Despite residing in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda, the late Mel Tillis may actually be underrated in the grand scheme of things. Few to grace the Grand Ole Opry stage were as consistently great for nearly 60 years as Tillis–a celebrated songwriter with his own run of solo chart success.
Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in Tampa, Fl., the future star concurrently followed Willie Nelson’s long road to stardom. Like Nelson, Tillis spent the ’60s as more of a songwriter-for-hire than a hit-maker. Early Tillis compositions recorded by name stars include songs picked up by Webb Pierce (namely future Tillis solo hit “I Ain’t Never”), Charley Pride (“The Snakes Crawl at Night”), Bobby Bare (“Detroit City”), Waylon Jennings (“Mental Revenge”), Kenny Rogers (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”) and others.
In 1969, Tillis first gained a foothold as a solo artist, due in part to his memorable and hilarious television appearances. He turned his chronic stuttering into an asset as a self-deprecating comedian/solo country artist, encouraging fans to let loose and embrace their supposed imperfections. Tillis’ charm and talents made for an impressive run on the Billboard charts. He charted a whopping 36 top 10 hits between 1969 and 1984.
With all of that said, only John Prine himself made it tougher to pick 10 must-hear tunes. This round-up of great Mel Tillis songs lists most of the obvious hits, although some may raise a fuss that there’s no “Blind in Love,” “Woman in the Back of My Mind,” “The Arms of a Fool,” “Heart Over Mind,” “Life Turned Her That Way,” “Memory Maker,” “Your Body is an Outlaw,” “Heaven Everyday,” “Lying Time Again,” “Commercial Affection” or the hit that started it all, 1969’s “Who’s Julie.”
10. “I Believe in You”
A broad look at the types of songs interpreted by Tillis requires a mention of this future Engelbert Humperdinck album cut. It revisits the Nashville sound’s penchant for love song crooners.
9. “Ain’t No California”
Tillis’ often smooth vocals take a backseat to the sultry bass tones he channels for this late ’70s hit that sounds like a weird cross between the Nashville sound and Three Dog Night.
8. “Neon Rose”
This ’60s style country song places Tillis’ trademark vocal delivery at the forefront of the type of tune he’d once written for Pierce and other big-name stars.
7. “I Ain’t Never”
This classic country love song might just be the best example of Tillis’ nasally yet crystal clear singing voice. It’s one of the great hits Tillis originally wrote for Pierce.
6. “Good Woman Blues”
This would-be Waylon Jennings hit allowed Tillis to toy with the musical vibes and lyrical themes of his edgier outlaw contemporaries.
5. “Southern Rain”
Tillis’ mighty voice almost always suited country music trends. This ’80s style hit makes him sound as relevant as any cut from prior decades.
4. “I Got the Hoss”
The sense of humor that helped make Tillis a household name shines brightest when a song’s meaning depends on how deep your mind can descend into the gutter.
3. “Coca-Cola Cowboy”
If anyone played a hotter hand in American popular culture in 1978 than Tillis, it was Clint Eastwood. Both play second-billing to an orangutan in the film Every Which Way But Loose, which featured this defining soundtrack cut.
With old-school picking and Southern storytelling that should thrill Jerry Reed fans, Tillis sang one for overworked mill hands.
1. “Stomp Them Grapes”
Everything about this, from Tillis’ vocal delivery to the honky tonk piano accompaniment, makes for a fun song that just about sums up what all was great about Mel’s ’70s singles.