Tillis, Take Too
by Phil Houseal
Jan 22, 2014
Last week I got away with some sleight of hand here by writing up an interview with Mel Tillis, but without Mel Tillis actually participating.
I got a second chance to make that first impression this weekend when Mel Tillis and The Statesiders played two shows at the Cailloux Theater on Saturday.
At intermission, the promoter grabbed me and said, “Come on, let’s see if we can get you some time with Mel.”
I got exactly 7 minutes. That isn’t much time, especially when your interview subject stutters. But it was less an interview than a mini Mel show.
“Hi. I’m Mel Tillis and this is Mel Tillis, Jr. We call him Sonny Boy, but, hell, he’s 50 years old.”
(Note: Mel Tillis, Jr., is a singer/songwriter in his own right. His best known hit is The Ride, sung by Chris LeDoux.)
I sat down and pulled out my recorder. I noticed they kept looking over my shoulder. I glanced back and realized they were watching the Tennessee-Florida basketball game.
“Yeah, I got my Gators on,” Tillis said. “I went to school there. Now I got a ranch in Florida and I only live 35 miles from that school. Sonny went there too.”
Are you a basketball fan, I asked Mel Jr.
“I played soccer,” Sonny said.
“His foot was too big,” Mel chimed in, laughing. “He couldn’t run.”
“But I finally grew into them,” Sonny insisted.
I did want to ask some non sports-related questions, though. I had just watched Tillis entertain an audience of hundreds hanging on to every stutter. He told stories, made jokes, and most of all, he sang.
Like the first time I heard Ray Price live, I was amazed at the quality of his singing. You can’t fake a fine voice at a live show, with no autotuning or studio tricks. Where did that voice come from?
“It was always there,” he said. “When I was little, my daddy stuttered, my brother stuttered, I stuttered. But I could sing.”
That launched him into a story I guessed he’d told many times.
“I started school and I came home and I didn’t know I stuttered, because that’s the way we talked,” he said. “It was Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Plant City, Florida. I came home the first day and said, Mama, do I stutter? She said, yes son, you do. I said, they laughed at me. She said, well, if they laugh at you, give them something to laugh about. I went back to school the next day, and that was my first day in show business.”
That stuttering became a trademark, getting him on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 28 times. Interestingly, he hardly stutters anymore.
“The more I am on stage, the less I stutter,” he explained. “I had one guy come through the autograph line the other day, and he said, I paid $35 to hear you stutter and you ain’t stuttered one damn bit. I told him, I’m trying to quit, sir.”
My other question was about his songwriting credentials. Most fans don’t know Tillis started out as a songwriter.
“That’s what I did in the beginning, I was a songwriter,” he said. “Songwriting was something I had no idea I could do. Wesley Rose (of Acuff-Rose Music) said, you need to write songs. I said, I’ll try. And I did. Hell, I was a songwriter and didn’t even know it!”
Sonny chimed in. “He was back working on the railroad when he first heard his song played on the radio.”
That song was I’m Tired, recorded by Webb Pierce.
Tillis started singing it. “Oh Lord, I’m tired, tired of living this a way...”
Sonny noted that just like his sister Pam Tillis, when it came to entertaining, his dad “always had it.”
Mel nodded. “All my life everything fell into place, the comedy, the writing, the singing. I didn’t do that intentionally, but it fell into place.”
He thought a moment.
“Humor is the best medicine in the world. If you can laugh, you got it made.”
Intermission was over, and Florida was up by 22.
Nothing was left to be said.