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).

Nobody.

WHAT’S MISSING (Segue of the Day: 3/20/15)

My internet speed issues have finally become sufficiently annoying/debilitating that I’m actually having to go into the office this week. (Go ahead, tell me civilization is still standing. I’ll believe you. I promise.)

One result is more radio than usual and last night on the way home I caught what I take to be Miranda Lambert’s latest, which on the radio, was, like a lot of her stuff, darn catchy and kinda’ edgy and definitely unique. I mean, I could tell it was her, which, these days is enough to make a singer practically a genius all by itself.

Even as I was smiling at rhymes like Tony Lloma and Oklahoma, though, I knew (like I always know when I’m listening to even the best modern country music) that something was missing.

What and why? These are questions I’m constantly asking myself when I’m listening to modern radio…and not just about country.

But country’s got a unique tradition. Unlike rock and roll or jazz it’s never been broadly amorphous. Unlike blues or gospel it’s always been a truly popular (as opposed to populist) music, it’s definitive practitioners able to reach far larger audiences than Muddy Waters or Marion Williams or the Blackwood Brothers. And, unlike Tin Pan Alley or hip-hop,  it’s never been truly hidebound (much as the suits would have preferred it, one time and another).

All that being said, some time in the last ten years or so, a switch has been flipped at country radio. Yes, the generations changed. The great women of the eighties and nineties turned forty. The great men turned fifty…then sixty. Country’s sell-by date for charting hits comes a little later, but it comes.

And, in the past, stretching back to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, somebody always stepped in. Styles changed, expanded. New visions were incorporated.

The core remained. A music that could accommodate Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, George Strait and Patty Loveless, remained nonetheless grounded in some certain something.

To be honest, until last night, I always knew it when I heard it, but I never even thought about whether it might have a name. All that really happened at first was that Miranda’s song put me in a country mood (or, at least, more of a country mood, since my re-acquisition of Rhino’s old Buck Owens’ box–lost in the great CD sell-off of 2002–had me leaning that direction anyway). So I went to Moe Bandy and Tanya Tucker and Mel Tillis and I had pulled Charlie Rich and Don Gibson, when Mel’s “Your Body Is An Outlaw” got me to wondering, yet again, whether his daughter Pam was singing the backup part because it came out in 1980 or ’81 and she didn’t get famous herself for another decade but, once she did, I started thinking it sure sounded like her, and yeah, it’s kind of weird to be singing a duet with your daughter on a song like that, but then again Jeannie and Royce Kendall were making a career out of it around the same time so it certainly wasn’t unheard of.

So I went to the good old internet, Wikipedia and the like, and came up dry.

Then I went to YouTube, good old YouTube, and some authoritative sounding gentleman was in the comment section of at least two different clips claiming that, yes, Pam had sung back up on this…

And, having that for unofficial confirmation, what I could then safely say was that it sounded even more like her than ever…and I was sure in the mood for some Pam Tillis.

So I went to pull her epochal Put Yourself In My Place, one of the greatest albums ever made and the one that made her a star (and which I wrote about here). While I was at it, I saw Rhinestoned, a CD Tillis released on her own label back in 2007 and which I bought a discarded dee-jay copy of at the late, lamented Vinyl Fever before it would have been played on the radio.

You know, if it had been played on the radio.

Which is wasn’t. Because Pam was fifty by then. If you’re fifty and you’re a woman and you’re not Dolly Parton, you don’t get played on the radio.

You want to make a CD, you better go ahead and start your own label.

The thing is, I’ve had Rhinestoned for seven-eight years now and I had listened to it once and thought it was okay, nothing special, like what you might expect from a favorite who had veered a little pop when she was trying to hang on in the mid-to-late nineties and now was down to releasing stuff on her own label.

Still, I thought seven-eight years was long enough. I should probably give it another try.

And, lo and behold, there was another great Pam Tillis album that had been sitting on my self all those years, waiting for me to get my head right so I could finally hear it. (Did I mention that 2007-8 were rugged years? Dad died, eyes deteriorating with a good chance the deterioration wouldn’t stop, savings gone, writer’s block like I never had before or since. Like that.)

And while I was listening to this particular record (and the particular cut linked below) I realized what has gone missing from the core of country music that gets played on the radio…and most of that which doesn’t.

Because, I realized that, in order to be a really great country singer, you have to contain within yourself the essence of the word Ralph Stanley used to describe Patty Loveless when she was at the height of her fame and which has gone entirely missing from modern country radio. The quality that even Miranda Lambert (Loveless’ own favorite modern) doesn’t quite possess.

Lonesome.

Okay, now I’m off to work.

Don Gibson and Charlie Rich in tow.

MAYBE IT WAS MEMPHIS (Memory Lane, 1979 and 1991)

Sorry for the light posting this week. The blog has gone great guns for a month now and I’ve pretty much smashed all my previous traffic records (including more than doubling the rough monthly average that held throughout last year). It’s been a hectic month, a more hectic week and I’m working hard on several new posts that are rather lengthy.

For a number of strictly personal reasons I’ve been on a memory kick this week and (as often happens) my memory kick  has been accompanied by a country music kick which slammed home particularly hard today.

And on a day when I became acquainted with Marshall Chapman’s literally mind-blowing It’s About Time…, better acquainted with Miranda Lambert’s excellent first LP Kerosene (which sounds like its title with the proverbial match already lit), caught up with Time-Life’s single disc Waylon Jennings set (been collecting the series for a year and a half and I’ve only got a few to go), and typed along (yes, I do work for a living) to three Patty Loveless albums (nothing unusual there), nothing hit me quite like Pam Tillis’ first major release Put Yourself In My Place, which I hadn’t heard in a few years and which has lost none of its remarkable power.

It came out in 1991 and it blew through country radio with the same sort of gale force Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual had represented in mainstream pop in 1984. The future with a strong sense of history, if you will.

Like Cyndi, Pam never quite lived up to the massive implications of that first monster LP, though, like Cyndi, she’s also made lots of fine records through the years. (And like Cyndi, she was always one of the best interviews alive, probably because, like Cyndi, she gave the strong impression of someone who did not know how to lie).

So I’m only posting this–and starting a new category–because it lifted me off the ground in a week that left me with a lot to laugh about and a lot to cry about.

And also because I still haven’t quite figured out how we missed each other at Camp Crestridge back in the summer of ’79!

[My advice is to listen to the first link with your eyes closed (not that there’s anything wrong with looking at a picture of Pam for four minutes!)…and open them for the second link, which is a gorgeous, fresh breeze live performance from the moment of her breakthrough]:

Pam Tillis “Maybe It Was Memphis” (Studio)

Pam Tillis “Maybe It Was Memphis” (Live on Television)

Better then.