By Tim Collins, Publisher, Chapel Hill News & Views, and Villa Rica News & Views.
On June 10th, I had the privilege of talking to legendary Country Music star Mel Tillis. He was just coming back after a 3 month layoff from bypass surgery. He was definitely one of the most interesting and entertaining people I have had the chance to interview, and his success over 50 years in the music and entertainment industry, and positive attitude are very inspiring. I found myself laughing frequently as he shared many interesting stories and anecdotes. I hope you will enjoy reading the interview!
Tim: Hey Mel, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. So, are you back out on the road now?
Mel: Yeah I started out with a Friday Night Opry, and then Saturday I did a matinee at the Opry, and then I did a night show at the Opry, and then I did the Ernest Tubb Record Shop Midnight Jamboree (a radio show). I got home about 3:30 the next morning. So that was my debut from my bypass. Now that I’m getting more oxygen, they said “you’re singing better”. (laughs)
Tim: Wow, that sounds like it would put ME In the hospital! On July 25th, you are coming to Bremen, Georgia for a show at Mill Town Music Hall.
Mel: Yes, and I can’t hardly wait. I was up there when they had some kind of deal for Harold (Harold Shedd Tribute Concert). I just happened to be in the area and I met some folks, and they put me on with Toby Keith’s band. They’re a good band and good people, but they didn’t know my songs at all. And I told them I’d like to come back some day with my band. And it’s going to happen.
Tim: I can’t wait. My son and I were at that show, and there were so many really good artists there. He’s 34 and I am 55, and he made the comment, “I really like Mel Tillis a lot”. So, that’s a compliment.
Mel: (laughs) Well, I didn’t get a chance to do anything. I couldn’t sing with the band because they didn’t know my stuff. I’ve got the best band in the business, I’ll tell you that for sure. I dress them up – they LOOK like a band (laughs). There are about 9 of us, well, there’s 10 including me. And my son, he comes on the show, and I may have one of my daughters out there to sing with me.
Tim: Oh, that would be awesome.
Mel: Yeah, they helped me out the other night on Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Pam (Pam Tillis) came over and we did a duet together. And then she did a couple of her things. My son, Mel Junior, is a songwriter and he wrote a song called “The Ride” for Chris LeDoux. And he wrote “When I think about Angels I Think About You”. Anyway, he’ll be there too. And another one of my daughters (Carrie Tillis) who sings “legit” – she sings with symphony orchestras and does Broadway stuff like the Music Man with John Davidson, she did Beauty and the Beast. She said, “Daddy, I hope I don’t ever have to do that again. He had the worst breath!” (laughs) I said, “Take some gargling stuff with you and hand it to him. You don’t have to say nothing”. (laughs)
Tim: He’d probably take the hint (laughs).
Mel: I’m looking forward to coming back to Atlanta. I’ll be at the Georgia Mountain Fair too in Hiawassee, on July 26th.
Tim: I was looking on your website last night. I didn’t know you painted!
Mel: You know what. I built me a theater in Branson. I had a lot of time off, you know. I’d do a night show, and I wouldn’t do a matinee. Every now and then I’d do a matinee, and I had some time to kill, so I took some art lessons and I’ve been painting ever since. I raised quite a bit of money on one of the paintings. It’s called Masonic America.
Tim: Yeah – that’s a GOOD painting.
Mel: I’ve raised about $88,000 for the Scottish Rite Foundation, for their speech and their hearing training center. It’s all free to these kids.
Tim: Wow – that is awesome!
Mel: And then, for the Shriners Hospitals, I do my fishing tournament every year, down in Steinhatchee Florida.
Tim: That’s neat that you are able to raise money in that way. When I saw the paintings I was thinking, “Man, he is a good painter”. You are very multi-talented.
Mel: Well, I had some good teachers.
Tim: You must have. You’d have to have SOME talent, because if I took art lessons for 10 years, I still couldn’t draw a stick!
Mel: My daughter who sings legit – boy you should see her paintings. She is really good.
Tim: Of all of the songs you have written or recorded, is there one that is kind of your personal favorite?
Mel: Well the one I like the best I didn’t write. It was written by Tommy Collins called “New Patches”. I really, REALLY love that song. I love the Harlan Howard song too, “Life Turned Her That Way”. And I guess the ones that made me the most money – I guess I liked (laughs). “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” was a big hit. “Honey Won’t You Open That Door” by Ricky Skaggs was a big hit. In the pop field too - they went, not only country but pop too. “Detroit City” Everybody recorded these songs over the years. I was really blessed with good songs over the years. I didn’t even know I was a songwriter when I went to Nashville. I went to Nashville, and I was auditioning with Wesley Rose to be a singer. He said, “You can’t talk, can you write songs?” and I said “No sir”. He said, “You need to write songs, try it”. And I went back home and started writing songs. The first one I wrote was called “Oh Lord I’m Tired.” for Webb Pierce. It went #2. And the next one I wrote was called “Honky Tonk Song”, Honky Tonk All Night Long. It went #1.
Tim: How about that. That’s a good way to start, isn’t it!
Tim: That’s amazing. Do you remember what you were doing the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
Mel: Yes, I was in bed. And I had worked all day in a strawberry patch. I was just out of the air force and I was helping my uncle. It paid 50¢ an hour (laughs). I was helping him in his strawberry patch. And I had gone to Nashville, and I came back and was trying to write a song, and I was standing in the middle of a strawberry patch trying to get some weeds out of it, and I just started singing to the melody of “Standing on the Promises”,(starts singing Oh Lord I’m Tired) Standing on the corner of a busy street, looking for your face in every crowd I see, checking every honky tonk in this town. It went #2. I got out of the strawberry patch and went to Nashville.
Tim: So, you were just resting when you heard it on the radio?
Mel: Oh, yeah – I was in bed – I turned in to Eddie Hill’s Midnight Jamboree on WSM. I turned it on and Eddie Hill was interviewing Webb Pierce, and he said “I’ve got a new record here and want you to play it for me”. And he played it, and it was my song. I jumped up, and I ran into my mama’s room and said “Mama, mama, pack your bags, we’re going to be rich!” (laughs)
Tim: That is so cool!
Mel: And I went back in there, and there were two more verses to it, and it WASN’T my song. What happened is my manager had played it to Ray Price, in Tampa Florida. He liked it, and he was backstage at the Opry singing it one night, and Webb overheard it. He said “I like that song, who did that?” And Ray said “Well, it’s one of my writers down in Florida”. Webb said, I really like it, what are you going to do with it? Can I record it?” And I guess Ray must have thought to himself, “Well if it’s that good I’ll just keep it for myself”, so he told him “I’m going to record it myself”. Well, Webb remembered the first verse of it. And he went to his publishing company, to Wayne Walker, and he rewrote it and he wrote the other two verses.
Tim: Oh wow!
Mel: And Webb recorded it, and it went #2.
Tim: How about that!
Mel: (laughs) yeah.
Tim: That’s a real interesting story there.
Mel: A lot of songs they end up here, there and everywhere, and a lot of times you have to go to court to get them back.
Tim: That’s too bad. You know, I didn’t realize until last night when I was reading up on you that you wrote “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. That’s a good song.
Mel: Yeah – I was coming home from the office – I say the office, it was Cedarwood Publishing Company. I was assigned to write for them. I had a little office there. And I was coming home and got I stuck in the traffic. And I had the radio on. And Johnny Cash came on (Mel starts singing in a Johnny Cash voice) “Don’t take your guns to town, son, Leave your guns at home boy.” And I just sang (Mel starts singing in his voice) “Ruby, Don’t take your love to town”. It reminded me of a situation that happened in Florida. And before I got home, I had that song written.
Tim: Wow! That’s cool! I am so glad you told me that. My wife and I were talking and she wanted me to ask you how you wrote that song, and if it was about a real person.
Mel: It was about a fellow from my hometown, Pahokee Florida. He was a soldier. And he married a nurse over there, an English lady. And he brought her to Pahokee, Florida. He had recurring problems. They were our neighbors – they lived next door, and we used to hear them fighting all the time. And I’d say, “Mama, what’s happening over there, and she’d say, “He’s just a mean old thing. He’s accusing that Ruby of everything in the world. She’s a NICE girl!” All this stuff was in my head, and then “Don’t take your guns to town” (the Johnny Cash song) triggered it. And I sat down on the couch and took my guitar out of the case and I sang it to Doris. She said, “That’s the worst song I’ve ever heard you write.” (we both laugh about that, knowing how big of a hit that song became).
Tim: You’ve had such a long career, but what would you say was maybe the most unusual thing that has happened to you at a concert or just over your career in general?
Mel: Well, I guess the whole career is so unusual. (laughs). I was the first one that actually stuttered, to be on television. I did some local Nashville stuff, like the Porter Wagoner show, everybody had a little show, and I did all of those. Jimmy Dean was going to do the Mike Douglas show up in Philadelphia. And he was a co-host. And the co-host could have anyone that he or she wanted. And Mike Douglas said, “Who’s Mel Tillis”, and Jimmy said “He’s a new singer down there in Nashville. He stutters a little bit.” Mike said, “Oh no, no we can’t have anyone on that stutters”. And Jimmy said “Well, you can’t have me, I’ll see you.” Then Mike said “Woah – let’s talk this thing over.” And they called me, and I flew up there and went in and met Mr. Douglas. I bought me a new guitar, I was so happy to be on the show, and I said, “Man, I’m going in class”. I got up there, and I opened my case. And there was the guitar, but it didn’t have any strings on it. Are you kidding me! I knew I could play the accordion and the piano a little bit, and I didn’t care too much for the accordion. The accordion is the only instrument that you could leave in your car in the back seat with the windows down and go into Wal-Mart, and come back out there and it would still be there.
Tim: (laughs) Yeah, really.
Mel: I think I did Detroit City and another song, and from that day on, man, I did every show. I did 28 Johnny Carson shows, The Merv Griffin Show, the Dinah Shore Show, Hollywood Squares, 15 movies. It was all television.
Tim: That is really cool. I guess one more question. Looking back over your life and career, if you had to pick one thing that you want people to remember you for, what would that be?
Mel: Well, that he had a sense of humor. If it hadn’t have been for humor, I don’t think I would have made it. You’ll see when I get there – I’ll get involved with the audience. Not too long ago I was signing autographs, and there was a fellow - oh, he was about 15 folks down the line, and I could see him over there and he said “Hey Mel – Mel Tillis”. “I paid $39 to hear you stutter and you ain’t stuttered one bit”. And I said, “I’m trying to quit sir”.
Tim: That’s so funny!
Mel: Let me tell you this. When I was a little boy, my father stuttered a little bit, and my brother who was about 15 months older that I, he stuttered too. And I stuttered. Well, I remember I started school, Woodrow Elementary School in Plant City Florida. and I came home the first and said, “Mama, do I stutter”? She said, “Yes you do son”. I said, “They laughed at me”. She said, “Well, if they are going to laugh at you, give them something to laugh about”. I went back to school the second day, and that was my first day in show business! I learned the secret of humor. It is the best medicine in the world.
Tim: Yeah, that’s true. That’s a really good story.
Mel: The more I am on stage, the less I stutter. If you asked me to stand up and read something, I couldn’t do that. And if you put a cue card up there for me to read, I couldn’t do that. And, you know when I started making movies and doing skits and little sit-com things out in Hollywood, they would write the stutter in there. I said, “What the … I don’t stutter on that word.” (laughs). And I said “Don’t do anything, I’ll stutter where I am supposed to”. A lot of people think it’s something that I use as a crutch, but it’s there, I can’t help it.
Tim: I think that your humor, when we saw you at the Harold Shedd Tribute Concert, that was the thing that Dylan, my son, and I thought – like “he’s hilarious”!
Mel: Yeah – I told a little story there I think.
Tim: Yeah you did. I remember that. You told a story, and I think you sang Coca Cola Cowboy. But I remember you telling a story. I also remember when you were on stage, or it may have been when you were coming through the crowd, you were talking about how you had just had some kind of dental procedure that day, and there was a funny story related to that.
Mel: Yeah, I had a cap fall off.
Tim: That’s right.
Mel: I got some Super Glue and put it back in there. It didn’t kill me.
Tim: Hey, I really appreciate you taking this time with me. I really do.
Mel: I’ve enjoyed it, my friend, and I’ll see you on July 25th.
Tim: I think it may be a benefit to raise money for a museum they are going to do.
Mel: Yeah, it is a music hall of fame in honor of Harold Shedd. About all that he has done to promote country music, and in honor of all of the hits he has recorded. I’ll have my band with me. They have been off for three months, and they are going to be EXTRA special. They are going to be good.
Tim: I can’t wait to see it – I really can’t! Thanks so much again, I really appreciate it.
Mel: Thank you.