Growing Up Kilgore

The photo of the bronze statue is located at the William Morris Talent agency in Nashville and is housed in the Merle Kilgore conference room,(not opened to the public) photo by Silver Stephens copyright March 6th 2012

On November 1, 1956, my father, Merle Kilgore, was a radio disc jockey in Shreveport, La. That morning, he was on the air announcing the news that he was the proud father of a brand new baby boy.

“I have named my son after the world’s two greatest songwriters: Stephen Foster and Merle Kilgore.”

Wow, did my father have an ego. I must say, it was that ego that pushed my dad to songwriter success. I remember Dad telling me what his father had told him many times: “Son always shoot for the moon, and if you miss, land amongst the stars.”

Merle Kilgore was born in Chickasha, Okla. on August 9, 1934, and by the time he was 18, Dad had written his first million-seller, a song called “More and More.” I asked my mother how Dad had gotten the idea to write that song, and she told me that on their first date, Merle had mentioned that he had just broken up with his girlfriend Ginger. I told him not to worry and that “more and more” you will forget about her. Merle said, “Dorothy you have given me a great hook line for a song.” Webb Pierce was a huge county music superstar in those days who lived in Shreveport, and Webb recorded “More and More.” That was the start of Dad’s songwriter career.

There is a well-known story about my dad and Hank Williams, Sr. Merle was about 16 at the time, and he knew that Hank Williams was coming to a local radio station in Shreveport to do the early morning country music show. Back in the day, country music stars would travel the radio station circuit to promote their new songs and the concert dates in whatever town that they were performing in. Dad showed up at the radio station at 4:30 that morning, and said “Mr. Williams, the elevator is out of order and I would love to carry your guitar up the stairs.” Williams said, “Grab it, hoss,” and that began the friendship between Hank and my father. Years later I became friends with Hank Williams, Sr.’s Steel guitar player Don Helms. Don told me that he remembered that day well. Don also added that at the end of the show, Hank, my father and the Drifting Cowboy Band all rode the elevator down. Hank Williams passed away January 1, 1953 at the young age of 29. Hank only enjoyed seven years of commercial success; however, his legacy lives on forever!

“They say don’t go on Wolverton Mountain if you’re looking for a wife…”

That is the opening line to the country classic “Wolverton Mountain.” Yes, there is a Wolverton Mountain. It’s located about 60 miles west of Little Rock, Ark., and yes, there was a Clifton Clowers. He was Dad’s uncle. Our grandfather would take Merle to Wolverton Mountain every summer when he was a boy. One day Dad said, “Uncle Clifton, I’ve written you a song for your birthday.” Dad played it for him, and Clifton said, “Son, I believe you’ve written another hit.”

Years later Claude King was recording in Nashville and he said, “Merle I need one more song for my album,” and Dad said, “I have a novelty song that I wrote for my uncle as a joke.” Claude King recorded Wolverton Mountain, and it stayed nine weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. That song has sold 11 million copies, and I remember my dad telling me that it turned out to be one hell of a joke!

Last year my fiancé Silver Stephens and I traveled to Arkansas, and we found where Clifton Clowers house once stood. It was sad. There was nothing left except for a concrete foundation and a rock chimney that was about three feet high. I took a rock out of that chimney; I’m sure that Uncle Clifton wouldn’t mind.

One side note to the Clifton Clower story: the last time I saw Clifton Clowers I was 13 and when Dad and I drove up to Clifton’s farm on Wolverton Mountain, he was plowing with a mule and had an outhouse for a restroom. Today there is a multimillion dollar oil and gas well on his farm. Clifton was sitting on a fortune and never knew it.

My dad had written many hit songs in the past, but when he and June Carter teamed up to do some co-writing, they wrote one of country music’s top selling songs of all times, “The Ring Of Fire.” Many people don’t realize that Johnny Cash was not the first to record that song. The first was June’s sister, Anita Carter (part of the Carter Family). However, the song was just an album cut and not a commercial success. One Sunday morning when Johnny Cash and my father were on tour together, after they had played the Hollywood Bowl in California the night before to a sold out crowd, Johnny said to my dad, “I had a dream about that song ‘The Ring Of Fire’ last night. I heard trumpets playing in the background. When I get back to Nashville I’m going to record ‘The Ring of Fire,’ ” which he did, and the rest is history. Dad was also Johnny and June’s best man when they married on March 1, 1968 in Franklin Ky. Merle, Johnny and June remained lifelong friends.

Merle Kilgore was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Oklahoma Hall Of Fame in 2004. On 2006 his celebrity star was added the ‘Walk of Fame in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Merle worked with all the big stars, from Elvis to Lefty, George, and Hank. He was loved by all. Waylon Jennings’ brother Tommy once told me that Merle was always kind to people, even when he didn’t have to be. I am very proud of my father’s achievements, they were all outstanding. For more information on Dad’s discography milestones you can search Google for Merle Kilgore Nashville Songwriters Foundation. His life was truly remarkable.

When Hank Williams Jr. was 8 years old, his mother Audrey Williams decided that it was time for Hank Jr. to begin his showbiz career, and she knew just the right man to open all of Hank’s shows: close friend, Merle Kilgore. Hank Jr. was born with a truckload of talent. His Father Hank William, Sr. passed away when Hank was only 3, but not before he gave Hank his famous nickname, Bocephus. Dad, Hank and Audrey, and the Drifting Cowboy Band were back on the road again. My father opened Hank’s shows for 25 years, singing many of his own hit songs. Hank Jr. and Dad were best friends and business partners for over 38 years. Dad opened Hank Williams, Sr.’s shows when he was in his late teens. I guess you could say it became a family tradition. My father became Hank’s business manager, and together they achieved all the top awards and honors the music industry had to offer.

Hank Jr. wrote a song called “Living Proof,” which became a huge hit for Hank and a bestselling book. And then in 1983, that song became a Made-For-TV movie by the same name. Richard Thomas portrayed Hank Williams, Jr. and my dad played himself in the movie. Dad had starred in many movies and television commercials before, but this was truly Merle’s biggest role and his best performance ever. He told me that the movie was difficult because he had to relive many dramas that he and Hank had experienced over the years. Living Proof is considered to be a cult classic, seen by millions of fans over and over again. It is still available from Amazon.com Hank loved my father and the Kilgore family has always thought of Hank as a part of our extended family.

Dad announced on November 1, 1956 that he was the happiest man in the world with the birth of his newborn son; February 6, 2005 was the saddest day of my life because that was when my father passed away. Hank spoke at dad’s funeral and read a poem that he had written about dad from his heart, which brought everyone to tears. The service was held at the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of the Grand Ole Opry. To have your funeral at the Ryman is considered to be Country Music highest honor.

Private Contact info Steve Kilgore 1005 Berwick Trail, Madison TN 37115 615-957-0733 or 615 -957-0887 Stevekilgorenashville@Yahoo.com