FLORIDA BOY (Mel Tillis, R.I.P.)

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….

and melancholy…

..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).
Raised: Pahokee.
Died: Ocala (2017).


7 thoughts on “FLORIDA BOY (Mel Tillis, R.I.P.)

  1. I don’t think I have thought once about Mel since the days I watched him on talk shows. He was SO familiar, comfortably so, to me in my childhood. I regret not remembering him better. But I am glad that he endured and, I hope, had a peaceable time in this so-called-life.
    Song writer. Who does that anymore? And I should add, gets known for it?

    And speaking of writing, if I may comment on this:
    “…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.”

    “Impoverished roots, middle-class aspirations.” Why do we Americans so often feel so repulsed by our own poverty (past, present)? If only America could see its face in every country, society, generation that was since neighbors began building good fences. Poverty is always with us, or as wiser words to that effect were once said. It’s nothing new or special, but it struck a familiar note around the world for—-hundreds of centuries.

    “Success”, as we too often measure it, often sounds strained (except maybe a saloon song here and there, celebrating the success of true inebriation). Voices like Mel’s, Miller’s, Cash or anyone prior now sound “quaint” if anyone knew what quaint is anymore. They lacked the tell-tale whine of self-pity, and of inordinately plastic, sexual vanity.

    And we could just as easily be talking about some lesser known character actor or actress who passed, taking with them a feeling of place, of home, of specificity that those who didn’t find it enough in real life, could at least learn about how it felt second-hand. I’m grateful for a second-hand upbringing, movies and television shows that had life, laughs, families, loves—all the things everyone was butchering to death in reality, relentless “reality”. So what if a country singer who stuttered touched a few hearts more than their own mothers and fathers ever did—or could. That’s what song, drama and all the arts are for—-until now.

    Every time one of these old timers pass away, I feel a chill in the world and the cemeteries seem more and more to be the ultimate Members Only Clubs.

    I can’t end ranting like some harridan when the subject was a golden-throated music man with an open face and frankness of times gone by. Pax, Mr. Tillis. Till we all meet again.

    • You’re always welcome to rant here April!

      I guess my main point about the relationship between poverty and country music is that there’s always been an irony at work: be proud of your raisin’ but don’t be contained by it. And, of course, no one wishes that a lot of people were still in poverty just so we could have better country music.

      But, as you say, there is still poverty aplenty. It’s just that the country music INDUSTRY has moved on from all that. The only major country star of the last thirty years who was both raised in poverty and openly acknowledged it is Patty Loveless (and even she had it better than her cousin Loretta Lynn). The last ten years in particular, have seen a whole new shift to strictly middle class music addressing middle class concerns. Which, to be fair, Mel Tillis and others of his generation did as well. Only they did it looking over their shoulder, wondering just how far the wolf really was from the door. That’s not a concern for anyone who is a big country star right now (pretty sure Blake or Miranda never had to worry about missing a meal) and that’s why it’s as empty as anything else in the culture.

      It’s also why nobody can write a song….or make a movie or a TV show that anyone wants to see twice….no culture, no stories. No stories, no art. Just existentialism. I think people know it and that’s one reason the reaction to the deaths of the last line of storytellers is so strong. As a lot of the more sober political folks I follow like to say: This won’t end well.

  2. That is all so sadly true. No worthwhile stories, because there are no more storytellers. Time was that a poor man was the proudest that walked the earth. Now he is merely invisible to blank stares, or a tool at election time.

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