To celebrate part-time Ocala resident Mel Tillis’ induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, WTRS-102.3FM recently hosted a roundtable Q&A session with the versatile singer/actor/comedian and some disc jockeys, area journalists, and a handful of friends. This exclusive Ocala Style peek into these freewheeling sessions reveals what went on in the booth when the station cut to commercial. Often, that was the best part.
Mel Tillis has certainly enjoyed a hall-of-fame career. It just took the powers-that-be in Nashville an extra couple of decades to figure that out.
In 1956, Webb Pierce recorded “I’m Tired,” a song written by a country music novice from Florida named Mel Tillis. More than 50 years—and 1,000 songs later—that kid is still going strong. Mel’s recorded more than 60 albums and charted 36 Top 10 singles, landing nine all the way to number one. He’s appeared in many feature films including Every Which Way But Loose with Clint Eastwood, Smokey and the Bandit II with Burt Reynolds, and the Cannonball Run movies with an all-star cast.
Along the way, Mel’s detoured into the role of product pitchman for such clients as Badcock Furniture and Whataburger. He also spends much of his time in the Ocala area, gardening, cooking, fishing, painting, and watching his beloved Florida Gators.
On this particular morning, Mel was in good spirits, wearing cowboy boots, comfortable Wranglers, and a faded UF shirt that looked like it had seen many afternoons in The Swamp. He was relaxed, affable, and ready to swap tales with anyone who’d listen. Here are the best parts from that memorable morning with Mel.
‘Give ‘Em Somethin’ To Laugh About’
Bo (WTRS DJ): Mel, great to have you here.
Mel: Oh, ain’t ya’ll something. I was listening to you on the way in.
Dave (WTRS DJ): Sorry about that… [laughter] Thank you for picking us to celebrate this with—going into the Hall of Fame.
Mel: You’re awfully kind. It took me a long time—52 years.
Anthony Violanti (Star Banner reporter): Why do you think they gave you this honor, Mel? Your music, your acting, or just something else?
Mel: I dunno. I’ve done just about everything in the business—publishing, recording, movies, TV—but it means a lot to me. When I first went to Nashville, I couldn’t talk at all.
Dave: Weren’t you the comedian of the year for, like, four or five years running?
Mel: Six years in a row. I always said, “If they’re gonna laugh at me, I’ll give ‘em somethin’ to laugh about.”
Minnie Pearl told me I needed to talk, that I needed to introduce my songs. Before that, I wouldn’t because I was real self-conscious about it [the stuttering]. She said that they’d laugh with me, not at me if I timed it. I said, “Miss Minnie, how do I time my stutter?” [laughter]
Anthony: But you made stuttering an asset.
Mel: Well, I didn’t have any choice. Over the years, I’ve looked on it as an old friend.
Dave: We have some folks in here from the Star Banner and Ocala Style and they were asking who should be in the Hall of Fame, but isn’t.
Mel: Oh, that’s easy—Slim Whitman, Hank Locklin, Ferlin Husky. Jimmy Dean’s another. I don’t know—I just got on the Grand Ole Opry this year. Eventually, they’ll get in.
Beth (WTRS DJ): You’re from Tampa, right?
Mel: Originally from Tampa, but I grew up in Pahokee, on the banks of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County. I attended the University of Florida and stayed there about three months before I joined the Air Force and became a baker. I tell folks I served my country—I served ‘em cakes and cookies and pies and donuts. [laughter]
Beth: Do you have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
Mel: No, I have one in Nashville, but it cost me $5,000. [laughter] Yeah, I had to buy my own star. My acting was only little cameo parts, so I don’t think I deserve to be out there in Hollywood.
‘A Powerful Song’
Dave: Out of the up-and-comin’s, who you do you like?
Mel: The new acts? I like Toby Keith—I’ve been to his concerts and it’s a whole lot different from mine. He comes out in a truck and cannons go off. I don’t set the stage on fire, but I still do a hundred dates a year.
Dave: You were just telling us about filming Every Which Way But Loose with Clint Eastwood. How was that?
Mel: It was great. Out of all the actors I’ve had the opportunity to work with, he’s the best. And I’ve worked with some great ones, like Jackie Gleason and Burt Reynolds. I really enjoyed Jackie.
The one that I liked the least was Kirk Douglas—he didn’t even want you to talk to him or make eye contact. I said, “Hell, I don’t wanna make eye contact with ya anyway.” He just wanted to be left alone.
Also, I did a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger called The Villain. It was a take-off on the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. He said, “You talk funny.” I said, “Hell, you do, too.” [laughter]
Dave: Do you have folders and boxes filled with songs?
Mel: I still find some in my sock drawer. [laughter] You know, they’re gifts because I’m not that smart. I think I wrote “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” in about 30 minutes. I was stuck in a traffic jam listening to Johnny Cash and, by the time I got home, I had it written.
Dave: What do you think about Nashville nowadays? Is harder to get in?
Mel: Oh, yes, much harder. When I went up, there were only two little recording studios, three publishing companies, and about eight or nine songwriters in town. Then I showed up with Roger Miller—on the same day. Today, there are 10,000 writers and musicians in Nashville, with studios everywhere.
Bo: Yeah, they’re playin’ for tips.
Beth: One of my favorite songs of yours is “Send Me Down To Tucson.”
Mel: I didn’t like that song in the beginning, but it’s a powerful song.
Beth: Have you been golfing with Vince Gill?
Mel: No, I don’t golf. Are you kidding? I can’t say f-f-fore. [laughter]
‘He’s Done A Lot’
Beth: We were talking about Elvis earlier and you said that you had a very brief encounter with him once.
Mel: Elvis had been in the Army and he got out and was coming to Nashville to record at RCA Victor studios and a buddy of mine said he knew Elvis. I said, “You think we can meet him?”
We parked across the street and up comes along a white limousine and Elvis gets out. He had on what looked like a sea captain’s hat and navy blue pants and white shoes. He looked like an officer. My friend started talking to him and then said, “I want you to meet my friend here, Mel Tillis.” And Elvis said, “Hello, Mel,” and that was it. [laughter]
I met his father later on. I was flying to L.A. to do the Johnny Carson show and his daddy was on the plane and I sat right next to him. He said, “Elvis really likes you. He sees you on TV and says that you’re so funny.”
I never did see Elvis after that. I was in Oregon when he passed away and I remember we were near Crescent Lake when it [the news] came on the radio.
Dean Blinkhorn (Ocala Style editor-in-chief): You have a place over in Steinhatchee now. Do you go over there to go fishing?
Mel: Yeah, I go over there a lot. I’m the spokesperson for Steinhatchee River Development Company—they’re gonna build some new condos and I’m gonna have one on the top floor.
Dean: Well, that’s a pretty good deal…
Mel: It’s a wonderful place to go. It’s one of the last of those type of fishing villages. It’s so pretty over there and the people are just so nice. I was fortunate enough to be a part of it.
I was there yesterday, scalloping and fishing. We caught eight gallons in our group. But I gotta get ol’ Alvarez out there [points to John in the studio].
John Alvarez (Tillis’ friend and community activist): I gotta first get you where you can catch redfish. I’ve out-fished you now.
Mel: Well, I caught three yesterday.
John: But I wasn’t there to see it—I don’t know if I’m gonna buy that or not. [lots of laughter]
Dave: John, can you say a little something about Mel? Tell us a little something about this man who’s become your friend.
John: Well, I’ve known Mel for some time. I knew him from Pahokee—my wife comes from Pahokee. Mel and I go to a lot of Gator games, we fish a little, and we hang out together. It’s just a pleasure and an honor to know a man like Mel. He’s done a lot for country music and for this community. He’s blessed my life.
‘An Instant Smash’
Beth: Mel, you’ve been signing copies of your cookbook all morning. Are these family recipes?
Mel: A lot of ‘em are. My dad had a little bakery in Pahokee.
There’s a lot of pictures in there, too, even one of a boat that Burl Ives left me when he passed away. It’s a beautiful little boat and I’ve got it out in the [Ocala National] Forest. I haven’t put it in the ocean since I moved to Florida from Branson, but I’ll get it in there before too long.
Look, here’s a picture of little Pam [Tillis, his daughter and also a well-known country musician] in her Easter outfit. She had that outfit on when we went to church that Sunday. We were on the front row. We had a new preacher, just out of the preachin’ school, and I guess he’d run out of things to say because asked Pam to get up in front of the congregation and sing a cappella.
She got up there and she sang “Tom Dooley.” [laughter] Me and her mama slid down in the seats, but she was well-received by the congregation. After she finished her song, the preacher congratulated her and said, “That’s a beautiful little dress that you got on.” She said, “Thank you, sir, but my momma says it’s a bitch to iron.” [lots of laughter]
Beth: Of the 600-plus songs that you’ve written for other people, what’s your favorite?
Mel: It would have to be “Ruby.” Maybe “Detroit City.”
Shane Finch (WTRS program director): When “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” was recorded, it was a gamble to have Kenny Rogers cut this song, wasn’t it? I mean, he’d come from pop to country so there wasn’t any sure bet on this. Fifteen years later, it would’ve been an instant smash.
Mel: It had laid around until the late ‘60s when Kenny recorded it. He went to England and sang it on Tom Jones’ television show and a disc jockey in Cleveland started playing it.
Bo: What inspired that song?
Mel: A soldier from Pahokee was wounded in Germany and he was in a hospital over there for a while and met a girl and fell in love. He brought her home and they had a little two-room apartment behind our house. One time, he was temporarily paralyzed and he accused Ruby of “going to town.” My momma said, “That’s not true. I know that Ruby and she’s a good girl.” [laughter] I remembered that when ol’ Johnny Cash was on the radio singing, “Don’t take your guns to town” [imitates Johnny Cash’s distinctive voice]. By the time I got home, I had it written.
Shane: So there really was a Ruby?
Mel: Yeah, but her name wasn’t Ruby, though—I changed that.
Shane: What was the most number of songs you had on the charts at the same time?
Mel: I had 25, both A-sides and B-sides. But that was in the days when there were only six or seven songwriters in Nashville. I was getting songs cut left and right.
‘A Great Songwriter’
Dave: We have another [country music] legend on the phone, Bill Anderson.
Bill: Since I whisper and Mel stutters, I think they oughta give us our own special wing at the Hall of Fame.
Mel: Bill writes a new song every other day. [laughter] He still in Nashville and turnin’ ‘em out—had one not too long ago about the whiskey bottle [“Whiskey Lullaby” by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss]. Great, great song.
Bill: Comin’ from a great songwriter like Mel, that means a lot.
Mel: Yeah, I get a few recordings every now and then. Like that one by Led Zeppelin and Alison Krauss. What’s that guy’s name—Robert Plant? I never heard of him, but they cut a song I wrote for the Everly Brothers called “Stick With Me Baby.” It was on the back side of “Cathy’s Clown.”
Bill: That’s the thing about all those great songs—they just keep comin’ back. They’ll be singing Mel Tillis songs for years to come.
Music Highlights, Acting Projects & Notable Achievements
1957: Webb Pierce reaches number three with Tillis’ composition “I’m Tired”
1958: Earns his first Top 40 hit with “The Violet and a Rose”
1968: Earns his first Top 10 hit with “Who’s Julie”
1972: “I Ain’t Never” becomes his first number one single
1976: Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame
1976: Named CMA Entertainer of the Year
1978: Performs in Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way But Loose
1979: “Coca-Cola Cowboy” hits number one
1979: Plays “Burl Tolliver” in an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard
1980: Plays the fairground owner in Smokey and the Bandit II
1981: Plays “Mel” in The Cannonball Run
1981: “Southern Rains” hits number one
1982: Plays himself in another episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. No one seems to
remember Burt Tolliver.
1984: Plays “Mel” again in Cannonball Run II
1991: Named spokesman for Badcock Furniture, begins appearing in the company’s TV ads
1999: Named BMI’s “Songwriter of the Decade”
2007: Inducted into the Grand Ole Opry
2007: Inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame with Ralph Emery and Vince Gill