Enjoying Country radio literally began for me with Mel Tillis. When I was little, there’d been a babysitter who played WPIK Washington, D.C., instead of the R&B and Top 40 stations I liked, but I remember everything as sounding sad and slow. Then, at age 12, my dad, who usually had little interest in contemporary music, was turned on to WHN New York by a friend. And the first song I remember them playing was “Midnight, Me and the Blues.”
There wasn’t anything particular about that song to spark an 11-year-old’s interest in the format, although like Country in general, it was an intriguing portal into something different. But when I became a more regular Country listener two years later, the Tillis song on WHN was the more uptempo, rockin’ “Love Revival.” Two singles later, Tillis tweaked that format slightly and the result was “Heart Healer,” one of the hottest Country singles of the ‘70s, and one of my all-time favorites.
I got to tell Mel Tillis my WHN story in 2014 at Country Radio Seminar when he did a meet-and-greet at the MusicMaster suite. By then, Tillis was 30 years away from his last top 10 Country hit. The appearance was essentially a victory lap, but I remember a steady stream of other people who wanted to shake Tillis’ hand as well. The next year, MusicMaster had him perform at the legends show.
Tillis died Nov. 19 at age 85 and some of those first obits went where you’d expect — describing him as the songwriter of Kenny Rogers & the First Edition’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” who also had “a number of his own hits.” What Tillis had, actually, was more than 75 of his own Country chart singles between 1958-1989. As I look over the chart books now, I realize how many of those are still waiting for me to discover, but the ones that are already central to my Classic Country canon display a depth and versatility that rivals anybody in that era.
Here are just a handful of the Tillis artist singles and compositions that I’d direct your attention to today as I explore the rest of the catalog:
Webb Pierce, “No Love Have I” (1960) – As with “Love Revival” and “Heart Healer,” this was the similar-feeling follow-up to Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never,” but it actually further improved on another classic. It seems safe to say that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson knew this song when he recorded “Help Me Rhonda.” But there’s also a connection to Phil Spector’s girl-group hits as well (similar high harmonies, same pounding energy). Tillis’ career lasted long enough for him to remake “I Ain’t Never” in the ‘70s, but I first learned “No Love Have I” through a Gail Davies version.
Mel Tillis, “Wine” (1964) – Musically, another pile-driver, offset by the darkness of the lyrics. It’s a topic unto itself, but there are a lot of ‘60s songs that romanticize rootlessness (and, really, homelessness) in a way that we would not today. This is not one of them, and the bridge (starting around 1:30) is one of the most devastating moments on any record for being so straightforward.
Faron Young, “Unmitigated Gall” (1965) – The sort of quirkiness and lyrical dexterity that people associate with Tom T. Hall. But Hall’s own breakthrough was still several years away at this point.
Waylon Jennings, “Mental Revenge” (1967) – A similar combination of funny and audacious that Tillis would also remake himself nearly a decade later. Jennings was about 18 months into his own career at this point, and this is one of the off-kilter songs that helped Waylon Jennings become Waylon Jennings.
Mel Tillis, “Sawmill” (1973) – Another remake of a song recorded earlier in his career. A good place to get a handle on the rockin’ side of Tillis in the ‘70s and one of the songs that turboed him to undeniable top-tier stardom (although a four-year run of 15 consecutive top 10s would start a few years later when he moved from MGM to MCA).
Mel Tillis, “I Got The Hoss” (1977) – When I did get into Country as a teenager (unusual in the Northeast in that era), it was partially because so much of it was at least PG-13 rated, and at least some of it rocked. But the segue to the more sedate Urban Cowboy-era was coming.
Mel Tillis, “What Did I Promise Her Last Night” (1977) – And this was the next single. With Ronnie Milsap’s “It Was Almost Like a Song” crossing over from Country to pop, this was the first of two MORish ballads that were seemingly intended to follow a similar path. But neither this song or “I Believe in You” got any pop attention. This one didn’t do anything for me at age 15, (if anything, it was like the sonorous ballads of a decade earlier that put me off the genre at the time), but I could still admire the craftsmanship.
The ballads underscore Tillis’ versatility. Music business veteran Larry Butler, who made his own Ross On Radio appearance, recently shared the observation that only a handful of artists possessed both a “rock voice” and a “ballad voice.” But I liked the ballad voice more on the bluesy “Blind in Love,” which I recently rediscovered after more than 35 years. Then it was just another Tillis hit. Now it’s a reminder that he was effortlessly good on repeated occasions.
Consider also the “Hot Country” formula that has propelled the format over the last decade —undeniably Country lyrics and delivery confounded by rock underpinnings. Tillis was always undeniably Country at a time when that meant being off the critical radar for all but an occasional Jennings or George Jones or Merle Haggard. But he was also undeniably rockin’, and a song like “Sawmill” does it with a lot less calculation than the musical hybrids of the last decade.