What is the correct way to present country music?
Just like in every era of the genre's history, there is no way to answer that question that is going to please everyone. Some prefer the high-octane arena shows of acts such as Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line or Kenny Chesney -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Jason Aldean's stadium tour from last year, which featured FGL, Tyler Farr and Miranda Lambert, was one of the most entertaining country shows to hit the road last year.
And, on the other end of the spectrum, there are Mel Tillis and the Statesiders. The Country Music Hall of Fame member made a rare appearance in Nashville over the weekend for a two-night stint at the Franklin Theatre. Billboard was there to catch his show on Friday, and the evening was definitely one that could be described as "old school" -- but no one was complaining.
Taking to the stage after an instrumental introduction from his veteran Statesiders band, the 82-year-old Tillis kicked off the show with a rousing performance of Bob Wills' "Right or Wrong." He then segued into his version of "Diggin' Up Bones," a song that most people associate with Randy Travis. However, Tillis recorded it first, on his 1985 RCA Records disc California Road. In great voice throughout the evening, the Grand Ole Opry star then began to roll out many of the hit records that fans had come out to see. The first was 1968's "Who's Julie." While Tillis had been a chart artist for well over a decade when the dramatic ballad was released, the song that shed light on the "other woman" became his first top 10 hit. The song has lost none of its starkness or power since.
Perhaps the largest round of applause during the evening was reserved for two back-to-back Tillis hits from the 1970s: "Coca Cola Cowboy" and "Send Me Down to Tucson," which appeared in the Clint Eastwood film "Every Which Way But Loose." While the singer doesn't sound exactly like he did some four decades ago when those songs were hits, his voice has lost little of the timbre that made it one of country's most recognizable. He nailed "Send Me Down to Tucson," which stands as one of the 70s' finest musical moments -- as well as one of the format's greatest cheating songs.
In addition to sharing some humorous anecdotes about his life and career, the singer shared the spotlight with his son Mel "Sonny" Tillis Jr., who performed a beautiful new song that he wrote with his dad called "Babies." If the song ever winds up in the hands of, say, George Strait or Tim McGraw, it very well might give Mel one more hit as a songwriter in a career that has included "Detroit City" and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." Carrie April Tillis, one of his five daughters, delivered a stirring version of the standard "Ave Maria" as well. Throughout the night, his nine-piece band the Statesiders proved why they have long been recognized as one of the top backup bands of all time. Longevity could be one of the biggest reasons, with several members of the band having been with the group for well over 25 years. If nothing else, the band is one of the sharpest-dressed in the business, each wearing a suit and tie on stage -- adding to the old-school charm of the night.
One of the more interesting aspects of the evening was the diversity of the age of those in attendance. While it did skew to an older demographic, it was about 65/35. Many younger country fans were in the crowd to enjoy an artist who stands as one of the last links to the 1950s, when he first moved to Nashville to become a songwriter. He schooled the city on writing songs then, and almost 60 years later, he's still giving lessons on how to entertain a crowd with style and substance.