Growing up Kilgore: The Johnny Horton Story

My father, Merle Kilgore, introduced me to many famous country music stars over the years, but the very first one was Johnny Horton. I was very young, but I remember Johnny well. We lived next door to him in Springhill, La. Johnny Horton had a string of hit songs in his short career including “The Battle of New Orleans,” “North to Alaska,” “Sink the Bismarck,” and the million-seller song that my father wrote, “Johnny Reb.”

There is an interesting story how that song was written. One morning back in the late fifties, my mother said to Dad, “Merle, I loved the song you wrote last night.” Dad said, “What song are you talking about? I didn’t write any songs last night.” Mother said, “You don’t remember waking me up at three o’clock in the morning and telling me that you had written a song that you dreamed about?”

She went on to tell Dad that he made her turn on the Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder so that he could make a demo. Merle turned on the tape recorder and this is what he heard:

“Well you fought all the way Johnny Reb, Johnny Reb,
Yeah, you fought all the way Johnny Reb.
Now Honest Abe heard the news about your fall,
And folks thought he’d call a great victory ball,
But he asked the band to play ‘Dixie’ for you Johnny Reb, and all that you believed.”

The song was written perfect. Dad did not change one word, and Horton recorded it with the same melody that was on the demo. Dad had written a country standard in his sleep!

Johnny Horton was very much in touch with the spirit world. He believed that he could communicate with the dead. Johnny and my father met a medium named Benard Ricks who they put a lot of stock in. Our family had a personal experience with Mr. Ricks. One afternoon Mr. Ricks called my mother and told her to go and check on my little sister Kim. Mother told Mr. Ricks that Kim was ok, and that she was in her bedroom taking a nap. Mr. Ricks insisted that mother go and check on her again, so mother did. When she came into the bedroom Kim had somehow gotten her little head under the mattress and was suffocating. She had turned blue. Mother immediately called an ambulance, and Kim was rushed to the hospital just in time to save her life.

Johnny Horton and Dad loved to fish. One day Johnny said, “Hey Merle, let’s go fishing today.” Dad told Johnny he was broke and couldn’t afford to go. Johnny said, “I’m broke too, but I have an idea how we can get some quick cash.” The record company in those days didn’t pay draws like they do today; they would pay the writers $5.00 for each song that they turned in. Johnny said, “Merle think up a song title”, and he did: “The Mark on her Finger.” They went to the record company and told the secretary they had a new song, and she gave them the $5.00 and off they went fishing. They laughed all the way to the lake. Dad and Johnny were like brothers, they were such close friends.

Dad told me a story about Johnny Horton that I’ve never forgotten. One afternoon Johnny came over to our house and he gave Merle his beautiful custom-made mother of pearl guitar. Dad told Johnny, “I can’t accept this. It’s the guitar that you play on all of your shows.” Johnny said, “Merle, last night I had a vision that I am going to die, and I am saying goodbye to all of my friends.” Dad told Johnny that they should make a secret code like the one Houdini had with his wife. That way if Johnny ever did contact him, Dad would know it was really Johnny Horton, so they made a secret code. Less than one week later, Johnny was on his way to play a show in College Station, Texas, when a drunk driver hit Johnny’s Cadillac in a head on collision. Johnny Horton was killed. Johnny had predicted his own death.

Years later, Dad was visiting an old friend who was a radio announcer named Bob Lockwood. Bob was covering a baseball game in Cincinnati that had been rained out and he said, “I have with me a great singer-songwriter, Merle Kilgore.” Bob said, “Here is a brand new song that Johnny Cash has just recorded, a song that you and June Carter wrote together. Merle, tell the listeners what’s the name of this song?” Dad said, “It’s called ‘The Ring of Fire.’ “ When they played the record, Bob received a phone call from a woman that said that she was with a group of psychics that met every Thursday, and last night they received an unusual name on their ouija board. What made it strange is there were two names, a first and last name, and that had never happened before. That name was “Merle Kilgore.” Not knowing anything about country music, they did not know who Merle Kilgore was until they heard Bob Lockwood announce on the radio that Merle Kilgore was with him. She told Bob that they had a message for Merle: “The drummer is a rummer and he can’t hold the beat.” Dad was freaked out! Johnny Horton hated musicians who drank on the job. The drummer is a rummer and he can’t hold the beat was the secret code that Johnny and dad had set up before Johnny Horton died…Spooky!

Johnny and his famous wife Billie Jean Horton were dear friends with our family. We loved them and they loved us. My mother and dad thought so much of Johnny that they named my brother after Johnny Horton. When you Grow Up Kilgore, you can bet that you’ll never know what will happen next!

Stephen Merle Kilgore

Stevekilgorenashville@yahoo.com