Across a nearly 60-year career, Mel Tillis shined, first as a Nashville songwriter and later as one of country music’s top recording stars.
The Florida native arrived in Nashville in the 1950s. He quickly became a favored songwriting partner of one of the decade’s biggest stars, Webb Pierce. Into the ‘60s, Tillis excelled among an absurdly talented group of songwriters to the stars that included Willie Nelson, Bill Anderson, Roger Miller and Tom T. Hall. Hits written by Tillis back then include Bobby Bare's "Detroit City” and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
After years of quality singles and growing notoriety as comic relief on TV’s The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, hits finally started coming the year Tillis turned 40. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Tillis’ “aw, shucks” demeanor and versatile baritone voice kept him relevant as country music shifted from the last remnants of the Nashville Sound to the Urban Cowboy craze, a different wave of pop-country and the neo-traditionalist movement.
Any brief celebration of Tillis needs to address his “Stutterin’ Boy” nickname. A childhood bout with malaria caused a speech impediment that became part of his stage persona. While most older pop culture depictions of disabilities can be cringe-worthy at best, Tillis’ self-depreciating approach disarmed bullies and encouraged self-acceptance in a way that stands the test of time.
For more on the late Opry member, Hall of Famer and father to ‘90s star Pam Tillis, check out these 10 selections from his back catalog:
"I Got the Hoss"From 'Love's Troubled Waters' (1977)
This song ranks among the most whimsically weird and slightly suggestive chart hits of its time. Think of it as “Old Town Road" with less debatable country music credentials — not that those should matter all that much when it comes to undeniably fun songs.
“Memory Maker”From 'I Ain't Never' (1972)
Tillis tackles two of the ugliest four-letter words -- pain and love -- with this catchy, bass-led stroll. As one of the better breakup songs of its time, it captures Tillis as one of the voices of common people’s heartbreaks and triumphs.
“I Believe in You”From 'I Believe in You' (1978)
Tillis’ versatility as a baritone singer and country stylist allowed him to revisit the Nashville Sound crooner style for this late-‘70s chart-topper.
“Mental Revenge”From 'Stateside' (1966)
Like other solo stars with long-term success, Tillis always surrounded himself with great musicians. For an example of his Statesiders’ skill onstage and in the studio, look no further than this classic’s bass grooves and fiddle accompaniment.
"I'm Tired"From 'American Originals' (1990)
Tillis’ early career songwriting relationship with 1950s star Webb Pierce fed the latter a string of chart hits. This Pierce hit from 1956 maintains its emotional sting when Tillis tells of a man’s short emotional trip from hope to despondency.
"Southern Rains"From 'Southern Rain' (1980)
Tillis fit the cosmopolitan sound of the early 1980s without changing much about his sentimental song choices and trademark vocal delivery. This pick is the highlight of his Elektra Records stint (1979-1982).
"Sawmill" From 'Sawmill' (1973)
This unlikely Top 5 hit celebrates the working man as effectively as contemporary recordings by Merle Haggard and others. Try spinning this one without beaming with pride about friends and family willing to work hard, manual labor for an honest living.
"Good Woman Blues"From 'Love Revival' (1976)
Tillis’ second career No. 1 offers a little something for everyone. The song pleased fans of Waylon Jennings’ rough-edged outlaw material on its way up the charts. A few years later, it appealed to the line-dancing fans of the more cosmopolitan Urban Cowboy soundtrack.
"I Ain't Never"From 'I Ain't Never' (1972)
Lovelorn lyrics, honky-tonk piano accompaniment, chorus harmonies and some pretty sweet guitar work made this a neo-traditionalist hit long before neo-traditionalist hits were cool. Tillis co-wrote it with Pierce in the 1950s. Pierce’s 1959 version reached No. 2 on the country charts, while Tillis’ 1972 recording notched him his first career No. 1 single.
"Coca Cola Cowboy"From 'Mr. Entertainer' (1979)
Tillis’ standout song from his Mr. Entertainer album puts down its lover-on-the-run narrator and name-drops Clint Eastwood. It also appears in Eastwood’s Every Which Way But Loose, a trucker-and-orangutan buddy comedy named for an Eddie Rabbitt song. It remains one of Tillis’ signature songs.