Florida-born Mel Tillis (1932-2017) first made his mark as an off-the-radar Nashville songwriter, a rough-cut honkytonker who provided superstar Webb Pierce with some of his most vigorous hits of the late 1950s and early '60s -- killer tunes like "I Ain't Never," "I'm Tired" and "Tupelo County Jail" embraced the loping sound of the Texas Shuffle and gave it a rock'n'roll feel. For years, though, Tillis worked in Pierce's shadow, with his name appearing in songwriting credits, but rarely on the charts himself. That all changed in the 1970s, when he hit the bigtime with Top 10 hit after Top 10 hit, and became one of country's most in-demand touring artists of the decade. His hits of the era included honkytonk gems such as "Brand New Mister Me" and the jovial juggernaut of "Stomp Them Grapes," one of the finest hard country songs of the early '70s. As his star rose, Tillis managed to reclaim some of his old songs, such as "Heart Over Mind" and "I Ain't Never," a big hit for Webb Pierce in 1959, which Tillis took to the top of the charts in 1972. Although he was a hard-country hero, Tillis changed with the times, and his later hits softened and bore the hallmarks of the '70s "countrypolitan" scene... His daughter, Pam Tillis was a significant Nashville star of the 1990s.




Discography - Best-Ofs

Mel Tillis "The Best Of Mel Tillis: The Columbia Years" (Collector's Choice, 2003)
It's funny: looking at all those old Webb Pierce albums, I always imagined he and Mel Tillis were best buds, collaborating together on those rock-influenced honkytonk shuffles, along with Webb's other songwriting secret weapon, Wayne P. Walker. Turns out, though, that Tillis was one of those woebegotten Nashville second-stringers whose work Webb would poach at will, rushing out his own versions of other people's songs (with the full weight of the Decca Records publicity machine behind him), and locking down the chart hit before the original artist's single could gather any steam. For Mel Tillis, it was definitely a double-edged sword -- Pierce's version of "I'm Tired" (swiped from Ray Price) established Tillis as a popular songwriter, but Webb's subsequent preemptions put a stranglehold on Tillis's early hopes at a career as a star. If Webb always had a hit with the songs, how could Mel establish himself as a performer? This disc captures the drama of these formative early years, recording for Don Law and the folks at Columbia... Tillis tried tossing a lot of stuff at the wall, to see what would stick, so there are plenty of teenpop tunes, penned for the Elvis Presley/Ricky Nelson crowd, adapted folk tunes, and even a few "historical" tunes, ala Johnny Horton and Claude King... But it's the honkytonk numbers that really stand out: Tillis's own versions of songs such as "No Love Have I," "Heart Over Mind" and "Tupelo County Jail" (which all show an interesting stylistic debt to George Jones...) Mel's singles mostly flopped, and it would be several years before he'd start to have hits, over on the Kapp label, and later on MGM... Still, his early work sounds fun today... This is a nice historical set, and a must-have for Tillis fans!


Mel Tillis "Greatest Hits" (Curb, 1991)
Another one of Curb's swell sleeper reissues... Not exactly Tillis's "greatest" material, but a nice sampling of his later work on MCA, from the late '70s and early '80s, when he enjoyed some surprising success with material that ranged from deeply satisfying honkytonk material to bizarrely baroque crossover material. At any rate, this is a good collection of songs that would otherwise be lost from sight... The cheapie packaging is more than compensated for by the music itself.


Mel Tillis "Memory Maker" (Polygram, 1995)
A fine (though sadly out of print) selection of Tillis tunes from his early '70s years on MGM, when the hits really started coming. Some of these are re-recordings of songs he'd written years earlier: they benefit greatly from the punched-up production. Recommended! Can't wait 'til whoever owns these tunes nowadays brings out a new, comparable collection.


Mel Tillis "Hitsides! 1970-1980" (Raven, 2006)
An outstanding best-of set, covering Tillis' biggest hitmaking years (and the inevitable late-'70s slump...) Curated by Australia's ever-fab Raven label, this collection, offers twice the number of songs of most American best-of packages, and about three times the punch. Highly recommended!


Mel Tillis "Walking On New Grass" (MCA-Vocalion, 1972) (LP)
The Vocalion imprint was often reserved for older, fairly random recordings by established artists, though in this case the tracks weren't all that old, just from a couple of 1968 sessions that Tillis did near the end of his tenure on Kapp Records. The principle was the same, though: release some old stuff to capitalize on the popularity of an artist with a big hit, and in '72, Tillis was riding high on the charts. These tracks are less than electrifying, though, a mish-mosh of folk-countrypolitan and fairly bland covers of old hits like Harlan Howard's "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down." It's not quite accurate to say that Tillis was a singer who hadn't yet found his sound -- he had, but he just wasn't able to hold his own against Nashville producers who were forcing him into styles that didn't really suit him. An interesting footnote to his career, but don't set your hopes too high.




Discography - Albums

Mel Tillis "Heart Over Mind And Other Big Country Hits" (Columbia, 1962) (LP)


Mel Tillis "The Great Mel Tillis Sings Walk On, Boy And Other Great Hits" (Columbia-Harmony, 1966) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Stateside" (Kapp, 1966) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Life Turned Her That Way" (Kapp, 1967) *
(Produced by Paul Cohen & Jim Malloy)

A nice one! Tillis sings in a velvety, robust style, still channelling a pure country honkytonk sound, despite a few goofy arrangements... This album is notable for early versions of two of his best-known songs, "Unmitigated Gall" and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town," which would become a huge hit for Kenny (Sauron) Rogers just two years later. I gotta say, I really like Mel's version: with his unusual vocals, he conveys the song's pathos in a rather striking way... In the lyrics, Tillis talks about an "Asian war," in which the narrator was paralyzed -- although the song isn't specific, people figured he was talking about Vietnam, making it a timely and prescient song. The Vietnam war is more explicitly mentioned in Bobby Cisco's "The Old Gang's Gone," and though neither song is an anti-war commentary, they also aren't patriotic anthems, either, making them a bit unusual for country music at the time. Anyway, this isn't a big political album or anything -- mostly it's just good old country music, with pleasant echoes of the loping, twangy shuffles that put Tillis on the map in the 'Fifties. There are a few nods to the folk scene sound, as well as a couple of tracks with manic Dixieland banjo, but these pop and crossover touches don't overwhelm Tillis, and he still sounds pretty cool, from a twangfan's perspective. The title track was one of his bigger hits for the decade, pegging out at #11 on the charts.


Mel Tillis "Mr. Mel" (Kapp, 1967) (LP) *
(Produced by Paul Cohen)


Mel Tillis & Bob Wills "The King Of Western Swing" (Kapp, 1967) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Let Me Talk To You" (Kapp, 1968) (LP) *
(Produced by Paul Cohen)

Like a lot of Kapp's late '60s country albums, this has a neither-fish-nor-foul feel to it... Unwilling to cut loose on some hard-country honkytonk and unable to recreate the full-on Nashville Sound of bigger labels such as Columbia and RCA, the Kapp producers seemed to not quite know how to frame Tillis' strengths. There are a couple of reasonably robust numbers with a Texas shuffle beat, though these are muffled by indifferent production; likewise, he sings a few promising weepers, but doesn't quite tap into the real pathos of the best country ballads. The album includes a cover of Merle Haggard's "Branded Man" and Tillis' own "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me, as well as a lukewarm version of "All Right (I'll Sign The Papers)." It's all okay, though a bit underwhelming.


Mel Tillis "Something Special" (Kapp, 1968) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Who's Julie?" (Kapp, 1969) (LP)


Mel Tillis "...Sings Old Faithful" (Kapp, 1969) (LP)


Mel Tillis "She'll Be Hanging Round Somewhere" (Kapp, 1970)


Mel Tillis "One More Time" (MGM, 1970) (LP)


Mel Tillis "The Arms Of A Fool/Commercial Affection" (MGM, 1971) (LP)


Mel Tillis & Sherry Bryce "Living And Learning/Take My Hand" (MGM, 1971) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Recorded Live At The Sam Houston Coliseum, Houston, Texas" (MGM, 1971) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Would You Want The World to End" (MGM, 1972) (LP)


Mel Tillis "I Ain't Never" (MGM, 1972) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Sawmill" (MGM, 1973) (LP)


Mel Tillis "...On Stage At The Birmingham Municipal Auditorium" (MGM, 1973) (LP)


Mel Tillis & Sherry Bryce "Let's Go All The Way Tonight" (MGM, 1974) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Stomp Them Grapes" (MGM, 1974) (LP)


Mel Tillis "The Best Way I Know How" (MGM, 1975) (LP)


Mel Tillis "M-M-Mel" (MGM, 1975) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Welcome To Mel Tillis Country" (MGM, 1976) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Love Revival" (MCA, 1976) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Heart Healer" (MCA, 1977) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Love's Troubled Waters" (MCA, 1977) (LP)


Mel Tillis "I Believe In You" (MCA, 1978) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Are You Sincere?" (MCA, 1979) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Mr. Entertainer" (MCA, 1979) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Me And Pepper" (Elektra, 1979)


Mel Tillis "M-M-Mel Live" (MCA, 1980) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Your Body Is An Outlaw" (Elektra, 1980) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Southern Rain" (Elektra, 1980)
(Produced by Jimmy Bowen)

Chartwise, a strong showing for Tillis: the title track hit #1, another tune cracked the Top Ten, although neither does much for me... Mostly this disc is pretty syrupy, though there are a couple of nice honky-tonkish barroom tunes that are nice: "Pyramid Of Cans" is the best thing on here; "Forgive Me For Giving You The Blues" is a distant runner-up... As far as the ballads go, "Time Has Treated You Well" is pretty nice, a song about a middle-aged romeo returning to an old ex... Nothing earthshaking, but ol' Mel was hanging in there...


Mel Tillis & Nancy Sinatra "Mel & Nancy" (Elektra, 1981) (LP)
Um, yes... it's that Nancy Sinatra, singing duets with lanky honkytonk veteran Mel Tillis... And it's a pretty scary record, even though there were a couple of minor hits on it. She's, well, passable when they keep the material uptempo, in a sort of sub-Loretta Lynn way, but the slower songs are pretty painful. The same is true with Mel, but less so -- he's good, but given to cheesy excess. Plus the upbeat/novelty numbers aren't really strong enough to make up for the schmaltz... The football-themed "Play Me Or Trade Me" is a nice idea, but kind of a clunker, and the ballads are sheer torture. This one you can skip.


Mel Tillis "It's A Long Way To Daytona" (Elektra, 1982) (LP)


Mel Tillis "After All This Time" (MCA, 1983) (LP)
(Produced by Harold Shedd)

Tillis was still riding high and popping up in the charts when he re-signed to MCA, starting out with this bland but confident pop-country outing. The soundscape is pure, glossy, early-'80s Nashville, with a production style and musicians that sound almost identical to Don Williams's hits of a year or two earlier... It sounds nice, really, if you're into the music of that era, although only a couple of tracks are truly distinctive. Buddy Cannon's "She Meant Forever When She Said Goodbye" is a darn good weeper, with a mournful feel and a sinuous chorus that sounds a lot different than the buoyant but neutral wall-o-pop on the rest of the album. The album's closer, "Mason Dixon Lines," is kind of funny, in a way, with Tillis doing a fairly good Waylon Jennings imitation, and Waylon himself singing harmony; "In The Middle Of The Night" topped out at #10 on the charts, one of his last singles to chart that high. All in all, a fine record for the time.


Mel Tillis "New Patches" (MCA, 1984) (LP)
The title track, "New Patches," was Tillis' last single to crack into the Top Ten.


Mel Tillis "California Road" (RCA, 1985) (LP)


Mel Tillis "Beyond The Sunset" (Tillis Tunes, 1993)
A self-released gospel album...


Mel Tillis/Bobby Bare/Waylon Jennings/Jerry Reed "Old Dogs" (Atlantic, 1998)
A Highwaymen-esque summit meeting of Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, and Mel himself... Kind of a rowdy party record, or the best that these old coots could do in the direction... Worth checking out if you're a fan.


Mel Tillis "Branson City Limits" (Unison Records, 1999)


Mel Tillis "Wings Of My Victory" (Radio Records, 2001)


Mel Tillis "The Father's Son" (Radio Records, 2005)


Mel Tillis "You Ain't Gonna Believe This..." (Universal/Show Dog, 2010)
Good ol' Mr. Tillis is back with his first album in over a decade... and instead of the loping rhythms that brought him fame, this time it's a country comedy album, a mix of Andy Griffith-style spoken-word stuff and Roger Miller-esque musical numbers. Nice to hear the old guy kicking around again, although I wouldn't mind a new honkytonk record as well... He's sounding kind of frail here, but I bet he could still tear his way through some good, old-fashioned country songs!




Tributes

Pam Tillis "It's All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis" (Sony/Lucky Dog, 2002)
(Produced by Pam Tillis)

A heartfelt tribute to her dad... Some songs work, others don't, some take radically different approaches to familiar old hits. Her slow, doleful acoustic version of Mel's "Heart Over Mind" is a head-spinning departure from the original '50s hit (a famously loping, muscular shuffle tune), or her torchy take on "Emotions," which was pretty syrupy in the original, but is an outright dinner jazz ballad here. On some of the more country-sounding tracks, Pam hits the mark, although on others, such as "Unmitigated Gall," she doesn't quite muster the sheer uninhibited goofiness needed to replicate that old-fashioned hillbilly vibe that her papa mastered so well. This is actually more of an "Americana" album than a commercial country record; several tracks have a nice acoustic warmth to them, and guest stars include roots music stalwarts such as Dolly Parton, Rhonda Vincent, roadhouse warrior Delbert McClinton, and Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson, who also helped co-produce several of these songs. The most commercial-sounding track is the album's opener, "Burning Memories," which, I gotta say, sounds pretty darn good. It's also a nice testament to Mel's hitmaking power: songs like "So Wrong," "I Ain't Never," "Violet And A Rose" and "Detroit City" were just the tip of the iceberg as far as his songsmithing went (darn: no "Stomp Them Grapes"!) and many are tunes you may be surprised he wrote, way back when... Nice record; worth checking out.




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