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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Mel Tillis--An appreciation

Mel Tillis's "I Ain't Never"

Besides his own hits like his 1972 country chart-topper “I Ain’t Never,” Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis, who died yesterday at 85, wrote such historic hits as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” and Charley Pride’s first single “The Snakes Crawl At Night.”

“Mel was a true country legend—a singer, a songwriter and entertainer,” said country star Gene Watson, who covered Tillis’s 1977 Top 10 hit “Burning Memories,” in a statement.

“Like Ray Price, Mel was a forerunner in bringing a big band to country, with three fiddles,” Watson continued. “As big as he was, he made time to come visit when I was in the studio. When I was in Branson, he would often drop by. He was just a genuine nice guy and we will all miss him dearly.”

Also in a statement, Naomi Judd referenced Tillis’s trademark stutter.

“He admirably turned his stuttering into an asset and educated everyone on how to overcome stereotypes,” said Judd.

Hailing Tillis as “the consummate entertainer,” music historian John Alexander noted that “despite having a speech impediment, he possessed one of the finest voices in country music and amazingly never stuttered when he sang.”

Tillis was also a gifted comedian, actor and “most importantly songwriter,” added Alexander.

“Besides writing the country classic ‘Detroit City’ for Bobby Bare and ‘Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town’ for Kenny Rogers, he charted 77 of his own singles between 1958 and 1989,” said Alexander. “He co-wrote his first No. 1 hit ‘I Ain’t Never’ with country legend Webb Pierce and wrote the Top 12 country standard ‘Mental Revenge’ for Waylon Jennings in 1967 before reaching No. 15 with the same song nearly 10 years later in 1976. And he wrote many of his own hits including ‘Sawmill’ and ‘Commercial Affection.’ And as an interpreter of other writers’ material he made it to No. 11 with Harlan Howard’s haunting ‘Life Turned Her That Way’ 20 years before Ricky Van Shelton took it to No. 1, and his own No. 1 charting version of Roger Murrah’s ‘Southern Rains’ ranks among his finest recordings.”

“Mel could do it all--make us laugh, make us cry and make us believe every word he wrote or sang,” concluded Alexander.

Via Twitter, Nancy Sinatra, who recorded the 1981 duet album Mel and Nancy with Tillis, said: “I treasure the times we spent together and I’ll always remember your smile and your kindness as we crafted our album in Nevada and Tennessee. You leave a legacy of service and caring. I will always love you. N-N-Nancy.”

Tanya Tucker, in a statement, was heartbroken.

“I have so many wonderful memories with him,” she said. “I’ll never forget working with him on Love Boat with Dottie West. We just go way back--from the time I was eight-years-old when he brought me on stage with him. When I got older, sometimes I had to use other bands because I didn’t have a band. Mel always let me use his band and I’ll never forget that.”

“Kindest man I've ever known,” said Billy Ray Cyrus, also in a statement.



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