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.”

Waiting for Miley Cyrus

The day before the annual MTV Video Music Awards crapola and I oddly find myself more looking forward to it than maybe even the first one 31 years ago, when all of us in the biz back then had drunk the Kool-Aid and were swept away by the asshole moonman.

Now, a 63-year-old man with music tastes reflecting my age, I’m also thinking back on my flimsy indirect Miley Cyrus connection via her dad.

I can’t remember if it was Key Largo or Orlando where Mercury/Nashville held a weekend junket for media in 1992 to showcase three of its baby acts including Billy Ray, and I can’t remember the other two, though one might have been Shania. And while I never got to know him that well, I was great friends with his (and Buck Owens’) manager Jack McFadden. I still remember Jack’s cutting riposte to my buddy Travis Tritt’s disparaging remarks during Fan Fair that year regarding Billy Ray’s out-of-nowhere career explosion by way of “Achy Breaky Heart”–which were shared but unuttered by many others in the country music community: “He’s [Tritt] just feeling the heat from our afterburner!”

Then a few years later, after Billy Ray’s career had seemingly flamed out almost as fast as it burst, I was asked to appear on one of those dumb celeb news shows, I think it was Access Hollywood, to comment on his chances of making a comeback with his then just-released new album. It was not at all impossible, I stated, with authoritative certainty, only to be told I’d never be asked on the show again for refusing to do stupid B-roll walking-through-the-hall or sitting-at-the-computer bullshit.

“I’m not an actor!” I huffed. “I’m a writer.”

Sure enough, I never did the show again.

As for Miley, well, I never watched Hannah Montana. So I never paid much attention to her until the infamous performance at the VMAs with Robin Thicke two years ago, when I found the twerking and tongue lolling vulgar and annoying, then was put off further by every succeeding outrageous stunt culminating with the video for “Wrecking Ball,” which I hated: By now it all seemed so calculating, like Madonna, and the song itself became tedious after a couple listens, with its bouncy verse and big, overwrought chorus. No denying, though, she sang it all very well.

Maybe it was her heartfelt induction of Joan Jett into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that turned me around, or her staunch refusal to apologize for what she does and who she is–along with her outspokenness in support of scores of progressive charities and causes. Here the one that really got me was her own nonprofit Happy Hippie Foundation, with its mission “to rally young people to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations.” To launch the foundation, she created a Backyard Sessions series of videos, many with guests like Jett and Ariana Grande, in which she respectfully covered classic rock songs including The Turtles “Happy Together,” garnering praise from none other than that group’s lead singer Howard Kaylan.

Miley told The New York Times (“in between freshly rolled joints”) that MTV told her, “This is your party,” and promises to give them a “psychedelic” and “raw” show unlike any previous ones—precisely why the network hired her, no doubt. But she also revealed that she’s working on “avant-garde” new music with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, which, in conjunction with a new visual Instagram style influenced by underground Net artists, indicates that she’s continuing to experiment and grow as an artist as she is as a person.

“When you look at it now, it looks like I’m playing hopscotch,” she said of her 2013 VMA appearance. “Compared to what I do now, it looks like nothing. I can’t believe that was a big deal. It wasn’t shocking at all.” She added: “I still love it. But I now watch it, and I see someone that isn’t me now.”

Who she is now, it seems to me, is an uncommonly centered, concerned and caring person for 22, completely opposite from the narcissistic pop superstarlets of her stature—Taylor Swift in particular. To be fair, Swift also gives plenty to charity, and has commendably established a close relationship with her massive fan base.

But Swift seems focused on surface, i.e., her physical appearance, celebrity friends and post-adolescent romance, whereas Cyrus, though younger, is so much broader and deeper in interest and reach. Here’s hoping to see more of this come into play tonight, whatever the shock value.

Tales of Bessman: Jeff Walker, Fan Fair, Bob Merlis, Phil Spector and Bahnee’s Beaneruh

This one really woke me up this morning: “Industry Executive Jeff Walker Passes.” It was a tweet from musicrow.com.

Jeff was everywhere whenever I was in Nashville, either as an artist or event publicist, or general industry hang-out guy. Two memories stand out.

The first came during my second trip to Nashville, 1976 or 1977 or thereabouts, a year or so after my first trip to Nashville. I’d met my hero Jo-El Sonnier then (when he was still Joel), and started writing about him—and music in general—a few weeks after returning. Sometime within the following year I met his manager Earl Poole Ball (he didn’t use the Poole then) at a Johnny Cash show at the Dane County Coliseum, as Earl was John’s keyboard player. I knew Earl’s name from Jo-El’s publicity stills, and Earl knew who I was from the first Sonnier piece I’d written in The Madcity Music Sheet and forwarded to Jo-El.

My first trip to Nashville was with a high school buddy and his girlfriend (now wife), during a vacation from my job as a typist/secretary at the State of Wisconsin. This time I took the Greyhound to Nashville. Earl and Jo-El picked me up at the station and I stayed in Earl’s Wall-to-Wall music publishing company office in Music Row on 16th Avenue South. Jo-el slept on the fold-out couch and I slept on the floor.

It was the first week of June, and scorching. The office had no air conditioning; worse, it had no shower, so it was pretty much bird baths in the bathroom sink for a week. About as grubby as I’ve ever lived, and that’s saying a lot. And as usual, I had no money.

And it was Fan Fair Week. Now the humongous CMA Music Festival held all over downtown Nashville and Nissan Stadium and drawing upwards of 75,000 fans, Fan Fair had begun in 1972, when it brought 5,000 fans to Municipal Auditorium, where Roy Acuff, Tom T. Hall, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and others performed. It moved to the Tennessee Fairgrounds in 1982, by which time I was living in New York and working for the music trade Cash Box—and had become a Fan Fair regular. I made the move with it to downtown in 2001, but it was nothing like that first one, when I survived for three days on popcorn pilfered from the Con Brio Records booth when no one was looking.

Con Brio was active in the late ‘70s and was founded by Jeff and his father Bill Walker, an Australian-born American composer and conductor who had worked with such country stars as Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins and Eddy Arnold, and was musical director for TV’s The Johnny Cash Show. Con Brio’s biggest name artist was Jan Howard, who had sung on Cash tours with the Carter Family. But their priority artist at Fan Fair was Terri Hollowell, who charted five singles during her brief tenure at Con Brio, then retired to focus on family.

I remember meeting Terri, but more memorable, aside from having desperately needed a hot meal and a shower, was seeing “Ragin’ Cajun” Doug Kershaw—the reason I became a writer in the first place. He had recorded Jo-El’s “Cajun Born,” and I went to see him–and interview him–at an outdoor rock show in Oshkosh opening for Chilliwack, Muddy Waters and headliners J. Geils. At Fan Fair, I saw him sing his signature hit “Louisiana Man” at the auditorium with brother Rusty, the first time in years that the two performed together, and maybe the last time; he originally recorded “Louisiana Man” with Rusty–who died in 2001–as Rusty & Doug.

I also met my lifelong pal Bob Merlis during Fan Fair Week. Maybe a month or so earlier—or a year, but in the spring—Warner Bros. Nashville had provided two then baby acts, Con Hunley and Margo Smith, for a free outdoor fan appreciation day show near Madison put on by the local country station WTSO. I met the WB/Nashville publicist Bonnie Rasmussen, who was just wonderful, by the way, and asked her if she knew Doug Kershaw, who at the time was signed to Warner Bros. She immediately informed me in no uncertain terms that I had to get in touch with Bob Merlis, since he was also a huge Cajun music fan.

Bob ran national Warner Bros. Records publicity out of L.A., and when I got home I mailed him a few clippings as an intro. He put me on the mailing list—which at the time I didn’t know existed—and I started receiving WB album releases. Then when I showed up at the label’s Nashville office one morning during Fan Fair, I surprised Bonnie, who like everyone else had a Bloody Mary in her hand, much as I did a moment later. After all, it was Fan Fair, and everyone was celebrating. But I wasn’t the only out-of-towner, and when I asked Bonnie if Bob might have been there as well, she said that indeed he was, as a number of top WB/L.A. execs always came in for Fan Fair.

She brought me to him and there he was, middle of June in a lightweight sport coat and bow tie. He knew who I was from our correspondence and we talked a bit about Cajun music, all the while holding up a cassette tape recorder which was clearly recording our conversation. After a few minutes I gave in to curiosity and asked if he was recording us. Yes, he said, he was recording all his conversations while he was in Nashville. Why, I asked. “Because when I get back to L.A. I’m going to edit them!” Bob Merlis replied.

I thought about this for a second or two, then decided I would be his disciple for the rest of my life.

Many years later I was talking with Jeff and somehow Con Brio came up and I mentioned how I’d eaten all its popcorn that long ago Fan Fair. Jeff laughed, and when I asked whatever happened to Terri Hollowell, he laughed again and reintroduced me to Terri, who was now his wife—and the reason she retired to spend time with her family.

Many years later, too, I took my first trip to L.A. I was now a contributor to Billboard, which paid my air fare, since I was there to help cover their annual music video conference. I rented a car and stayed with a friend living on the beach in Playa del Rey. Bob hosted the first of what would become the annual Bessman Bash at his house; last Saturday night there were maybe 100 or so partiers in attendance for Bessman Bash 2015.

The first Bash, however, had at most a dozen guests. Bob was close with Phil Spector,and I had met Phil myself toward the end of the preceding year when he showed up in Nashville during CMA Week to pick up a BMI Award for the country chart-topping 1987 cover of his 1958 Teddy Bears pop hit “To Know Him is to Love Him” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, from their Trio album.

Through Bob I knew some people in Phil’s entourage, and as he was leaving with them via the underground entrance to the parking lot, he walked by me and I was introduced. He didn’t even look at me and just walked by, with his people, until he reached the doorway, then abruptly turned around—as did everyone else—and sauntered back over to me and Art Fein, host of L.A.’s longtime cable rock’n’ roll talk show Art Fein’s Poker Party, who was also close to Phil and part of his crew.

“So who’s the guy with the beard?” Phil asked Art, upon which I practically jumped onto him to shake hands and identify myself. When we were planning that first Bessman Bash, I asked Bob to invite Phil, and a couple hours into the party, the doorbell rang. Our friend Tom Vickers went to get it, and came back to me, looking as if he’d seen a ghost. “There’s someone at the door for you,” he said.

It was Phil. He was all alone. I effusively thanked him for coming and ushered him into the vestibule, where he stood for two hours. Didn’t even remove his coat. It was just him and me for the first half hour or so. I offered him a drink and he accepted water, but that was it. No food, no alcohol. Never left his spot. Eventually everyone came over to him and shy and uncomfortable as he was, he couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. He would come to many Bessman Bashes over the following years, often bringing his lovely daughter Nicole. We’ll never forget his many kindnesses.

Jeff Walker was the major promoter of country music videos back then, and I ran into him at the video conference. A few of us went out do dinner that night, including Billboard’s then managing editor Ken Schlager. We went to some trendy place that was a big celebrity hang, expensive and with a fancy menu. Jeff was not impressed.

“Don’t they have any buguhs, like at Bahnee’s Beaneruh?” he asked impishly, his Aussie accent distorting both “burgers” and “Barney’s Beanery.”

Barney’s Beanery? I said, clearly indicating that I’d never been there, if in fact I knew what it was—which I didn’t, until I was reminded it was illustrated on the classic album cover of Big Brother & the Holding Company’s classic 1968 album Cheap Thrills. Schlager’s eyes suddenly lit up as his lips formed a mischievous grin. Without a word he closed his menu, set it down, and stood up. The rest of us did the same and followed him out of the eatery as all the beautiful people looked at us in disgust.

Half an hour later Jeff, who was a great guy and a great friend and a major figure in the Nashville music community until his sudden death yesterday, was biting into his buhguh at the famous Bahnee’s Beaneruh.