Merle Kilgore: 1934 to 2005
Singer-songwriter Merle Kilgore, who died of congestive heart failure February 6 at age 70, was possibly the most flamboyantly successful wannabe in Nashville’s history.
Tall and magnetically charismatic, Kilgore not only co-wrote “Ring Of Fire” with June Carter Cash and wrote or co-wrote other significant country hits from the ’50s into the ’80s, he also toured with Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr., acted in films with such Hollywood heavyweights as Robert Mitchum and Steve McQueen, and negotiated the contract under which Hank Jr. sang the long-running and definitive musical intro to Monday Night Football.
But despite sometimes resorting to outrageous stage dress and other gimmickry, Kilgore never attained stardom himself. Professionally plagued early on by a stunning personal resemblance to Cash (as well as an uncanny ability to imitate him), and saddled with the same given name as Merle Haggard, he also sent mixed signals with a kingly bearing combined with an irrepressible sense of humor that kidded even himself.
During the early 1970s, Kilgore donned a rhinestone-festooned white suit and matching cowboy boots and reinvented himself as the Boogie King. At the time, he enthused about his local popularity this way: “They mobbed us down at the Smyrna Speedways the other night. I was grand marshal of a parade, and little kids looked at me and marveled. I ought to quit performing and start booking the suit.”
Born Wyatt Merle Kilgore in Chickasha, Oklahoma, he grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, where as a youth he hung out at the Louisiana Hayride and met Hank Jr.’s iconic father by offering to carry his guitar.
Kilgore was still a teen when Webb Pierce made a #1 hit of his “More And More”. Not many years passed before he had a similar smash with Claude King’s rendition of “Wolverton Mountain”.
He began opening shows for Hank Jr. in the mid-1960s, was put in charge of Williams’ song-publishing firms in the late ’60s, and became managerial chief of Hank Williams Jr. Enterprises in the mid-’80s. He seemed to act as part dad, part older brother and part fanatically devoted assistant to his younger boss.
Kilgore attacked life with the frantic, ingratiating grin of a starving man crashing a buffet. He was in Mexico undergoing treatment for cancer when he died.