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). Raised: Pahokee. Died: Ocala (2017).
I don’t want to make a habit of this. I prefer to generate my own ideas/content. But the more I thought about this, the more the challenge/absurdity made me smile….So, again from one of those memes that’s going around…(tried to link live versions where available.)
The 30 Day Song Challenge…(I think the idea is to name the first song you love that comes to mind. Anyway that’s the spirit I’m taking.)
1. A song you like with a color in the title
Three Dog Night, “Black and White” (D. Arkin-E. Robinson)
2. A song you like with a number in the title
The Marvelettes, “Beechwood 4-5789” (M. Gaye, M. Stevenson, G. Gordy)
3. A song that reminds you of summertime
First Class, “Beach Baby” (J. Carter, G. Shakespeare) (Obvious, sure, but there was a speeding ticket involved.)
4. A song that reminds you of someone you would rather forget about
The Bangles, “James” (V. Peterson) (Dude tried to kick me in 8th grade. He missed, which kept us both from being suspended, but I’m still glad Vicki dumped him. Just wish she’d ended up with me!)
5. A song that needs to be played loud
The Bay City Rollers, “Rock and Roll Love Letter” (T. Moore) (Up loud–louder than your computer can go–it’s the record KISS always wanted to make. Trust me.)
6. A song that makes you want to dance
The Jackson 5, “ABC” (B. Gordy, F. Perren, A. Mizell, D. Richards) (Although, these days, it’s more accurate to say it makes me wish I still could.)
9. A song that makes you happy
The 4 Seasons, “Walk Like a Man” (B. Gaudio, B. Crewe)
10. A song that makes you sad
The Go-Go’s, “Daisy Chain” (J. Wiedlin, K. Valentine, J. Sobule) (End of youth…at least death doesn’t linger so…great video though.)
11. A song that you never get tired of
Roger Miller, “King of the Road” (R. Miller) (It’s the finger-snaps, mostly…but hand claps will do.)
12. A song that you love from 2011
Look, I may not be part of the solution, but I refuse to be part of the problem.
13. One of your favorite Seventies songs
Dionne Warwicke & the Spinners, “Then Came You,” (S. Marshall, P. Pugh) (Yes, she added an “e’ to her name in those years.)
14. A song that you would love played at your wedding
Given my state of confirmed bachelorhood, I’ll take a pass….unless I can still play “Then Came You.”
15. A song that is a cover by another artist
Linda Ronstadt, “You’re No Good” (C. Ballard, Jr.) (I think this category is probably made for Linda Ronstadt.)
16. One of your favorite songs from a movie
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, “You’re the One That I Want” (J. Farrar) (Unless they meant the way a song is used in a movie, in which case a toss-up between Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” from Heroes, or the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” from Little Darlings….my favorite performance of a song in a movie is Ginger Rogers, doing I. Berlin’s “The Yam,” in Carefree, but I confess I don’t listen to it much unless I can watch her dance.)
17. A song that features your favorite artist
Elvis Presley, “It Hurts Me” (J. Byers, C. Daniels)
18. A song from the year you were born
Larry Verne, “Mr. Custer” (A. De Lory, F. Darian, J. Van WInkle) (It was a sign, believe me.)
19. A song that makes you think about life
The Trashmen “Surfin’ Bird” (A. Frazier, C White, Sonny Harris, Turner Wilson Jr.)
20. A song that reminds you of your mom
The Band, “Ain’t No More Cane” (Traditional) (This is one where I’m sorry the studio version isn’t available.)
21. A favorite song with a person’s name in the title
Dion, “Abraham, Martin and John” (D. Holler) (I took this to mean a real person’s name.)
22. A song that motivates you
To do what?
23. A song that you think everybody should listen to
Percy Sledge, “Out of Left Field” (D. Penn, S. Oldham)
24. A song by a band/group you wish were still together
See the Go-Go’s and the Bangles herein. All the other bands/groups I wish were still together have at least one key member deceased, so I’ll pass.
25. A song by an artist no longer living
The Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar” (M. Jagger, K. Richards) (Choose “taken over by pod people, 1973” or “Devil cashed check, same year.” Either way, they’re deceased.)
26. A song that makes you want to fall in love
Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, “It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now,” (E. Cornelius) (Actually, it did, once…at least I called it love. I mean, I got nauseous and everything.)
10) Various Artists What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves 1967-1977 (2006)
Deep, yes. But also wider than any but the experienced might suspect before diving in and stroking for the far shore. “Soul Finger” and Aretha’s “Rock Steady” are among the few crossover hits. Big names like Curtis Mayfield and Earth, Wind and Fire, or those like Charles Wright, Lulu, Clarence Carter, Rufus Thomas, Dr. John, who might at least be familiar to fans of the period, are not represented by their best known hits. Most of the rest is really obscure (or was, until this was released as one of Rhino’s last great boxes in 2006).
At four discs, five hours and 91 cuts, this never even comes close to quitting. What might catch the uninitiated by surprise, in a hardcore funk collection, is the range of tempos.Plenty of fast stuff, sure. But who would deny this, where Patti Labelle sings “if I ever lose my BIG mouth, I won’t have to talk anymore” and you can feel the distance between the white man (then called Cat Stevens) who wrote the rest of it and the black woman who added the key word?
The third remarkable album released by Fairport in the Year of our Lord, 1969. This one, following the death of their drummer, Martin Lamble, (a death that had a similar crushing effect to James Honeyman-Scott’s on the Pretenders a generation hence), was almost all Sandy Denny. Numbed by loss, the others decided to follow where she led. That turned out to be a a labyrinth of English folk music from which it could be argued only guitarist Richard Thompson ever fully emerged. This isn’t the first time I listened, but I never really heard it before. Now I’m mini-obsessed. A couple of more spins and I might be up to a post on Denny in ’69, one of the most remarkable years any vocalist ever had. For now, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. And I’m taking precautions, because I’ve realized that if you wander too deeply in these woods, you mightn’t find your way out.
8) LatimoreStraighten it Out: The Best of Latimore (1995)
In addition to the two cuts I highlighted earlier in the week (novelties, but deep too), mostly a straightforward set of fine-tuned 70s R&B. A little funk, a little soul, a little big-voiced balladeering, a lot of traditional Love Man, all rendered with a mix of silk and grit that makes for good smiling and nodding music. No small thing these days.
Measure for measure. My favorite album by my favorite modern singer, possessed of a brand of fatalism Sandy Denny might have recognized. What might be forgotten now is that this record almost killed her career when it failed to go gold or platinum like her previous three. Nashville is famously unforgiving of slackers. Somebody is always ready to take your place, especially when you’re either an unrepentant honky tonker or a female, forget both. She pulled a fast one by switching labels and running up a string of awards which was modest next to Reba’s (before) or Miranda’s (after), but astonishing given how uncompromised her voice was. You can hear all of that here. “God Will” is an all time killer and “I Came Straight to You” the best smile in her catalog. But this time around, another one stuck deeper than usual.
6) Tanya TuckerMy Turn (2009)
Her 24th album, the first in six years at the time and still her latest to date. All of which might help explain why, for the first time ever, she sounded relaxed. Relieved of the pressures of stardom for the first time since she was thirteen, she was able to bring something new to a bunch of classic country covers that included signature songs from Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell. All the songs her daddy wanted her to sing and nobody, but nobody, ever said she lacked guts.
5) Mel TillisHItsides 1970-1980 (2006)
A beautifully constructed overview of the man at his peak. He broke into Nashville in the sixties with one of those good singer/great writer reps that were common at the time. Unlike almost everyone else who wore the tag he turned out to be a great singer too. Though he wrote only about a third of them, every one of these twenty-five cuts from his golden decade feels lived in.
The boundaries (neither of which he wrote)?
On one end, “Stomp Them Grapes,” which would have done Roger Miller proud. On the other, “Your Body is an Outlaw,” as deep and scary as anything by George Jones, which he sang with his eldest daughter a year after I served fish sticks and french fries to two of her younger sisters at the girls’ camp sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.
Never let it be said that the South is an uncomplicated place.
(Oh, and he did write: “Detroit City,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Mental Revenge.” Like that.)
4) Candi StatonEvidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters (2011)
The “evidence,” presumably, for the case of someone who should have been a much bigger star. There’s plenty of that here. It’s hard to understand why anyone who looked and sounded as great as Candi Staton–and had so much talent surrounding her–didn’t really cross over until she went disco (helping create the paradox of the soul singer who used disco to reach a wider audience even as more famous soul singers were being wiped out left and right).
If I had to put my finger on it, I’d blame the material, which is good, but lacks that one killer that might have put her in heavy rotation at the pop stations and brought the rest into focus. The biggest exception is “Stand By Your Man” which did cross over (nearly as big as “Young Hearts Run Free”), but, unfortunately, left no trace, having already been defined for purposes of useful narrative by Nashville’s Tammy Wynette. Too bad, because Candi had a great deal more to add to the concept than Hilary Clinton, who stood by her man long enough for him to lock up half of Candi Staton’s neighborhood.
3) Paul Revere & the RaidersThe Complete Columbia Singles (2010)
This wanders about…and intrigues. Over nearly a decade and a half, they developed a theme: Stomp. Then do something else (Brill Building pop maybe? Hot rod music?)
Then Stomp. Then do something else. (Psychedelia maybe? Country rock?)
The essence of the Stomp is on The Essential Ride, a single-disc comp that focuses on the mid-sixties and includes the hits everybody loves, plus “Crisco Party.” In the days when “Louie, Louie” was being investigated by a congressional committee, that one was too obscene even for a garage band B-side (hence is missing here). And if you just want the Stomp, you could go here.
You’d be missing a lot, though. Mark Lindsay was one of the great hardcore rock and roll singers. Everybody knows that (though just how much he sounds like Mitch Ryder before Mitch Ryder on some of the earliest sides here might still startle you). But he was one of the great pop-rock singers, too. And, whatever one thinks of “Indian Reservation” (I love it without reservation, but I know there are serious dissenters), you can also hear how much they had earned the right to a #1 Protest Record because, as protest records go, it’s not a patch on 1966’s “The Great Airplane Strike” (which sounds like it should be the title of a solemn documentary on union organizing and is a good joke) or 1967’s “Do Unto Others” (which sounds like it should be the title of a Lenny Bruce routine and is serious….and lovely).
2) Kendrick LamarGood Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)
The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. Except that white critics cut Kendrick all the slack they never gave War, nothing’s changed. That might be why an outsider like me can’t tell whether it’s me or Lamar who feels tired.
One line stuck out, though: Hearing “I’ve never been violent…until I’m with the homies,” made me hear my old daddy quoting his Uncle Sam, speaking to him in the Tennessee hills in the twenties, saying “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy. Three boys is no boy a’tall.”
I wish I could remember if Uncle Sam was the one who told my old daddy stories about chasing cows into the woods to hide them from the Yankees the night they drove old Dixie down.
Funny what you remember and what you don’t.
1) The Roots, Undun (2011)
The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. It even starts with a quote from the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me,” which, a generation back, was The World is a Ghetto one generation on.
Which leads to the question: Are all rap albums now rewrites of “The World is a Ghetto?” And if nothing’s changed, is it because we can’t change or we won’t?
Movies only…we’ll leave this, by a long ways the best TV western theme, aside…
..and stick to the cinema entries.
First, a little history:
Narration: Though High Noon opened to universal praise in late July, 1952, one of its early previews has proved disastrous.
Fred Zinneman, Jr.: What was wrong with the preview was that there was wall-to-wall music in it and what people were responding to was the amount of music. After it was over, people–all the executives–were forming into little groups, whispering, and I just went into the bathroom, where two other executives were, and I heard one of them say to the other, “Well, what does a European Jew know about making westerns anyway?”
From Inside High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Frank Langella, narration)
Stanley Kramer: He (Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn) said “What difference does it make? So I ran it. It’s a piece of junk anyway”
Narration: Now, in fairness to Harry Cohn, the print that he saw of High Noon was missing a crucial element: music. You don’t have to be an expert to know how much music can add to a movie. But in this case the music was so unusual, so revolutionary, in fact, for its time, it added a whole dimension to the picture. Most movies of the 1950s opened with a fanfare, a big orchestra. Here’s what you heard at the beginning of High Noon…as spare and low-key as the film itself:
(From The Making of High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Leonard Maltin, narration)
Not that those sometimes fanfares went away entirely….either from not so famous movies…
or extremely famous ones…
Or that you couldn’t split the difference:
Still, the makers of High Noon–having gone with too little music and too much–were onto something when they found the right mix. In the western, at least, vocals added something.
But there were only a few great ones. Some spare and low-key, some operatic.
And some of them didn’t make it to the movie. Well, one of them anyway:
Sometimes, a shoulda’ been didn’t make the movie either…
…that’s from the cutting floor of Rio Bravo, which, if it’s missed, is not as missed as it might have been, thanks to what is there.
This couldn’t have been a theme, exactly….
But this actually was…(well, a piece of it was, anyway)
So you can see (or hear), where they might have had a hard time choosing. And why they had a high bar to meet when they “remade” it (fanfare and all)…
And, by the late sixties, there was even at least one instance of a theme that blossomed out into a soundtrack (i.e., an ongoing ballad that ran through the whole movie, with endlessly witty variations, the gist of which are barely hinted at up front):
But, really, when it’s all said and done, there are three that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
One has the advantage of being from the greatest movie ever made:
One has the advantage of being both the greatest vocal and the best song ever recorded for a western theme.
But, down at the end, there’s something about the ground-breaker…Tex Ritter’s proudest moment, and one which he knew how to deliver more ways than one. My favorite is the one I played first, but this is a great variation. And there’s no more elegant or mysterious phrase in the English language than…”Wait along.”