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Music Journalist

Mel Tillis — Beyond The Strawberry Patch
by Larry Wayne Clark

This interview originally appeared in the newsletter of the International Songwriters Association.
2002, all rights reserved

He’s quite possibly the most endearing stutterer since Porky Pig.
Mel Tillis

Think of Mel Tillis and you see a lanky man with an easy cracker-barrel smile, struggling valiantly toward the punchline on some joke that probably makes him the butt, appearing on
The Tonight Show or in some Burt Reynolds movie full of fast cars and bimbos. Of course, there’s more to him than that, a lot more.

Lonnie Melvin Tillis has, over the course of his 47-year career, amassed several fortunes as a singer, songwriter, publisher, actor, even a breeder of exotic limousin bulls. He may play the speech-challenged rube to bumbling perfection, but behind all that Tillis is as sharp as the proverbial tack, an entrepreneur who’s also a greatly underrated artist. He can deliver a poignant ballad or sawdust-raisin’ honky-tonker in a commanding baritone (entirely stutter-free, of course) that may startle those who were laughing a moment before. Then there’s the songs: “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” a Vietnam-era portrait of cuckoldry and pent-up rage that may just be the darkest composition ever to reach the top of the charts — both country and pop, recorded by Johnny Darrell in 1967, then by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition two years later. Before that there was Bobby Bare’s chart-topping country/pop smash with “Detroit City” in 1963 ( co-written with Danny Dill), another bleak slice of life blended with an irresistible chorus and a killer guitar hook. In the ’50s rhinestone-studded star Webb Pierce had multiple hits with Tillis material, including “Tupelo County Jail” and “I Ain’t Never.” Ray Price scored with “Heart Over Mind,” Carl Smith with “Ten Thousand Drums” and Charlie Pride with “Snakes Crawl At Night.” Waylon Jennings put his trademark country-rock thump on “Mental Revenge,” Patsy Cline lent her timeless stamp to “Strange” and “So Wrong,” and in 1984 a progressive bluegrasser named Ricky Skaggs went #1 with “Honey (Don’t Open That Door),” which had been modestly successful for Pierce in ’62.

Then there’s Tillis’s own formidable catalog of recorded hits, including “These Lonely Hands Of Mine,” “Southern Rains,” “Good Woman Blues,” Heart Healer” and “Coca Cola Cowboy.” He has appeared in 13 films, including W.W. And The Dixie Dance Kings, Smokey And The Bandit II, Cannonball Run (I and II) and Every Which Way But Loose.

Born in Tampa, Florida in 1932 (and raised in nearby Pahokee), Tillis began stuttering at three. The origins of the affliction are unknown and various legends abound. Some blame a bout with malaria. Tillis has said genetics are the culprit (his father stuttered), and has elsewhere declared that a stuttering childhood pal named LeRoy English exerted a bad influence (but that sounds like another talk show punchline, like the one about stuffing his mouth with pebbles — a stutterer’s “cure” ascribed to Greek orator Demosthenes — and winding up with kidney stones).

Whatever its cause, the stutter would define Tillis’s existence in many ways. Known as something of a comedian to his audiences today, he recalls being the class clown in school (for one thing, he discovered that when he was “on” he stuttered less, the classic stutterer’s retreat into artificial personae). One of his teachers also discovered Tillis’s early talent for singing. But not all Tillis’s early recollections are lemons-to-lemonade sunny. He recalls losing an early job on the railroad because he was too slow to call out the colors of signal lights to the engineer, and claims that his desire to become an Air Force pilot (he joined in ’51) was thwarted because “the Air Force doesn’t need any stuttering pilots.” Tillis served out his stint as a baker (his father’s occupation) while also forming a band called The Westerners. He took a few courses (and speech therapy) at the University of Tampa in ’55, then tried his hand at menial jobs such as driving truck and working as a picker in a strawberry patch.

When a Tillis composition, “I’m Tired,” became a hit for Webb Pierce the following year, he knew it was time to “get the hell out of the strawberry patch” and begin honing a serious music career. He moved to Nashville where he landed a $50 a week staff writing job and began cranking out songs for other people, finally launching his own recording career in ’58 when Columbia signed him. “The Violet And The Rose,” Tillis’s first single, climbed to #24. He would later record for Kapp, Elektra, MCA, RCA and Mercury. In 1976 Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall Of Fame, and also received the CMA Entertainer Of The Year award. There have been many other music-related awards along the way, but Tillis is no less proud of being named the 1998 national spokeman for the Stuttering Foundation of America, which represents the estimated 3,000,000 Americans struggling with the treatable but incurable affliction.

Ever the shrewd businessman, Tillis saw the writing on the wall when “You’ll Come Back (You Always Do),” his last radio release, stalled in the Top 40 in 1988. Music Row’s pioneer of the ’50s became one of the trailblazers who helped make Branson, Missouri a prime tourist destination of the ’90s, opening a theater that earned him millions from an audience that felt largely alienated by what was being called “new country.” Branson has been good to Tillis, though the 70-year-old entertainer proclaims this will be his last year there.

Tillis’s legacy is not only his music. His singer-songwriter daughter Pam (one of six Tillis children, none of whom stutters) has proven herself a solid hitmaker with songs like “Maybe It Was Memphis,” “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” and “All The Good Ones Are Gone.” With the October, 2002 release of her concept CD It’s All Relative – Tillis sings Tillis, audiences can enjoy the Tillis repertoire freshly rendered. The 13-song tribute, produced by Pam Tillis herself, includes “Burning Memories,” “So Wrong,” “Violet And A Rose,” “Detroit City” and “Goodbye Wheeling,” some faithfully reproduced, some stylistically updated, all representative of a diverse and intense creative talent. Says Pam in her insert notes entitled Why I Had To Do This Project: “Because I remember a tall, skinny man walking around our house or driving our car, humming these songs under his breath or blasting these on an old reel-to-reel in the middle of the night, hot off the presses, waking up the whole house. Because I want to help people either remember, or perhaps discover for the first time, this south Florida poet.”

Mel Tillis spoke to me by phone from his Branson office on a November afternoon. I found him to be warm, funny, and down to earth. And yes, he stutters, but not badly.

I understand this is your last year as a full-time Branson star?
Yeah. I’ve been here 13 years and it was time to move on. I was fortunate enough that a buyer came to me about it. Hobby Lobby. They are arts and crafts stores throughout the mid-west, based in Oklahoma City.

So it’s not going to be a theater anymore?
No. And they turned around and leased it to The Assembly Of God Churches — their headquarters are in Springfield, Missouri. They leased it to them for the first year. Then, after the first year, they will donate it to the church. So when I leave here at the first of the year it’ll become...well, it’s already open on Sundays as a church. But it’ll be a full-time church. I like to tell people that I left my theater in the hands of the Lord, and it don’t get no better’n that! [laughs]

But it’s time. I’ve been doing two shows a day for 13 years, sometimes six days a week, and I’m gonna kinda slow down a little bit. I’m not retiring. I’ll do about 13 shows in Branson next year, and I’ll be performing at the Grand Palace.

Cathy [Tillis’s personal assistant] tells me you’re not the retiring type.
No. No, I love what I do.

I’m told you’ve also taken up painting.
Yeah, I’ve been doing it for three years now. I got a few lessons and I got into it pretty heavy. I really enjoy it. I found out it’s something that I have a talent for. I have a painting up in Washington, D.C. at the House of the Temple for the Scottish Rite, and those prints are selling for $250. It’s called “Masonic America” and we’ve sold about $50,000 worth of prints, and that money goes to the Scottish Rite Foundation for their speech and hearing clinics. But the original painting is at the House of the Temple in Washington, D.C.

Painting is a fairly common hobby, and sometimes a pretty serious hobby, for people in the music business. Tony Bennett has been a painter for many years.
Oh, yeah. Great artist.

And Donna Summer is a very good painter.
Oh, I didn’t know about her. Tony — the other guy named Tony — Curtis is a good painter. And Anthony Quinn was a great painter.

So will you be going back on the road a little bit more now, not having your own theater?
I’m gonna do between 75 and 100 dates. A lot of it will be in Laughlin, Nevada; I’ll be there for two weeks. And I’ll work some casinos here and there, and the fair dates.

I noticed, reading your song-by-song notes that came with Pam’s It’s All Relative CD — by the way, I really enjoyed that…
Oh, thank you. I’m proud of that.

I’m sure you are. But it strikes me, reading what you wrote about these songs and their origins, that a lot of your songs seem to have to do with being on the road. You talk about writing in a car and in hotel rooms, collaborating with various road companions. Is that gypsy element a vital part of your makeup as an artist, and do you miss it? That’s a lot of questions in one!
Yeah! I don’t know where to start. You know, being an entertainer is partly being on the road, and a lot of your songs come from the road. You go someplace like Detroit City...well, I explained that in the CD’s booklet.

Yeah, you said if it weren’t for Owen Bradley’s advice “Detroit City” would be called “Tupelo County” and it would be about a homesick prisoner!
Yeah, he told me, “Get his ass outta jail!” [laughs]. So I sent him to Detroit.

That was pretty good advice. You got a great song out of it.
Yeah. But a lot of your songs do come when you’re out there mile after mile after mile and you’re sitting on the bus. Or in the early days we didn’t have the bus, we had a station wagon. I traveled with Roger Miller a lot in those days. We worked for Minnie Pearl way back in the mid-’50s, and we traveled together. We’d drive a thousand miles and get out looking like a bunch of question marks, when we got out of the car! Boy-oh-boy. [laughs]

That’s an interesting image! So are you still writing songs?
I’ve got a sock drawer full of songs that I’ve started but, you know, I’m doing two shows a day here and it’s just hard to sit down and finish them. You have to insulate yourself — I’m talking about from everything, people can be talking to you and you won’t hear ’em — that’s how you write a song. And I haven’t been able to do that over here ’cause I’m so busy and then, when I am off, I want to get away from music.

But I’ve got a lot of ideas, I bought me a ranch in Florida and I still have my farm in Ashland City, Tennessee so I’m gonna spend a little time at each one of those places and you’ll probably hear some more songs out of me.

I hope so. Have you ever been the classic 9-to-5 Brill Building cubicle songwriter? There’s a lot of people on Music Row writing that way.
No. No, my son’s a songwriter and he does that. He has appointments with other writers and they get together and sit down and “boiler room” it, I call it. No, I never could do that. Harlan Howard could do that. He’d have a certain time to do that and he’d do it. But I’ve never been able to do that.

You know, looking back at the Nashville that you were a part of — talking to people like Bobby Braddock and Hank Cochran and Merle Kilgore — you guys make it sound like it was a lot of fun in the late ’50s, early ’60s, maybe even into the ’70s. Everybody had a nickname, everybody was meeting for a beer, or going hunting together...
It was definitely like that when I came to Nashville in ’56. The music business, it was only two li’l ol’ studios. Owen Bradley had the Quonset Hut on 16th Avenue there. RCA was over on Demonbreun, over where Crook & Chase had their TV show. And then later they built the RCA studio over on 17th. And that was it. And they had about three publishing companies that was of any note at all. Acuff-Rose was the biggest, and I guess the next one would have been Cedarwood, the company that I signed with. And Buddy Killen and Tree...I think when I first arrived, Tree only had about three or four songs.

The Opry was the main place, and we’d hang out at Tootsie’s — well, at that time it was called Mom’s. Then later on Tootsie bought it out.

Is it true she’d walk around with a big hatpin sticking people if they misbehaved?
Oh, yes. She stuck me many times with it! We’d hang out there. And the old Clarkson Hotel, over on 7th and Union. They had the National Life and Accident Insurance building there and next door was the Clarkson Hotel, and they had a coffee shop. And we’d hang out in there a lot because we did a lot of the Friday night Oprys, and they did a lot of the morning radio shows there like Flatt & Scruggs. It was a hangout there.

But it was a fraternity, everybody knew each other. It’s so different now. But you know, times change.

Do you have any idea back then that this industry would become what it has? Even in the slump that we’re in now country music is still a billion dollar industry.
Oh yeah. Well, you know, back then there wasn’t many albums, it was the singles. You sold singles. And then later on, if you sold 25 thousand albums at $40,000 you had a hit. But in those days — in the mid-’50s, early ’60s — there was less than 300 radio stations that were playing country music and a lot of that wasn’t full time. WSM [Nashville] only had country music early in the morning, and they came on at 10 o’clock at night with The Eddy Hill Show, and that was just about it for country music. And now they’ve got, what, over 3,000 stations that are playing it. So [it would have been] hard to imagine that, but it’s happened. A there’s a lot of folks, like Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, and Hank Locklin — those guys, they led the way. Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline.

All the ones that you hung out with!
Yeah. I’m so proud of that. I got to know most of them. I didn’t get to meet Hank Williams. I was in the Air Force on Okinawa when he passed away. But I knew Hank Jr., I saw him grow up, you know. And I knew Audrey. I remember li’l ol’ Hank Jr. — he was just a baby back in them days, you know — but he used to hang around. His mama would bring him around. He was just a natural.

Getting to know Patsy Cline and having her record your songs must have been quite an experience. She’s become such an icon.
Yeah, and it’s a shame that she didn’t get to be around for all the accolades, and all that. I was in Nashville before Patsy, and she came in and she went with us on a tour right away. And I drove the car for her and Brenda Lee and Brenda Lee’s mama. And I got to know Patsy real well.

That’s a helluva lot of talent on four wheels right there!
I know it, and they like to have drove me crazy! And I had to take care of a little dog too named Suzy. It was the promoter’s wife’s — Judy Lynn’s — it was her dog. And one of my duties going on the tour was to take care of it. You know, I had to stop every few miles and let that dog potty. But Patsy, she was a great, great girl. And Brenda Lee is a wonderful person, and her mama Grace. I’ve known those folks for years and years and years.

And for them to record my songs... I had two songs recorded by Patsy. One of them was “So Wrong.” I wrote that with Carl Perkins. As a matter of fact, it was his idea. He had it all started but he couldn’t finish it, and he said, “Patsy likes the idea.” So me and Danny Dill, we ran downstairs at Cedarwood and we [finished] it in about 15 minutes. Took it over to Owen and Patsy recorded it. And then another one called “Strange.” I wrote that for the Everly Brothers.

I could hear them doing it.
Yeah. And I didn’t get to the session in time, so I went across the street and I gave it to Patsy, and she liked it.

Were you in the studio sometimes when she was cutting?
Oh, yes. And man, could she sing! She was just amazing. You know, her record [“I Fall To Pieces”] was just beginning to hit, and she had that terrible accident — it almost cut the top of her head off. And that set her back. She was in and out of the hospital with that, and then she had the big accident, you know, that took her life. She never did get to enjoy the monetary [benefits] that come with hit records, the enjoyment that you could spend some money on your kids or your family and stuff. She didn’t get to enjoy that.

It was a career that was really just hitting its stride. She could have gone on for many decades, as Brenda Lee has, and become an international star. It was a tragedy and yet, in that curious James Dean-syndrome sort of way, I guess it sort of adds to the legend if you die in your prime. But it’s very sad for the people you leave behind.
Same with Jim Reeves.

You know, I don’t know a whole lot about your background, musical influences and so forth. I know you’re from Florida, your dad was a baker, I know you have siblings. Was your family musical? Was there a piano in the parlor? Where did it all come from?
You know, it comes from my mother’s side of the family. She had seven sisters and one brother, and all of them could play instruments. I suppose I picked it up from that. And my daddy could play a harmonica and also the guitar, so I guess I got a little bit from both of ’em, but I think mostly from my mother’s side of the family.

And you know, we’d go to church. We were Baptists. And every now and then there’d be a tent would set up, and it was the Holiness folks. And we liked their music. We could hear the music from our house, so Mama would take us up there and I loved the guitars and banjos and fiddles that they had. I was just a little fella when I first got to see the guitars and stuff and I thought that was the grandest thing!

And then, when I started to school, I found out I couldn’t talk [laughs]. But the teacher would let me sing, you know. She’d take me around to different classes and let me sing. And I could sing without stuttering.

I think it’s innate, you know. That I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

You discovered a way to get some pretty positive attention.
I could get attention. I could sing, I could make ’em laugh, and all the way through school I was really, really socially accepted: “Oh, let’s get Mel, he’ll play the guitar for us, he’ll sing for us.”

Who were you listening to? Who were your idols?
I loved Red Foley. And — I know this is gonna sound funny to you but in those days there wasn’t a whole lot of country music down in Florida — and I’d go to the movies and see Frank Sinatra. And boy, I really, really loved his style.

Nothing funny about that. I’m a big Sinatra fan.
Yeah. And I got to meet him and we became big buddies.

You did?
Yeah. I did an album with his daughter Nancy [1981’s Mel & Nancy, Elektra]. The way I met him, Frank was at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, and he wanted three days off. And he told ’em to get me to come in and replace him for them three days, and I did. I got to meet him then and, man, we just hit it off because I couldn’t believe it. He was my idol. I won a talent contest one time down in Pahokee at the old Prince Theater. I did some imitations and one of them was Frank Sinatra. I did a song called “We Kept Right On Dancing” [actually “The Music Stopped,” released on Columbia in 1943].

Anyway, he sent me the sheet music to that with his picture on it and everything. And then, he was the one who put together the entertainment for the Ronald Reagan gala, and I was one of the first ones he called to be on the show. Me and my band.

And then, on his 65th birthday, Nancy and Frank’s wife — what’s her name?…

Barbara. Barbara Marx. Anyway, they asked me to come in there as a surprise at his birthday party. And they had a tent — a big, big ol’ tent — and they had it fixed up like a Western bar, you know, and we were the surprise band, me and my band. And there was everybody there that you’d never met but you knew ’em. All kinds of movie stars — Gregory Peck — you name ’em, they were there. And then after it shut down that night — oh, it was a helluva party! ¯I guess around one o’clock, Frank asked me to come to his house. His house was right there. And Milton Berle and Vic Damone and — Lord awmighty — you know, several of us, and we played pool till daylight.

So I got to be a pretty good friend of his, and he called on me from time to time. Barbara did too for her golf charities and all that she does. And she still does that.

Anyway, that was one of [the influences]. Also, I liked Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams.

That’s quite a stew when you think of it.
Yeah. The four of ’em: Red Foley, Frank Sinatra, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams.

Some of the best people you could have looked up to.
Well, they were all so different, and trendsetters. They didn’t copy anybody.

And I got to know Red Foley well. And I got to know Lefty really well, he was a great guy.

You also got to know Minnie Pearl really well.
Oh yeah. She was a lady.

You credit her with helping bring you out of your shell.
Yeah, she made me talk.

You were playing rhythm guitar for her at that time?
Yes. Roger Miller was on fiddle. [chuckles]

How long did that gig last?
About four months. She needed us for her fair dates.

So you were playing rhythm guitar for her but you were also singing your own songs?
Yes, she let me sing. I’d do two songs, and I wrote ’em both. One of ’em was “I’m Tired” — Roger Miller did the harmony on it — and another song I wrote called “Honky Tonk Song.” I did ’em both.

But you would perform without speaking?
No sir! I let Roger do my talking. [laughs]

So what did Minnie say to you?
Oh, she’d get me off to one side and say, “Melvin, you’re gonna at least have to announce your songs, and then thank the folks.” And I was so bashful and scared. And she said, “If they laugh they’ll be laughing with you, not against you.”

And I began to tell little anecdotes that had happened to me, and people would laugh. And I began to like that, you know. But I knew that, ’cause I’d do that in school, but I wouldn’t do it out there in front of all them people.

If your speech was prepared did you have less trouble with it?
Well, no, you can prepare it all you want, but I’d still stutter. But now I’ve been in the arena for 47 years and I stutter less today than I did in those days. When I’m on stage now there’s hardly any stutter at all because I know — like you said, prepared — I know what I’m gonna do.

But if you put a script up in front of me to read, or a cue card, I couldn’t do it without stuttering.

Another one of your mentors seems to have been Jimmy Dean.
Yeah. Jimmy was another one that encouraged me to talk on stage, and he was the first one to introduce me to national television. He did The Mike Douglas Show [as a guest host] and they asked him who would he like to have on there. And he said, “Mel Tillis,” and they said, “No, we don’t have stutterers.” And he said, “Trust me.” And they got me up there and I was on that show. Then I must have done Mike Douglas 30 times.

And The Tonight Show. You did them all.
I did that about 26 times, I think. And Merv Griffin’s show, and Dinah Shore. I did all those shows. And I did about 13 movies; I had bit parts in ’em. I think that is one of the reasons for my longevity in the business. And the fact that I carry a great band, always have. I got 10 band members and four singers — I got the Stutterettes — and two guy singers. We got a great show, and when I go on the road I take ’em with me. And I think people know that — they know when I show up with my band it’s gonna be a show.

You know, seeing that you call your backup singers The Stutterettes and you have a plane you call Stutter One, and you sometimes refer to yourself in anecdotes as “Stutterin’ Boy” ¯
¯ Well, I got that name from Webb Pierce.

And he was “Wanderin’ Boy,” right?
Oh, yeah. “The Wanderin’ Boy [chuckles].”

But do you ever get flak from the “politically correct police” about drawing attention to, and kind of making fun of, your own affliction?
No. No, I never have. You know, I used to have [“Stutterin’ Boy”] on my bus. I took it offa there. Because everybody’d say, “Well, here comes Tillis!”

But I was the spokesperson for the Stuttering Foundation. I get a lot of mail from people who admire what I’ve been able to do. I get a lot of letters from mothers whose children stutter, and what advice can I give, and that. But I’ve never been [criticized]. Not that I know of.

You know, I was quite frankly astonished, doing a little bit of research on you and on stuttering in general, there’s this incredible correlation between stutterers and superachievers. I’m sure you know the list better than me...you’ve got Moses, Aesop, Claudius, Cervantes...
Demosthenes. All of those. If it’s in the DNA, hell, I might be kin to Moses! [laughs] Ol’ Aaron had to do his talking for him.

...Isaac Newton, Thomas Becket, Churchill...
Marilyn Monroe. There’s a lot of them. The guy that does [imitates Darth Vader]. The black guy.

James Earl Jones. I had heard that before — he was a bad stutterer, apparently.
Bruce Willis.

That I didn’t know.

But many of these people — at least the modern ones like Bruce Willis and Marilyn — they aren’t commonly known to be stutterers. Did they actually overcome it or is it just because we’ve only heard them speaking behind scripts?
You know, it could be. A lot of times actors become another person. I knew a d.j. down in Louisiana, he couldn’t say a word until he flicked on that switch. Then he wouldn’t stutter at all! A lot of times you can get into a character and that character doesn’t stutter. Explain that to me. I don’t know [laughs].

That probably is some explanation. I mean, you turned to music because that was an expression for you relatively uninterrupted by stuttering, and also a way to be accepted. I wonder if that thread doesn’t run through all of these people’s lives. Compensation or whatever.
I think it gives you a tremendous amount of drive and resolve.

Well, that’s an impressive list, and something to be proud of. Obviously stutterers are having the last laugh at their tormentors.
[laughs] There’s a lot of those when you’re small. In school especially. But you know, music comes from one side of your brain and your speech from the other side.

You know, one song that I definitely wanted to talk about, and it’s not included on Pam’s tribute album, probably because there’s no way a woman could do it ¯
¯ I rewrote it for her! I rewrote that song you’re talking about.

I’m talking about “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”
Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I rewrote it for her [sings]:” You’ve lathered up your face and shaved and brushed your curly hair/Rudy are you contemplatin’ goin’ out somewhere.” [laughs]

But that starts to sound like Pinkard & Bowden [a parody].
Yeah [still amused].

That song has got to be as bleak a hit song as I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s uncompromising.
Yeah. Those songs are gifts.

How did that one come about?
I was driving home one day and Johnny Cash was singing [does a credible impersonation], “Don’t take your guns to town, son/Leave your guns at home, son.” And in an instant I thought of a couple that lived behind our house. They lived in a little two-room apartment and it was behind our house facing an alley. It was a guy from Pahokee, Florida and he married a girl from England, and he was wounded and came home. That’s where the story all started. I was singing: “Don’t take your guns to town, son...Ru-by, don’t take your love to town.” I’m talking about just that instant!

And by the time I got home out of the traffic I told my wife, “Sit down, I want you to hear something.” I sat down with the guitar on the couch and I played that to her and she said, “That’s the most morbid song I’ve ever heard.” I said, “Well, it’s a song.” And I demoed it and I went overseas. I went to England and Germany, and while I was gone there was a group called The Omegas — a local group who played down at the Briar Patch — they recorded it first. And then there was a kid named Johnny Darrell, he recorded it. It went up to #9 for him. And then a couple of years later the Kent State thing began to happen, you know, a lot of that protest, and Kenny Rogers, he sang it. It was the last song on the session — Jimmy Bowen recorded it with him — and he went to England and he sang it on Tom Jones’s show. And then some d.j. in Cleveland, Ohio picked it up and — boom! — it was a smash.

It was a great record.
Yes, it really was.

I can play that in my head today like the first time I heard it. But I remember people talking about that song before I ever heard it.
It’s a social song.

You’ve talked about you and Kristofferson going through a Bob Dylan phase.
Yessir. Boy, we had more fun. I loved Bob Dylan. I loved The Beatles. I really did like ol’ Dylan, and I still do.

For his lyric power?
Well, his lyrics and his melodies, and there’s so much truth. And his songs are very much social [commentary]. Like ol’ Eminem today. His songs talk about things that [are current].

I didn’t expect to be talking to Mel Tillis about Eminem!
Well, you can’t help it. You see him in the movies, in the papers and everything. I’m not a fan but, you know, music is music. You’ve got to tell all sides of it.

Well, you have to reflect your times.
Exactly. Exactly.

But I do wish some more of these guys would start going back to melody. Country is the only place where that’s left and that’s why I keep my ear to the ground in Nashville, because it’s really the only place where you can hear songs that have some kinship to what Frank Sinatra and those guys used to do.

Have you gotten to know Bob Dylan over the years?
No. No, I’ve never met him. I almost got to meet him the other day. I was up in Canada doing a show, and the promoter told me that my buddy Ronnie Hawkins was in the hospital in Toronto. Ronnie Hawkins is an old rockabilly. And I said, “Well, I’m gonna stop by and see him.” So I stopped by the hospital and went up to see him, and there sat Ringo Starr! I’d never met ol’ Ringo either. And Ronnie said, “Bob Dylan’s coming up in a little bit.”

So I hung around as long as I could. My bus was making circles around the block, you know. So I stayed about an hour and a half and he never did show up. Something had happened that he couldn’t make it, so I had to tell Ronnie and Ringo goodbye. But that’s as close as I’ve got to meeting him.

It’s a small world, this music business. I’m still digesting the image of you playing pool with Frank Sinatra!
Yeah. [laughs] That wouldn’t have happened if I was still a baker!

This interview originally appeared in the newsletter of the International Songwriters Association.
2002, all rights reserved