Despite residing in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda, the late Mel Tillis may actually be underrated. Few to grace the Grand Ole Opry stage were as consistently excellent for nearly 60 years as Tillis--a celebrated songwriter with his own run of country hits and title of CMA Entertainer of the Year. He even passed along musical genes to his daughter, Pam Tillis.
Since his first band, The Westerners, after leaving the Air Force, Tillis made his mark on country music.
Journey to Become a Country Star
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 big 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 and the First Edition ("Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town") and others.
In 1969, the Florida native first gained a foothold as a solo artist, due in part to his memorable and hilarious television appearances (he was also in Smokey and the Bandit II). He turned his chronic stutter into an asset as a self-deprecating comedian/solo country artist, encouraging fans to let loose and embrace their supposed imperfections, despite suffering from the speech impediment since childhood. Tillis' charm, talents, and songwriting skills made for an impressive run as a Billboard chart-topper. He charted a whopping 36 top 10 hits between 1969 and 1984, with his backing band, The Statesiders, behind him. He also wrote for other country stars like "Honey (Open That Door)" performed by Ricky Skaggs.
Let's not forget about his collaboration as a member of supergroup Old Dogs with Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, and Jerry Reed.
With all of that said, only John Prine himself made it tougher to pick ten 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 "The Violet and a Rose" "Honky Tonk Song," "Tupelo County Jail," "Burning Memories," "Heart Over Mind," or "Life Turned Her That Way."
10. "I Believe in You"
A broad look at the types of songs interpreted by this country singer 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. This single hit the number one spot for Tillis in the US and Canada.
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.
This post was originally published on April 19, 2020.