In the days when Mel Tillis was as famous for being a reliably charming and hilarious talk show guest as he was for being a country singer, he liked to tell the story of his discovery by Mae Axton (Hoyt’s mother and co-composer of, among many others, a little tune called “Heartbreak Hotel”). She met him somewhere in Nashville, learned he was a sihger/songwriter, checked out his stuff and encouraged him to see a producer/executive she knew. Recognizing that his afterwards-famous speech impediment might be a problem during any formal interview process, she wrote a letter for him to take along.
The essence of the letter was this: “Never mind that he can’t talk. Good singer. Great writer.”
Of all the people who have ever been thus described to a Nashville Executive–by Mae Axton or anyone else–and who then carried the tag for a decade or more, while so many other people (Bobby Bare, Brenda Lee, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers) sang his hits….
…only Mel Tillis emerged all the way from such deep and lengthy shadows to become a superstar in his own right. On the slow-moving Writer-Becomes-An-Unlikely-Singing-Star train, even Roger Miller had a shorter, faster ride to the Promised Land reached by so few.
Some of what allowed Mel to buck the Narrative was likability, some of it stick-to-it-tiveness, some of it elbow grease–all qualities prized by country audiences.
Most of it, though, was that he turned out to be a great singer as well, master of both comedy….
..able to work nearly endless variations at both ends of the scale until it all meshed into a Sawdust-in-the-Suburbs world-view…
…one where country’s impoverished roots and middle-class aspirations were revealed as two sides of the same coin. By the seventies, when Tillis ascended to the top of the country charts often enough to become a presence in the larger culture, the assurances of the latter were still undercut by the memory (and shame, and guilt, and stubborn refusal to admit either) so inescapable in the former.
Most of that contradiction has been washed away now and what country music understood itself to be for nearly a century along with it. Now, the real impoverishment is spiritual…and hence not curable by either the dream or the reality of a split-level in the suburbs or a house in the Hills or even a recording contract in Nashville.
I had the pleasure of serving a couple of Mel’s daughters (not Pam, alas) breakfast, lunch and dinner at a girl’s camp in the summer of 1979. They were shy to a fault–even shyer than most shy kids, even shyer than I had been–and, if their stammering, stuttering father came from a similar psychological place and transcended it so thoroughly, it was a mark of character that makes me proud to have shared a home state with him.
And, speaking of Pam, she sang the harmony on the cut below, my pick for the greatest country record of the 80s….or, if there really could be such a thing, ever.
There was a lot of talk about outlaws back then. And a lot of that talk–mostly from people who didn’t really like country music or its audience–said that outlaw was the “real” country.
Maybe along about here I should mention that the girls’ camp where Mel sent his daughters was at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.
Nobody ever called Mel Tillis an outlaw.
And nobody was more country than Mel Tillis:
Born: Tampa (1932).
Died: Ocala (2017).