Mel Tillis, stuttering country star whose music spoke pristinely, dies at 85
Mel Tillis, a chart-topping Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter and singer who turned a chronic stutter to his advantage, winning a following as a genial folksy performer onstage and in a side career in movies and on TV, died Nov. 19 at a hospital in Ocala, Florida. He was 85.
His death was announced by publicist Don Murry Grubbs, who wrote in a statement that the cause was likely respiratory failure. Tillis had undergone colon cancer surgery in January 2016.
Tillis, who became one of country music’s most durable and versatile talents, once described himself as “the most unlikely to ever make it” in show business, mostly because of his speech impediment. He joked that his CB handle would be “Old F-F-Flutterlips.”
It was precisely that self-deprecating humor that would eventually endear him to fans. But, scarred by the teasing he took in childhood for his stammer, he spent years trying to overcome his fears of being out front, introducing his songs or thanking crowds. As he was trying to break into the business in the mid-1950s, a record company executive suggested he might be better off pursuing songwriting instead of performing.
Song writer: He flourished as a writer, with his compositions recorded by performers such as Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Wanda Jackson, Tom Jones and Brenda Lee.
One of his most enduring pieces, “Detroit City,” co-written with Danny Dill, earned a Grammy Award for country singer Bobby Bare in 1963 and captured the alienation of rural Southerners in the big city:
“Home folks think I’m big in Detroit City
“From the letters that I write they think I’m fine
“But by day I make the cars
“By night I make the bars
“If only they could read between the lines.”
Tillis’ song “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” gained its greatest renown in 1969 when it was recorded by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.
By commercial standards, “Ruby” was risky material, recounting the bleak story of a paralyzed veteran from “that old crazy Asian war.” The soldier begs his wife not to leave him and even dreams of killing her: “And if I could move, I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.”
Tillis later said the song was inspired by a World War II veteran involved in a murder-suicide, but the piece resonated with American listeners during the Vietnam War. In 1969, the NBC News program “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” played the song to close a segment about the sacrifices of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam.
Singer: By that time, Tillis had slowly eased into singing his own songs. He credited comedian Minnie Pearl with helping build his confidence. She had hired him as a rhythm guitarist for her revue in the late 1950s and allowed him to try out some of his compositions.
He would walk to center stage, perform and then slide into the background, clearly ill at ease with stage banter.
“Minnie called me over one day, she said, ‘Melvin, I noticed you have a little speech hang-up,’” he told the Modesto Bee in 2014. “But she said, ‘Let me tell you this, if you are going to be in this business, you need to introduce your own songs, and when you’re finished, you need to thank them yourself.‘ I said, ‘Minnie, they’re laughing at me.‘ She said, ‘They’re laughing with you.‘ So that’s how I started talking on stage.”
As a recording artist, Tillis did not come into his own until 1966 when he charted with “Stateside,” the lament of a homesick American serviceman stationed in Japan. The song became one of his signature pieces and led him to name his road band the Statesiders.
Tillis put 34 songs in the Billboard country Top 10 – six in the No. 1 position — from 1969 to 1981.
They covered a range of styles: drinking songs such as “Stomp Them Grapes” (1974); the randy “I Got the Hoss” (1977) with the refrain, “I got the hoss if she’s got the saddle, together we’re gonna ride, ride, ride”; and the sentimental “I Believe in You” (1979), written by Buddy Cannon and Gene Dunlap.
As a singer he was at his height that decade, with hit recordings including “Heart Over Mind” in 1970, “Good Woman Blues” in 1976 and “Coca-Cola Cowboy” in 1979.
“He was a very good and very expressive singer when he was doing traditional country, and as a songwriter he had an ability to capture the feelings of the working person,” said country historian Rich Kienzle.
By the late 1970s, Tillis parlayed his country boy charm into a second career as character actor. He appeared in the Clint Eastwood comedy “Every Which Way But Loose” (1978) and in several movies starring Burt Reynolds, including “Smokey and the Bandit II” (1980) and “The Cannonball Run” (1981). He co-hosted a TV variety show in 1978 with the husky-voiced singer and actress Susan Anton.
His life: Lonnie Melvin Tillis was born in Dover, Florida, on Aug. 8, 1932, and grew up mostly in Pahokee, a town near Lake Okeechobee. He attributed his stutter, which disappeared when he sang, to a bout with malaria at 3.
Tillis, who was adept on guitar, violin and drums, formed his first band while serving with the Air Force in Okinawa. Unable to become an aviator, he trained as baker. “I served my country,” he liked to quip. “I served them cakes and cookies and bread.”
He worked as a strawberry picker, railroad fireman, milkman and delivery man before Webb Pierce recorded a string of hit songs co-written by Tillis in the late 1950s: “I’m Tired,” “I Ain’t Never,” “Tupelo County Jail” and “Honky Tonk Song.” (Tillis’ revivals of “I Ain’t Never” and “Honky Tonk Song” topped the country charts again in the late 1970s.)
Pierce later employed Tillis as a writer for his publishing company, Cedarwood Music. In 1983, Tillis bought Cedarwood, by then one of the largest song catalogs in Nashville. He invested other earnings into four radio stations and a Branson, Missouri, theater where he performed regularly from 1994 to 2002.
In 1998, he collaborated with fellow singers Bare, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Reed on the double album “Old Dogs,” a song cycle by writer Shel Silverstein about growing old.
Tillis had five children with his first wife, Doris, including singer-songwriter Pam Tillis, before divorcing. His second marriage, to Judy Tillis, with whom he had a daughter, also ended in divorce. Additional survivors include his partner, Kathy DeMonaco; six grandchildren; a great grandson; and two siblings.
Awards: Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 2012. With Walter Wager, he co-wrote a memoir, “Stutterin’ Boy” (1984), and served as a longtime spokesman for the Stuttering Foundation of America.
His speech impediment became such a trademark that some fans later in his career were disappointed when Tillis, having largely conquered his stammer, spoke effortlessly in performance.
“I had a guy come through my autograph line not too long ago,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “He said, ‘Mel Tillis! I paid $35 to hear you stutter, and you ain’t stuttered one damn bit!‘ I said, ‘I’m trying to quit, sir.’”