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How Merle Kilgore Became Country Music’s Jack-of-All-Trades

Pickwick Records

Like Hank Cochran and other songwriters with their own recording careers, Wyatt Merle Kilgore made an impact outside of penning some all-time great country hits. While co-writing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” with June Carter and getting credit for Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain,” Johnny Horton’s “Johnny Reb” and other legendary singles would be enough to make him a legend, the Chickasha, Oklahoma native did way more for country music in a career that spanned from the late ’40s until his 2005 passing.

Right Radio Market, Right Time

By his teenage years, Kilgore’s family had relocated to Shreveport, Louisiana. It might’ve been the best place to get immersed in country music at the time, aside from Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, due to the popularity and influence of the Louisiana Hayride radio show. Young Kilgore worked as a local DJ before eventually becoming the Hayride’s in-house guitarist.

An Accomplished Singer-Songwriter

In 1954, Kilgore’s talents went mainstream when his “More and More” became a hit for Webb Pierce. Into the ’60s, Kilgore found some success as a recording artist. His first two singles, “Dear Mama” and “Love Has Made You Beautiful,” both cracked the top 10. Despite scattered singles like 1982’s “Mr. Garfield” and a 1984 cover of “Just Out of Reach,” his reputation when it came to recorded music would always be that of an accomplished songwriter.

Country Music’s Jack-of-All-Trades

As a touring act, Kilgore landed a spot on Cash’s traveling package show and was even the best man in Johnny and June Carter Cash’s wedding. In ’64, he became Hank Williams Jr.’s opening act. A close friendship with Williams opened the door for Kilgore’s first managerial role and his future career as a Nashville insider.

Kilgore also tried his hand at acting over the years. Most famously, he appears in Coal Miner’s Daughter and plays himself in Living Proof, a biopic about Hank Jr.

In the late ’80s, Kilgore’s management gig expanded into leadership positions with the Country Music Association board, the Nashville Songwriters Association International, the Nashville Songwriters Foundation and the Reunion of Professional Entertainers.

He was also the CMA’s first-ever manager of the year in 1990, an honorary Louisiana state senator and an inductee into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Hall of Fame.

Kilgore passed away on Feb. 6, 2005 from heart failure while undergoing experimental lung cancer treatment in Mexico. Nashville lost a true legend who’d just about done it all, from toting Hank Williams’ guitar into a radio station as a star-struck teen to heading Hank Williams Jr. Enterprises as a Nashville power broker.

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How Merle Kilgore Became Country Music’s Jack-of-All-Trades