Merle Kilgore, 70; Co-Wrote ‘Ring of Fire,’ Managed Hank Williams Jr.

Times Staff Writer

Merle Kilgore, a musician and businessman who began his long, varied career in country music as a teenage gofer for Hank Williams and ended as the manager of Hank Williams Jr., died Sunday in Mexico of congestive heart failure related to treatment for cancer. He was 70.

Kilgore was also a singer, songwriter, radio host and actor, but his most famous contribution to country music is Johnny Cash’s 1963 hit “Ring of Fire,” which he co-wrote with June Carter, who later married Cash.

Carter found the line “Love is like a burning ring of fire” in a book of Elizabethan poetry that had belonged to her uncle, A.P. Carter, of country music’s famed Carter family, and the two worked it into a song that soared into a dramatic, catchy refrain:


I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire

I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire, that ring of fire

It was originally recorded in a folk style by Carter’s sister, Anita, but Cash liked the song, and in a dream he heard it with the Mexican-style horns that he incorporated into his version.

The record ended Cash’s three-year career slump, staying at No. 1 on the country chart for seven weeks in 1963. It was also his second-highest pop chart record, reaching No. 17, and became one of the singer’s signature tunes.

Cash and his wife both died in 2003.

“Ring of Fire” also figured in a spat between Kilgore and members of the Cash family, when a production company proposed using the song in a commercial for a hemorrhoid remedy. Kilgore, who used to introduce the song during his own performances with a joke about Preparation H, publicly expressed his amusement, but Cash’s survivors quickly dismissed the idea.

Kilgore was born Wyatt Merle Kilgore in Chickasha, Okla., and grew up in Shreveport, La., where he gravitated to the “Louisiana Hayride” radio program. Fascinated by show business, he ingratiated himself with country star Hank Williams, carrying the singer’s guitar and eventually working for him on a regular basis.

He wrote his first hit song, Webb Pierce’s “More and More,” when he was 18. He also had successes with Johnny Horton’s “Johnny Reb” and Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain.” His biggest hit as a performer was “Love Has Made You Beautiful,” which reached No. 10 on the country chart in 1960.

A 1962 concert tour with Cash and Carter led to his songwriting partnership with the two, and his participation in a 1964 tour with Hank Williams Jr. resulted in his business partnership with the son of his first mentor. Kilgore became Williams’ manager in 1986 and helped engineer his link with “Monday Night Football” and his teaming with rocker-rapper Kid Rock.

Kilgore, a colorful figure who enjoyed driving his pearl-colored Cadillac and flashing his gold rings, was named manager of the year by the Country Music Assn. in 1990. He was a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and an honorary Tennessee state senator.

“Merle was more to me than a manager,” Williams said in a statement Monday. “He was a father figure, he was a mentor, he was my business advisor, but most of all, Merle Kilgore was my best friend.”

Kilgore is survived by his wife, Judy; five children; eight grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter. Funeral arrangements were pending.