I remember Merle Kilgore

One thing about this pandemic, it’s given me a lot of time to reflect.

I thought about Merle Kilgore a few weeks ago, at the height of the George Floyd protests and the ensuing removal of Confederate/racist-related flags and statuary throughout the country. And I thought of him again more recently when the Country Music Association announced that Hank Williams, Jr. was being inducted into the Counry Music Hall of Fame.

Merle Kilgore, if you don’t know, wrote, with June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He also wrote David Houston’s big 1962 country crossover hit “Wolverton Mountain,” and one of my favorites, Tommy Roe’s “The Folk Singer.” He was an inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, but by now he was best-known as Hank, Jr.’s longtime manager—having famously carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar long before.

Merle, who died at 70 on February 26, 2005, was a big, cuddly bear of a man, with an oversized jovial personality to match. As Brenda Lee said at his funeral, he “brought laughter to every room he entered—we all know that—and he was friend to all within the reach of my voice. He challenged all of us to remember–and this is so important–he challenged us in the industry to remember the dream that brought us into this industry that he so passionately loved.”

One thing I passionately loved about Merle Kilgore was that whenever I saw him, he’d greet me with “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” Of course I made a point of seeing him whenever I was in Nashville, usually with another big Kilgore fan, Los Angeles-based Bob Merlis, who was then Warner Bros. Records head of publicity.

Bob Merlis and Merle Kilgore

Bob and I were in Nashville in June, 1998, for our annual hang at what was then called Country Music Fan Fair, then held at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds–from where it moved three years later to Downtown Nashville. Bob had just emceed the noon Warner Bros. label show at the Fairgrounds Speedway, and we’d walked up the hill to the exhibition buildings, where hundreds of country artists had meet-and-greet booths.

One of the biggest artist booths, not surprisingly, was Hank Williams, Jr.’s. It was comparatively huge, actually, stocked full of all kinds of merchandise. There holding court behind the counter was Merle Kilgore.

“Jim Bessman! America’s most-beloved music journalist!” he bellowed, then saw Bob.

“Hey! I got something for you guys—but you have to wear them!” he said, reaching down below the counter for what must have been his special stash. When his hands resurfaced, each held a bold blue garment, one of which he tossed to Bob, the other to me. We then unfolded, to our horror–and Merle’s boisterous chuckle—Confederate Flag gym shorts!

“Jim Bessman! Make sure you wear them at the gym when you get back to New York! You’ll get a big reaction!” Merle exclaimed, laughing louder. I’m sure he would have been right, had I worn them at the gym. I don’t remember what I did with them when I got back to New York, but I do know I never wore them to the gym.

But I remember one other thing about that Fan Fair stop. Merle asked if I’d heard about Jack McFadden. Jack was another bigtime manager I always visited when I was in Nashville.

I’d first met Jack when he managed Keith Whitley to country music stardom. Thanks to Jack, I’d even got to hang with Keith (whom I’d first seen at the University of Wisconsin Student Union Great Hall back in the early 1970s when he and Ricky Skaggs were in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys) and his wife Lorrie Morgan when they taped something together at a studio in New York.

Big thanks to Jack, I also became friendly with Buck Owens, whom Jack had managed forever. He also managed Billy Ray Cyrus, and I’ve always remembered what Jack said when Travis Tritt got into trouble at Fan Fair in 1992 for criticizing “Achy Breaky Heart.” In response, Jack said, “I think Travis is feeling the heat from our afterburner.”

Sadly, Jack was now in a coma, Merle told us. He wouldn’t last the day. But they were reading messages to him, so when I got to a phone I called his office and made sure they read a loving one from me.

Usually, though, Bob and I would visit Merle at his office in Music Row (he had another one in Paris, Tennessee, where Bocephus–Hank, Jr.–was based). His Music Row office was just around the bend from the Country Music Association headquarters (Merle was a longtime CMA officer), in the same building that once housed the Cash Box Nashville bureau when I worked for the long defunct trade magazine I came to New York in the early 1980s. We got there once when he was just pulling up in his immense boat of an SUV (in the same parking lot where I once spent a cold winter night in my rental car) that even then couldn’t fit his even more immense personality.

I’m laughing now recalling how another dear departed friend, Steve Popovich (founder of Cleveland International Records, Steve ran PolyGram Nashville in the 1980s, where he signed the likes of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson), always referred to Merle, in conversation or in person, as “The SENATOR!,” for he was in fact an honorary Tennessee State Senator. Certainly, he was politically diplomatic.

I put Merle’s diplomacy to the test one year when Bob and I were in Nashville in October for the Country Music Awards. I have an unfortunate tendency not to conform with consensus, i.e., Bob Dylan’s the greatest songwriter ever, Aretha Franklin’s the greatest singer ever, etc., etc. Politics and big gun/big game-hunting obsessions aside, I’ve also always contended that Hank, Jr. was better than Hank, Sr.—always a good conversation-ender, if not longtime friendship.

I must have mentioned this to Bob, then said we had two country music authorities close at hand that we could trust for an expert opinion.

First we went to Tony Pipitone, who like Bob, was a top executive at Warner Bros. in L.A. (he headed the label’s “special products” division charged with catalog compilations), a big country music fan, a regular at Fan Fair and the CMA Awards, and another friend of Merle’s.

“I’d have to say Hank, Jr.,” Tony said, when we asked him to choose between Sr. and Jr. One down, we then went over to Bob and Mary Oermann’s, where I was staying, and asked Bob—arguably the most important country music journalist of our time—for his vote. He said exactly the same thing. Neither of them had given it a second thought.

My third and final expert was the guy who carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar and managed Jr.

I think it was at the PolyGram CMA Awards after-party, though it might have been at MCA’s. Whichever, he was standing at the bar when I arrived.

“Merle,” I said, “you know how much I love Bocephus. I know it’s considered sacrilege, but I’ve always maintained he’s better than his father. I’ve even asked Tony Pipitone and Bob Oermann, and they both agree. But if anyone would know, it would obviously be you.”

The SENATOR looked down at me, considered the question for a few seconds, then leaned back and said, “Junior is more versatile. But Senior was more focused.”

He could have changed it around. In fact, maybe he did. But either way, he diplomatically declared it a draw.

By the way, when I said Merle was standing at the bar, I should mention that he’d been sober then some 20 years. One day in his office he’d told me and Bob about his drinking days. Bob says he said, “I drank because it made me funny.” I remember him saying, “I drank because it made me happy.” Again, both work. Even without alcohol, Merle Kilgore was both happy and funny.

I did see him outside Nashville on a couple occasions, the first time when Hank played the Nassau Coliseum.

One thing that I loved about Merle was how much he loved Bocephus. Whenever I was at a Bo show and backstage or even on stage, Merle would be in the wings standing up and singing along the entire set like a cheerleader, just loving it. After the Nassau gig we went on Hank’s bus and while we waited for him, I asked Merle what Junior felt about Chet Flippo’s then recently-published Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams.

Another now dear departed friend, Chet Flippo was responsible for expanding Rolling Stone’s country music coverage in the mid-1970s, when I first got to know him. He later authored several books, most notably two on the Rolling Stones and his 1981 Your Cheatin’ Heart, which blended fact with fictionalized dialog and scenes, some of them intimate.

“Chet Flippo!” shouted Merle, who had actually spent time with Hank, Sr. “Yeah, Chet Flippo was there, all right! He was hiding in the hay with his tape recorder!”

Then there was a day in late May, 2003, when I approached the corner of 57th Street and 8th Avenue and saw a man who looked very much like Merle Kilgore waiting for the “Walk” sign. As I neared him it dawned on me: Ain’t no one who looks like Merle Kilgore who ain’t Merle Kilgore, and sure enough, it was Merle Kilgore.

“Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!”

Merle was on his way to Radio City, where Junior was rehearsing his performance at the ABC-TV network “upfront” showcase of its fall schedule for advertisers and media. Hank was going to sing his Monday Night Football theme remake of his 1984 hit “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight”—“All My Rowdy Friends are Here on Monday Night”—and I was thrilled when Merle invited me to the real thing later in the day.

When I got there I went straight to Hank’s dressing room, where he was already in all his stage splendor, particularly a fabulous cowboy hat with a number emblazoned on the front. I asked him about it, and he said it was the uniform number of a Black college football star who had died tragically a short while back, whom he had been very close to.

But there was another person whom both Hank and Merle had been close to who had just died—June Carter Cash, on May 15. I asked them about the funeral, and especially Rosanne Cash’s eulogy, which I’d seen or read, which was stunning in its beauty and eloquence.

Rosanne’s speech was so good, in fact, that when Merle turned to Hank right after and said, “Go up and say something,” Hank told him, “I can’t go up there after that. You go up and say something!”

Merle then said, “I can’t follow her either!” And then, in the row behind them, Kris Kristofferson leaned over and whispered, “Shit! Now I can’t go up and say anything!”

I suppose it was inappropriate, but I had to laugh out loud at these three legendary country music songwriters, who couldn’t go up and say anything in honor of their dear fellow legend after Rosanne took all of them to school!

Searching YouTube for a video or two to illustrate this tribute, I happened upon footage of Merle’s own funeral, co-hosted by a couple other friends: Travis Tritt, whom me and Bob had run into sitting in a darkened corner of a bar in Nashville the night that his Billy Ray Cyrus brouhaha erupted, and Marty Stuart, who was likewise finally going into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank, Jr. When they called up Bocephus, he wept uncontrollably.

“Well, you’ve done it this time, Brother,” Hank finally managed to mutter. “I went to the office today…and found that you weren’t there. But the more that I searched, I realized you were everywhere: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, Millenium, too–there were so many pictures, so many memories. Together, me and you. You carried Dad’s guitar in Shreveport, you were my link to him. Like a brother, like a father, and always, always, no matter what, my friend.”

Then they showed some great video of Merle telling stories, taken from a Country Family Reunion program, including a great one about how he lived with Faron Young when he was going through a divorce and after Bocephus had fallen off the mountain in 1975—and before he quit drinking.

Both Merle and Faron were raised in Shreveport, where Merle had carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar at the famed Lousiana Hayride show when Faron was a rowdy high school student in a class taught by Merle’s mom. Faron used to sing country songs in the hallways, so to get him to behave, she told him that Merle would walk him backstage at the Hayride if he calmed the class down. He did.

Years later in Nashville, Faron owned a mansion, and offered Merle a cheap rental on the bottom half. Faron was a great cook, Merle recalled, and they were like “the original Odd Couple.”

One afternoon Faron called Merle at Nashville’s Hall of Fame bar and asked when he’d be home, since he was making his favorite dinner—Shake ’N Bake pork chops. Merle said he’d be home around 6:30.

“Don’t lie to me, now!” said Faron.

Merle got another call from Faron—about midnight.

“You think I [don’t] slave over that hot stove cooking you Shake ’N Bake? Don’t even think about coming home on an empty stomach! Better stop at Waffle House because [the neighbor’s dog] Fluffo is getting your meal! Good night!”

The ast time I saw Hank, Jr., four years ago when he did a show at SiriusXM here in New York accompanied by his new manager (and another old friend) Ken Levitan, I mentioned how much I missed Merle.

(Photo credit: Jeremy Tepper)

“I talked to him last week!” said Hank, explaining that he’d visited Merle’s grave. “I told him I missed him, and he said he was proud of me.”

Now I can’t vouch for the veracity of the conversation, but I don’t necessarily doubt it. After all, I can still hear Merle saiying, “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” I don’t even mind that I overheard him calling someone else America’s most beloved music journalist, even if to my mind, at least, he was nowhere near as belovable.

But Merle always was.

“He was more than a big man with a big heart,” Brenda Lee said at his funeral. “He was a huge man with a big, big, big heart. If riches can be counted in the legacy of the lives he touched and the hearts that will never forget you, look around this room today and it tells me Merle Kilgore indeed did just fine.”

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