The River's Badge

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Mel Tillis


The guys who write obituaries for newspapers are probably around thirty or so. Maybe forty at the most. Everyone knows that companies are in the midst of showing baby boomers the door. That leaves a gap when it comes to writing about someone's life, because these young guys (and/or girls) don't have a clue who Mel Tillis was. It makes me mad when I realize that an obituary consists of bits gleaned from Wikipedia. A life should mean more than that. Especially Mel Tillis's.

Country music would have been so much less if Mel Tillis hadn't come along.

When I first became involved with country music, I didn't know Mel Tillis. I might have seen "M. Tillis" in parentheses beneath the song title on a '45 single, but at that time, I only cared about who sang the song. Granted, I was only around thirteen, so I was as shallow as a...well, thirteen-year-old.

I didn't even know that the title song of my all-time favorite album (because it was Dad's all-time favorite album) was written by this Mel Tillis guy. Dad bought the LP in 1965, when I was still engrossed in the orange and yellow Capital '45's released by this group called "The Beatles".

Sorry, apparently they didn't make videos in 1965, but this is still awesome:




Seeing as how I was a remedial country music student, once my best friend Alice began schooling me in the ways of (good) country music, I caught up with this next song. Alice also was the person who taught me how to play (chord) guitar (I never actually learned how to "play"), and she taught me the intro to this song. 

Detroit City was released in 1963, and while I didn't listen to country music then, one could not help but be exposed to it, because the radio stations played an eclectic mix of musical styles. My cousin and I created a comic book about "singers when they get old". Bobby Bare was one of our subjects, but in our version he was an actual bear. Our comic was a huge hit among my Uncle Howard's bar crowd. Orders rolled in, but unfortunately we would have had to recreate the whole thing by hand over and over, so we sacrificed the big bucks (twenty-five cents) we could have made from the venture, essentially because we were lazy. 

Around 1967 Alice and I were excited to see Bobby Bare in person, but thanks to a freak winter fiasco, we never got to. We ended up going back to her house and watching the local TV broadcast of Bobby's performance. 

A lot of my musical history is tied up in Detroit City, and it was all thanks to Mel Tillis:


The very first song I ever wrote went like this:

1967, you taught me how to play
All those Merle Haggard songs
Man, he had a way
And the intro to Detroit City
I remember it today
You were my hero then
You still are today

So, again, it all started with Mel.

Much like I traveled back in time to capture songs like "City Lights", I didn't quite catch that Mel had written this hit song from 1957. Was Mel around forever? 

I never understood why this guy named Webb Pierce was considered the Hank Williams of the fifties. Pierce didn't even write his own songs! And he was rather an awful singer, but apparently the "nasal" sound worked for him. In the fifties, who was the competition? Pat Boone? The only thing I know about Webb Pierce is that he had a guitar-shaped swimming pool and he was a renowned asshole. Regardless, Mel Tillis wrote this song and Webb should have thanked him for it, but apparently that wasn't Pierce's modus operandi:



More my style was this single released in 1967:


And seriously, all this time, I had no idea that a guy named "Mel" had written these songs.

So, when did I become aware of this Mel Tillis guy? In the mid-sixties, I began hearing songs on the radio by someone who had a different sort of voice. He was no Ray Price. He sang like the words were stuck in his gullet. I was judgmental. The songs were good, but I was perplexed by the singer.


Eventually, as more of this guy's recordings got played by the DJ's, I became used to him.

In 1970, I got hooked. This is one of my favorite recordings ever.



 In the mid-seventies, Mel's career took off. He was still writing songs and still writing hit songs, like:


By then, I'd bought his live album, and it was hilarious. I never knew that Mel Tillis stuttered! Of course, if you read the various obituaries, that's practically all that is written about him.

Yea, Mel Tillis was funny. And Clint Eastwood and all the Hollywood set loved him. 

This might have been from a Clint movie, or maybe not, but I think it was:



This one, I'm pretty much convinced is from a Clint movie:




Here's one more (Mel did it better):



I'm going to guess that the most famous song Mel Tillis ever wrote was this next one. It would have been nice if Kenny Rogers had tweeted a few words and had thanked Mel for his career, but whatever. I'm not going to judge the propriety or impropriety of not acknowledging.




Mel Tillis was with me all my life and I didn't even know it. I didn't know that Mel was wrapped up in my musical belonging. 

Pay it forward, they say.

Mel paid a lot of artists' ways.

Mel Tillis is wrapped up in my musical memories. Ir's not everyone who can encompass a person's life. I wanna cry just thinking about him. And I truly miss him.

Thank you, Mel Tillis, for things I didn't even know you taught me.
















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