Here is the story of a legend,
By: Gina Kay Singerhouse
The Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. Her façade is so familiar to many as it consists of mortar and brick. Nonetheless, it’s the inside of her that echoes with every note from every entertainer who graced her sacred wooden stage. If one were to listen closely, one could hear the ghosts of the past…
“Welcome to the Grand Ole Opry…”
“Your cheatin’ heart…”
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome…”
“They say… don’t go on Wolverton Mountain…”
On this day, the historic Ryman is filled with the ghosts of the past as the people of the present honor the memory of a man they once knew…
“Welcome to the Merle Kilgore show…”
One of life’s greatest mysteries is not the miracle of birth. In fact its not even the mystery behind death. Life’s greatest mystery is how we do not really get to know a person, until after they are gone.
It begins at the funeral, as people walk up to you to express their sincere condolences. Their sympathy turns into a conversation about the deceased, often sharing stories that one has never heard before. It is these stories that we wish we had known prior to the passing of a loved one.
This story begins with a boy and a guitar. A guitar owned by Hank Williams Sr. As the story goes, this boy became a legend. A legend who helped many legends… this is the story of Merle Kilgore.
Anyone who is anyone in country music has heard the name of Merle Kilgore. Sure we could look up the statistics on Mr. Kilgore’s career as you would look up those of a notable baseball player upon a trading card. Nonetheless statistics do not tell the real tale.
This is a tale told by the grandson who had grown up hearing more tales than he can tell. But which stories are true and which of these are tall tales?
“That maybe there’s meaning in the little pieces of our lives that we don’t really know until someone puts them together.” shares author Mark Rickert. “Maybe we do it for ourselves later on or maybe someone does it for us after we’re gone. But putting the pieces of my grandfather’s story together into one grand narrative—it was just revealing about life it’s self and also here was my Grandfather... all his life struggled to be famous. He wanted to be famous and he found it here and there. But, by the time Hank Williams Jr. asked him to be a manager, my Grandfather was in his fifties you know. He had just signed on with Warner Brothers, which is a big label—but, he had not knocked it out of the park yet as a performer. He had with his songs. But not as a performer, which is what he wanted.”
Just this past March, author Mark Rickert captured his Grandfather’s, Merle Kilgore, story in a new book entitled These Are My People.
“With my Grandfather, not a lot of people know who he is, so to write a biography about a guy that a lot of people don’t know who this person is—so I wrestled with how do I approach this? I had just written a novel and it was published right before this...” shares Mark. “Daddy Merle—he talked a lot about stories! He had stories! His whole life he told these stories! You know I kind of figured it out they were like his songs. His stories were very similar to a song and he’d tell it, and he’d tell it, and he’d tell with little variations here and there… but he would tell it throughout his entire career. So I thought, I’m gonna tell his stories.”
Merle Kilgore’s musical career story begins at the infamous Louisiana Hayride. The Louisiana Hayride was a radio show that was eventually made into a television show. The show ran from 1948 to 1960 and help launch the careers of some of country music’s most notable entertainers.
For Merle the Louisiana Hayride was a starting point that began when he picked up the guitar of Hank Williams Sr. and carried it in to the venue for the man who became a legend. More so, Mark captures the friendship and bonds that Merle and Hank developed over the years. A friendship that was passed down to his son Hank Jr..
Mr. Rickert writes at length the history between his Grandfather and the Williams family. He shares with the readers various stories involving Merle and Hank Jr, including Hank’s near-fatal fall off of a mountain. He also writes in detail how Hank Jr. earned his name “Bocephus.”
This well written and entertaining book shares the various stories that make up the man so well known in country music. Stories of how Merle helped Elvis Presley the night Elvis hit it big.
You will laugh as you read the accounts of how Merle would imitate Johnny Cash. The tales of adventures between Cash and Kilgore including one that led to a tennis court that still stands today.
The book is bold as it captures the entanglement of the spirit world with séances held by various entertainers. Mark shares accounts that involve Johnny Horton, Johnny Cash and Merle as they all delved into the world of ghosts and life after death.
More so, this book tells the story of how one man helped create a wide variety of legends with his music, his larger than life personality and mainly his friendship. Within this written work you will get to know the legend behind the legends.
“It’s really kind of what the book is about, is Merle hanging around with these really famous people.” shares Mark. “It culminates with Hank Williams Jr, who he hangs around with for the rest of his life. There is a quote by Ralph Emery at the beginning of the book—where he says that Hank Williams, Hank Williams Jr. and all these celebrities they had Merle to thank, whether they knew it or not. Whether they thanked him or not. Hank Williams Jr. knew and that is why he hired him.”
As you read through the book and learn about the life and times of Merle Kilgore, you will also gain the knowledge of what the music industry was like back in the day. Today the industry has become a corporate world filled with profits and bottom lines. Back then, entertainers like Merle were just feeling their way through.
This book is filled with historic accounts on some of country music’s great entertainers. How friendships develop as entertainers help each other through the good and the bad times. It relays stories about days on the road, living in hotel rooms and the sacrifices that entertainers have to make to earn a living.
“The music! That’s one thing I discovered for me personally was discovering these classic songs.” tells Rickert. “Some of them...I just couldn’t believe how modern they sound. They were just really good songs back then. The guys I listen to is Johnny Horton, Webb Pierce and just discovering those classics and they were good! They were really good music.”
Merle’s musical career involved being a disc jockey. However, he wrote over two hundred songs including the infamous “Wolverton Mountain” that was turned down by George Jones. Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was writing the ever popular song “Ring of Fire” with June Carter. Although, Merle never really made it as an entertainer, he was and still is today a well known songwriter in country music.
The executives in country music really never embraced the vast talents of Merle. Perhaps they never knew of them. Nonetheless, it’s all the entertainers who knew Mr. Kilgore and recognized his greatness.
It is hard to capture the life and times of a famous person. However, Mark truly does capture the essence of what and who Merle Kilgore really was. I highly suggest this book for many reasons, more so to keep the story of a legend who was behind the legends alive. I also suggest seeking Merle’s music, more so to get to know him through the various videos hosted on YouTube.
As he stands next to his Grandfather’s tombstone, his mind’s eye is flooded with various memories of Daddy Merle. It is befitting that his Grandfather is buried next to his best friend Johnny Cash on this sacred ground. In his hand he holds a copy of the book he has written. He hopes and believes that his Grandfather is proud that he has captured his “stories” in one single tale. A tale that led him on a journey to get to know his Grandfather. He looks down at the marker of his Grandfather’s grave and a smile crosses his face…
“Are you shitting me?” he said as he held out his hands to show off his rings.
This is the story of a man… a man who was the legend, behind the legends…
“Welcome to the Merle Kilgore show…”
(left to right) Hank Williams Jr., Mark Rickert and Merle Kilgore.
Photo courtesy Mark Rickert, 2004.
(This article was printed in the July - August 2017 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)
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