KILGORE, WYATT MERLE (1934–2005).
A member of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame and composer or co-composer of more than 330 songs, singer, songwriter, guitarist, disc jockey, actor, and talent manager Wyatt Merle Kilgore was born to Wyatt and Gladys B. Clowers Kilgore on August 9, 1934, in Chickasha, Oklahoma. His family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, when Merle was about five. As a fourteen-year-old he carried Hank Williams, Sr.'s guitar at the Louisiana Hayride, and two years later, was performing on the show as principal guitar accompanist while still in high school. He graduated from Byrd High School in Shreveport in 1952 and attended Louisiana Tech University in Ruston for a year. While in college, Merle gained his first job as a disc jockey at radio station KRUS in Ruston and a year later was appearing on television shows as The Tall Texan (Kilgore was six feet, four inches in height) on KFAZ (Ouachita Valley Jamboree) and KNOE in Monroe. He teamed with Webb Pierce to co-write, "More and More," a Number 1 for Pierce for ten weeks in 1954, and a million-seller, for which Kilgore also received a BMI songwriters award.
From 1955 to 1960 Kilgore worked as a disc jockey for several Louisiana radio stations. During that time he penned and recorded his first Top 10 hit, "Dear Mama," continued to perform on the Louisiana Hayride, and wrote several more songs, including "Johnny Reb," recorded by Johnny Horton, which eventually sold more than fifteen million copies. Kilgore made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry (1960), received the WSM Nashville "Mr. DJ" award (1960), signed a contract with Mercury Records (1961), moved to Nashville to become manager of Shapiro-Bernstein Music (1961), joined the Johnny Cash road show (1962), performed at Carnegie Hall (1962), and co-wrote the million-seller Number 1 country hit, "Wolverton Mountain," with Claude King, who recorded it for Columbia in 1962. Written for Merle's uncle, who introduced him to the mountain in Arkansas, the song crossed over to become a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for King. In 1963 Merle teamed with June Carter to write "Love's Burning Ring of Fire," first recorded by Anita Carter and later revived as "Ring of Fire," which became a Number 1 hit on the country charts for Johnny Cash, June's future husband. For his many songs, Merle was named one of Billboard magazine's Top 10 Songwriters in 1963.
After performing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1962, Kilgore appeared in his first feature film, Country Music on Broadway, in 1963, and subsequently enjoyed a long list of acting credits. Along with releasing several albums in the 1960s, Kilgore became general manager of Hank Williams, Jr.'s publishing companies in 1969, and was Williams's opening act for more than twenty years. He performed on and managed a majority of Williams's biggest albums in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as negotiated the deal for his performance of the ABC Monday Night Football theme song in 1989.
Kilgore served on the Country Music Association's Board of Directors (1989) and was president of the Nashville Songwriters Association Board of Directors in 1990, as well as being voted the first CMA Manager of the Year that same year. In 1995 Bear Family Records released Teenager's Holiday, a CD that included all the classics written by Kilgore. In 1994 he opened Merle Kilgore Management in Nashville, representing Hank Williams, Jr., as well as several other artists. Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the North American Country Music Association Hall of Fame in 1998, in 2004 he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. On February 6, 2005, he died of complications from treatments for lung cancer.
"Country Legend Merle Kilgore Dies," Billboard, 7 February 2005.
Hugh W. Foley, Jr., Oklahoma Music Guide II (Stillwater, Okla.: New Forums, 2013).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Hugh W. Foley, Jr., "Kilgore, Wyatt Merle," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org (accessed May 23, 2017).
© Copyright Oklahoma Historical Society 2009.