As a writer, Mel Tillis has crafted some of the format's most memorable songs, such as "Detroit City" for Bobby Bare and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" for Kenny Rogers. As an artist, he placed 77 singles on the singles chart between 1958 and 1989. Billboard recently caught up with the Hall of Famer, who was definitely in a reflective mood, as he gets ready to release a new novel later this year. His first book, "Stutterin' Boy," was a best seller in 1984.
Looking outside his office over the Nashville skyline, the singer remarked how the years have flown by since he first charted with 1958's "The Violet And A Rose" for Columbia. "It makes me feel like I am getting old. I've been in the business for 57 years. At that time, Nashville had the Grand Ole Opry, two little recording studio – RCA Studio B and the Quonset Hut. I cut a lot of things at both places over the years. Also at Sound Stage too. There's a lot of memories there."
The singer recalled his first trip to Music City. "I came up to Nashville wanting to be a singer. I was just out of the Air Force, and was 25 years old. I got me a job with the railroad in Tampa, Florida with the Atlantic Coastline. I would use my railroad pass to come to Nashville. I went to knock on the doors around town – and there were only a few to knock on in those days. One of those was Acuff Rose. I auditioned for Wesley Rose, and he said 'You're a pretty good singer. Do you write songs?' I told him I didn't, and he said I needed to. He also said 'You probably need a gimmick.' I looked at him and said 'Ain't my stuttering enough?"
Tillis heeded Rose's advice. "I went back to Florida, and I tried writing songs. I wrote one called 'I'm Tired.' Ray Price was in Tampa, and a buddy of mine knew him, so he took me to meet him. I played it for him and he liked it. He brought it to Nashville, and Webb heard it somehow. He asked Ray if he could have it, and he told him 'No, I'm going to cut it." That didn't suit Pierce too well, so he took matters into his own hands.
"Webb remembered the first verse, so he goes to Cedarwood and gets a songwriter that he had hired there named Wayne Walker to write two new verses. Then Webb recorded it. I was home one night, and turned on WSM to listen to Eddie Hill, the all-night disc jockey there, and he has Webb on. He asks him about his new record, and Webb says 'It's called 'I'm Tired.' I had just got into bed, and the record kicks off. I jumped up and ran to my mother's bedroom, and said 'We're gonna be rich. Get up and pack.' I came back in, and the other two verses came on, and I looked at Mama, and said 'At least, I think that's my song," he says with his legendary sense of humor.
As Tillis plans to release the new book later this year, he's also looking to issue a new collection of his greatest hits, which include 36 top tens.
"I had some good producers that basically let me do what I wanted to do," he says. "They would step in every now and then and offer advice, and I would listen. People like Jim Vienneau was one. He cut a lot of hits on me. Paul Cohen was another. He came in from New York. I cut some hits with Jimmy Bowen, too. I've been blessed."