Although born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, United States, Kilgore was raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was the son of Wyatt and Gladys B. (Clowers) Kilgore. As a boy of 14 he carried the guitar for Hank Williams at the Louisiana Hayride, beginning a close relationship with the Williams family that would last three generations. He attended school at C. E. Byrd High School and then Louisiana Tech University.
Kilgore went on to a career as a country music recording artist but had great success as a songwriter, co-writing with June Carter the song “Ring of Fire”, first recorded by her sister Anita Carter and later by June’s future husband, Johnny Cash (Kilgore was a distant cousin of the Carter sisters through their maternal grandmother, Margaret Kilgore Addington); June, later known as June Carter Cash, would record her own version of the song for her album Press On, released in 1999. He also co-wrote Claude King’s big crossover hit, “Wolverton Mountain”. Amongst others, he also penned “Johnny Reb” for Johnny Horton and the Tommy Roe pop music hit, “The Folk Singer” and co-wrote, with Joe Stampley, the Uniques hit “Not Too Long Ago.” In the early 1960s, he toured with Cash as part of his package show. He stood as Johnny Cash’s best man at his wedding to June Carter.
A resident of Paris, Tennessee, from 1986, he was also a prominent member of the business community. On April 7, 1986, he was named Executive Vice President and head of management of Hank Williams Jr. Enterprises. In addition to managing Hank Williams Jr’s career (along with that of Hank Jr’s Bama Band), Kilgore managed a number of other artists from his Nashville office. Kilgore also had a number of successful business ventures and held numerous leadership positions. Kilgore’s prominence in the country music community had grown through his involvement as Vice President of the Country Music Association, and he had served on the CMA board of directors. Also contributing to his success was his position as President of both the Nashville Songwriter’s Foundation as well as the Nashville Songwriter’s Association International. In 1987, he was named an honorary State Senator for Tennessee. And was Inducted into Shreveport’s Byrd High School Hall of Fame. In 1998, Kilgore received the Legendary Songwriters’ Award from the North American County Music Association.
On February 6, 2005, Merle Kilgore died from heart failure while in a Mexican hospital undergoing experimental treatments for lung cancer, and was interred in Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Kilgore was survived by his wife, Judy, three daughters, two sons, eight grandchildren and a great granddaughter.
In 2022, Merle Kilgore was Inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.