Saturday, June 23, 2018

Wolverton Mountain

This song was a hit record on the Country and Pop charts back in 1962. And this was the year my Uncle Clyde passed away, and I can vividly recall the day of his burial.

Woolverton Mountain, Arkansas 
I was 10 years old, and Mom had lathered my hair up with Vitalis to make it lay down. It was a hot summer day, and a long drive from northern Kentucky to the cemetery in Augusta, Kentucky in a car that was built before air conditioning was a feature. It seemed like we were at the graveside for hours, with Mom, Dad, my grandmother, siblings, my Aunt Margaret, Clyde's wife, and my cousin Peggy.. My head felt like it was on fire from that oily hair tonic. This was the first funeral I had been to in my young life, and I was scared. When we left, I was ever so glad.

Dad liked to have the radio on during the drive to a back, and I appreciated that. I knew a lot of songs at a young age. We stopped for dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and Dad put a couple of nickels in the jukebox above the table. One song was call Put another nickel in the Nickelodeon, which I had heard many times. The other song was called Wolverton Mountain. It peeked my interest.

"They say don't go on Wolverton Mountain if you're looking for a wife.
Cause Clifton Clowers has a pretty young daughter,
He's mighty handy with a gun and a knife.

Her tender lips are sweeter than honey and Wolverton Mountain protects her there.
The bears and the birds, tell Clifton Clowers, if a stranger should enter there.
All of my dreams are on Wolverton Mountain I want his daughter for my wife.

I'll take my chances and climb right up that mountain,
Though Clifton Clowers, might take my life.
Her tender lips are sweeter than honey and Wolveton Mountain protects her there.
The bears and the birds, tell Clifton Clowers, if a stranger should enter there.

I'm going up on Wolverton Mountain it's too lonesome down here below.
It's just not right to hide his daughter from the one who loves her so.

And I don't care about Clifron Clovers I'm gonna climb up on his mountain I'm gonna take the girl I love.
I don't care about Clifron Clovers I'm gonna climb up on that mountain and I'll get the one I love."

The song was about a mean old, overly protective father, that would not let his young daughter out of his sight, for the selfish reason that he needed her companionship, and he needed her as a farm hand.

I was fascinated by the singer's deep baritone voice, and the story. It would not be until 50 years later I found out more about it, so here is the real story behind that song.  I found this story on a Facebook page by a person identified only as JH.

Songwriter Merle Kilgore
Songwriter Merle Kilgore often said that, although he was born in Oklahoma and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, his real roots were planted in the Arkansas Ozarks. His mother and grandmother had been born in those mountains, and most of his relatives called those wooded lands home.

Kilgore started playing guitar at a very young age, and began writing songs as a teenager. By the time he turned eighteen in 1954, one of his songs made it into the hands of Webb Pierce. “More and More” became a #1 hit for Pierce, and reached #7 when Charley Pride covered it in 1983.

Obtaining a spot on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Merle not only sang, but became the top accompanist for many of the show’s best-known acts. A master showman, he was a crowd favorite. Very outgoing,

Kilgore made friends easily, and soon found himself on the road with the likes of Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves and Elvis Presley. He continued to work the Hayride through the fifties, but by the end of the decade was contemplating taking a big chance and changing the course of his career.

In 1959 Kilgore took some time off and drove up to Arkansas to visit his uncle and aunt. He wasn’t sure if he should give up the career that he had built thus far, just to move to Nashville and try to make it there. Merle wondered if that was too big a risk. He trusted his Uncle Clifton a great deal and wanted to discuss his predicament with him. Merle’s

Clifton Clowers plowing on his farm
Uncle Clifton lived on the same mountain where Kilgore’s mother and grandmother had been born. There was a peace as well as a sense of belonging that Merle felt when he walked the long trails and studied the picturesque vistas of Woolverton (the mountain’s actual spelling). Here, the pace was slow and the people were honest. It was the perfect setting not only to reflect on life, but also to gain insight and inspiration.

As Kilgore spent time at the old place, he began to think about the mountain and his uncle’s simple, but rewarding life. Grabbing his guitar and a pen, Merle wrote a song that he called “Clifton Clowers” (his uncle’s name). When he finished the piece, he went looking for his uncle, finding him out in a cane field making sorghum molasses.

Kilgore sat down right there and played him the new song. When he finished, Uncle Clifton smiled and told Merle, “Son, you just wrote yourself a hit.”

Johnny Horton
Confident that everyone else would have the same reaction as Uncle Clifton, Kilgore raced back to Shreveport and played it for one of his best friends, Johnny Horton. Johnny listened to “Clifton Clowers,” shook his head and said “that is probably the worst song I have ever heard.” Kilgore was taken aback by Horton’s response. Usually Johnny loved his material. Still, Merle didn’t give up on his latest composition.

George Jones
The songwriter simply went looking for someone else with a recording contract. The next singer Merle ran into was George Jones.

He started playing it for Jones, but this time Kilgore didn’t even finish before George cut in. “I hate mountain songs,” he said. Again and again Merle tried, but no one wanted to take a chance on “Clifton Clowers.”

 In 1960, Merle finally took the plunge and moved to Nashville, bringing along his guitar, his songs and his uncle’s blessing. Quickly landing a recording contract at Starday, Merle managed to chart with three releases. One of those records even landed in the top ten, but none of them established Kilgore as a solo act, so Merle went back to songwriting and opening for better-known performers.

He also began to dabble in acting. One day Kilgore received a call from Tillman Franks. Franks had previously managed Johnny Horton, but after Johnny was killed in a car wreck on November 5, 1960, Tillman had picked up another young singer from Shreveport named Claude King.

Claude King
Merle was familiar with King, as he had been a local sports star while Kilgore was still in high school. After college, King returned home and had become a fairly popular folk singer in the area. He was a solid performer who had even scored a couple of Top Ten hits in 1961 on the Columbia label: “Big River, Big Man” and “The Comancheros.”

Tillman Franks told Merle that he was planning to do a folk-style album with King. Folk music was really hot at the time and with the right songs, it was hoped that a top-selling album might be produced. Franks asked Kilgore if he remembered a mountain song that he had once played for Johnny Horton.

Merle fabricated the story somewhat and said that not only did he remember it, but Johnny had loved it! So Kilgore dug up “Clifton Clowers” and took it over to Franks. Claude King listened to it and thought it had some potential, but he wanted to make a few changes. Merle gave King the authorization to proceed.

After Claude adjusted some of the lyrics, he decided to record the number. When Kilgore found out that he was going to cut it, Merle gave Claude half of the songwriting credit because of the changes he made. One of the most noticeable changes King made was the song’s title. No longer was it “Clifton Clowers.” He had retitled it “Wolverton Mountain,” (removing one of the o’s from the mountain’s actual spelling).

1962 45 RPM of Wolverton Mountain
Released in mid-spring of 1962, it grabbed the top spot in June, holding it for nine weeks on Billboard’s country chart. On the pop listing, the record also made a strong showing, peaking at #6. Not only did “Wolverton Mountain” become the most important country folk song of its era, but it captured the imagination of thousands of people worldwide.

Suddenly the state of Arkansas was being flooded by calls from people all over the world wanting to know how they could get to Wolverton Mountain. It was a media frenzy and the reporters made the most of it.

Kilgore’s Uncle Clifton was not only receiving scores of phone calls and letters, he did interviews with correspondents from all over the world. He had his picture taken with literally thousands of tourists. The song made him a celebrity and created a rush of traffic on U. S. Highway 65 for years afterward.

"Mike" singing for
Clifton Clower's 102nd Birthday

The mountain is located just north of Morrilton, Arkansas in Conway County. Clifton Clowers would continue to live on Woolverton Mountain for the rest of his life. When he died at age 102 in 1994, newspapers all over the world ran his obituary.

Merle Kilgore singing
Ring of Fire on Hee Haw 1987
His nephew Merle Kilgore toured the globe, singing, acting and lecturing. He wrote another country classic soon afterward – Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” in 1963, in which he shared songwriting credit with June Carter, although it’s generally known that Kilgore composed the song himself, written about the burgeoning romantic relationship between Carter and Johnny Cash. As a favor to his friend Cash, Merle authorized June’s name to be placed on “Ring of Fire” as co-writer because of her strong link to Johnny’s career.

Later, Kilgore also became the longtime manager of Hank Williams, Jr., receiving the “Manager of the Year” award from the Country Music Association in 1990.

The song which Kilgore wrote about his uncle warned, “They say don’t go on Wolverton Mountain.” Yet, it seems few people took those words seriously. “Wolverton Mountain” was revisited several times after Claude King first took listeners there.

Dickey Lee had a record on it just weeks after King’s version came out. Bing Crosby also cut the song, as did Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Hank Williams, Jr. included a reference to it in one of his own hits (paying homage to writer Kilgore).

And, before his death in 2005, Merle often went back there to reflect, find a little peace and a lot of inspiration. – JH

No comments: