An Opry member and Country Music Hall of Famer, country legend and superstar Mel Tillis has died. He was a beloved musician, singer, songwriter, actor, and comedian. Hours after his death was announced on Nov 19, stars and friends reacted with an outpouring of love and grief.
The famous stutter
He was an unlikely candidate to be a star. But what made him unlikely was also what made him lovable.
Tillis had a pervasive stutter that he struggled with his whole life. As a child, he was mocked for it. According to one biography, it was hypothesized that the stutter was the result of a bout of malaria he suffered at age 3, though this is not certain. It’s possible, given Tillis was born in Florida in 1932.
At one point, his stutter was a significant hindrance. It removed his ability to become a pilot in the US Air Force, and also cost him other jobs. However, his stutter would later become a foundational part of his performances.
In his 1984 autobiography, Stutterin’ Boy, he wrote, “After a lot of years and more hurting than I like to remember, I can talk about it lightly — which eases things a bit. It’s a way of showing people that it hasn’t licked me, so it doesn’t have to lick others.”
The stutter also prompted him to do advocacy work for the Stuttering Foundation of America.
Tillis attempted to start a performance career in Nashville in 1956, but it was a flop. He briefly returned home. However, his composition “I’m Tired” hit the No. three spot on the chart a year later. Webb Pierce had recorded it. This galvanized Mel’s career as a songwriter and returned him to Nashville.
He continued to supply Pierce with a string of hits songs. Some of those he penned included “I Ain’t Never,” “No Love Have I,” and “Crazy Wild Desire.” It wasn’t until 1965 that he recorded his first Top 15 hit, “Wine.”
After that, his performance career gained inertia. He had several Top 15 hits, and in 1968, scored a Top 10 with “Who’s Julie.” He continued with a string hit songs, though he didn’t chart at the top. That is, until 1972. “I Ain’t Never” released that year and did extremely well.
He had several Top 5 hits following, including “Neon Rose,” “Sawmill,” and “Stomp Them Grapes.” He also had 5 No. 1 hits in the late 1970s. “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” “I Believe in You,” “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” and “Southern Rains” all went to the top. During this time, he continued to write hit songs for other artists during this prolific period of his career. (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” was his, recorded by Kenny Rogers.)
He attempted to continue recording in the 1980s but never met with the success of the previous decade. However, it was almost immaterial. His place as a legendary country songwriter was already cemented firmly in history.
Television and Film
In addition to his music, Mel Tillis also graced the silver screen.
Notable appearances include “Every Which Way But Loose” with Clint Eastwood. That film also featured his hit song, “Coca-Cola Cowboy.”
Tillis also had screen time alongside Burt Reynolds. These were in “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings,” “Cannonball Run” (I and II) and “Smokey and the Bandit II.” Later, he starred with Roy Clark in “Uphill All the Way.”
Tillis also made his way to the small screen, with regular appearances on “Hee Haw,” “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Hollywood Squares.” He was even in several commercials, including being a spokesperson for the Southern burger chain, Whataburger.
Career Highlights and Awards
Tillis was CMA Entertainer of the Year in both 1976 and 1978.
2007 was a notable year for the star. That year, he officially became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2009, he was inducted into the Florida Hall of Fame.
In 2012, he received the National Medal of Arts. This “is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government. [It] is awarded by the President of the United States to individuals or groups who are deserving of special recognition because of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States.” That description certainly seems apt.
Mel Tillis is survived by his six children.
His most famous child, Pam Tillis, became a smash country artist in the 1980s and 1990s. She is a fellow Grand Ole Opry member. His son, Mel “Sonny” Tillis, Jr., co-wrote the No. 1 single “When I Think About Angels.”
His other four children are daughters Carrie April Tillis, Cindy Shorey, Connie Tillis, and Hannah Puryear. He is also survived by six grandchildren, a great-grandson, a sister and a brother, the mother of five of his children, Doris Tillis and his longtime partner, Kathy DeMonaco.
Grief and Love
Social media was immediately ablaze with an outpouring of condolences and sadness upon the news of Tillis’ passing.
Blake Shelton took to Twitter: “Some of my most cherished memories are the times I spent with Mel Tillis. Many many great memories. From fishing to just having a beer, to him crashing my concert!”
Several other stars also tweeted a response. “Man, one of the coolest guys in country music ever and an extraordinary songwriter! So glad I got a chance to hang out with him a bit early in my career. Thinking about his family…” posted Tim McGraw.
Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted, “Kindest man I’ve ever known. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. Gonna be some great country music in heaven this Sunday.”
Crystal Gale, a sister of country legend Loretta Lynn, posted, “I’m saddened to hear of the passing of my friend, Mel Tillis. Sending my love and prayers to his family and friends. There will never be another Mel Tillis!” She also included a heart emoji.
According to a statement released by his representative, the suspected cause of death was respiratory failure. And though he struggled with his health the last years of his life, he could no doubt be satisfied with the impact of his legacy on country music. His songwriting is almost unrivaled, his daughter Pam carries on the famous Tillis tradition.
Funeral arrangements in both Nashville and Florida are still pending.