kilgore, BMI's Thea Zavin and Bob Sour

After enjoying success in 1959 with "Johnny Reb" (a million-seller for Johnny Horton), he moved to Nashville in 1961 to become manager of the Nashville office of Shapiro-Bernstein Music. He also became a regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry and joined the Johnny Cash road show while continuing to write; his biggest hits were Claude King's "Wolverton Mountain" and Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire" (written with June Carter as she was falling in love with Cash). Other notable songs included John Anderson's "Let Somebody Else Drive," Eddy Arnold's "The Easy Way" and "The Folk Singer," Margie Singleton's "Old Records," Claude King's "Tiger Woman," and Ricky Nelson's "Old Enough To Love."

Merle Kilgore, Cindy Walker, BMI's Frances Preston

In 1964 Mr. Kilgore joined the Hank Williams Jr. road show as an opening act and later turned his focus to Williams' business concerns. In 1969 he became the general manager of Williams' publishing companies, and in 1986 was named executive vice president and head of management of Hank Williams Jr. Enterprises, which relocated from Alabama to Paris, Tennessee.

BMI's Ed Cramer, Merle Kilgore, BMI's Frances Preston

Reflective of his multi-faceted career, he was named the Country Music Association's first Manager of the Year in 1990 at the SRO Awards and was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1998.

Mr. Kilgore was also a member of the CMA Board of Directors and once served as vice president of the CMA. He worked with numerous other industry organizations and was elected President of the Nashville Songwriters Association International's Board of Directors and of ROPE (Reunion of Professional Entertainers). He was even a member of the Screen Actors Guild, appearing in movies including "Roadie," "Coal Miner's Daughter," and "Nashville and Living Proof," the 1981 NBC movie about Hank Williams Jr. in which he played himself.

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.

A funeral service will be held Feb. 15 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Arrangements are being coordinated by Hendersonville Funeral Home (353 Johnny Cash Parkway, Hendersonville, TN 37075), where flowers may be sent.

Merle Kilgore's BMI Awards:

"Ring Of Fire"
BMI Country Award 1963 / Million-Air

"More and More"
BMI Country Award 1955, 1984

"Old Records"
BMI Country Award 1964

"Tiger Woman"
BMI Country Award 1965

"Wolverton Mountain"
BMI Country Award 1962 / BMI Pop Award 1962 / Million-Air