Mel Tillis: Coca-Cola Cowboy
At 80, Mel Tillis, once one of country music's hottest commodities, isn't finished yet.
"I'm just about to publish my first novel," he says in a jovial, upbeat voice that screams huckster with a twinkle in his eye.
"It's called Acting Sheriff and it's set in Palm Beach in 1947," says Tillis. "It's sort of a comedy-mystery about this young deputy who gets appointed acting sheriff because the sheriff has to have a hemorrhoid operation."
Tillis finds this hilarious. He also likes to talk about Mel Tillis, in that aw-shucks, all-showbiz voice that should be instantly recognizable to Texans from nine years of Whataburger commercials. But his career writing and recording country hits made him a Nashville cash cow for 30 years.
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"I've always had a creative mind," he effuses. "People ask me how I could write a novel at my age, and I just tell 'em what Mark Twain said: I get up about 4:30, put the coffee on, light a cigarette and start writing something."
Tillis began writing songs in the early '50s while in the Air Force, stationed in Nebraska, then worked at odd jobs back in his native Tampa before he finally got a nibble from Nashville. Ray Price was there for a show, and Tillis handed him a verse and chorus of a new song he was working on backstage after the show. Price liked what he saw.
"So Ray told me he'd take what I gave him up to Nashville," says Tillis. "Not too long after, I was laying in bed one night all beat and tired as hell, just listening to the WSM all-night show, when Webb Pierce came on singing 'I'm Tired.'
"I jumped out of bed and ran in and woke my mother up and told her, 'We're going to be rich; they're playing my song on the radio.'"
Pierce, Price and Brenda Lee all took a liking to his songs and, when Pierce's version of "Honky Tonk Song" became Tillis's first No. 1, the young Floridian took the plunge and moved to Nashville. Tillis hit the big time in a hurry with his songwriting with "Tupelo County Jail" and Pierce's smash "I Ain't Never," which was eventually covered by rockers John Fogerty and Dave Edmunds.
By 1958, Tillis's own voice was in the charts after "The Violet and the Rose" became his first recording to penetrate the country Top 40. Until Tillis's performing career truly ignited, he continued to be a prolific writer, responsible for such classics as Bobby Bare's "Detroit City," Charley Pride's "Snakes Crawl at Night" and Kenny Rogers's huge hit "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town."
In all, Tillis has published more than 1,000 songs. He was once quoted as saying he once wrote five No. 1 songs in a single week, but laughs that off.
"I'm not sure if that's true, but I was writing a lot of hits in a hurry," he admits. "At one point, out of the top 50 songs on the country chart, I had written or co-written 25 of them.
"Back then, Nashville wasn't like it is today, with literally thousands of people writing songs," he adds. "When I got there in 1957, there was only eight or nine of us — we had it all to ourselves."
Tillis frequently tosses off bits about changes he's seen and lived through in Nashville, and one of them he noticed was a new breed of songwriters coming into town in the early 1960s, Texans like Mickey Newbury, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
"We all ran around together," Tillis laughs. "Roger Miller and I actually moved to Nashville on the same day, and we both went to work in Minnie Pearl's band. But we all hung out together. Those were some high times, for sure."
When his recording career finally began to take off, Tillis got a regular gig on The Porter Wagoner Show, one of the top country-music programs at the time. But he only lasted about six months.
"I had a great time with Porter and Dolly and Porter's band; it was a laugh a minute," Tillis recalls. "But he fired me after about six months because I was getting more fan mail than he was."
But in 1965, Tillis's recording career began to explode. "Wine" became his first song to reach the Top 15, but that only hinted at the stream of hits Tillis was about to unleash, including "Life Turned Her That Way" and "Stateside." Since that time, Tillis's band has been known as the Statesiders.
Tillis got so huge, Whataburger signed him as the voice of the company, and Clint Eastwood not only used his No. 1 hit "Coca-Cola Cowboy" in the movie Every Which Way But Loose, he also gave Tillis a cameo role in the production. This was quite a feat for an entertainer who had a lifelong problem with stuttering, brought on by a childhood case of malaria. Tillis literally became a symbol of hope to people with a stuttering problem.
"I worked so hard on that," reveals Tillis. "And eventually I got it under control for the most part. But it was a struggle."
Tillis was a touring machine for two decades, and he admits Texas was a big part of his success.
"We just stayed in Texas and Oklahoma more than anywhere else," he says. "We had that twin-fiddle dance-hall sound that people down there like, and they really gave us a great reception anywhere we went."
"I couldn't tell you how many times we played Lubbock, Amarillo, Midland, Odessa and Abilene," adds Tillis. "West Texas was mighty good to us."
He also recalls getting help from legendary Houston radio personalities like Arch Yancey and Joe Ladd.
"We played Dancetown U.S.A. on Airline quite a bit, and lots of the Houston disc jockeys would come by and say hello," Tillis recalls. "Houston was such a great town for country music in the '60s and '70s, and you absolutely had to get on radio in Houston to really make it."
So what will a Mel Tillis set be like when he hits the stage in The Woodlands?
"Of course, you do your big hits, the obvious things," explains Tillis, whom President Obama gave the NEA Arts and Humanities Medal earlier this year for his achievements as a singer and songwriter.
"But there are some songs that weren't huge hits that 40 years later people still request," he adds. "I get a lot of requests for 'Mental Revenge,' which was a huge hit for Waylon but not for me. And people still request 'Commercial Affection,' which I wrote when I was in the Air Force before I ever went to Nashville.
"But really, I'm just happy to sing what people want to hear," closes Tillis. "If you're an entertainer, it's an honor just to get a request for a song you've done. And you should treat it that way."
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