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Mel Tillis Interview

 

(CSC) 1. You have been very busy so far in 2009. Please tell us about the latest projects you’ve been working on!

 

(Mel Tillis)

There are several things that I’ve been doing. I’m working on a novel. It’s my first one. I heard one time someone asked Mark Twain how he did it. He said “Well, I get up in the morning about 4:00, maybe 5:00, put on a pot of coffee, light a cigar and just start lying!” And I said “Hell, I can do that!” So I’m attempting one and I’m enjoying it. It’s called “Acting Sheriff.” It takes place in Palm Beach County in 1947. That’s my home county. I’m doing that and I just finished my Christmas album, my first one. It came out a little late in the year but it’ll be the first one out for this coming Christmas. (Laughs) I’m proud of that. It’s entitled “Snowflake.” I also have a movie coming up that I got to do that’s called “The Last Mission.” There’s a bunch of different actors in it that you’ve heard of. Lee Majors, for one, Ernest Borgnine, George Lindsey (Ole’ Goober) he’s in it, and several big name actors that you’ve heard of. We start filming, I believe, in August and I think that they’ll do it in Texas. It’ll be a lot of fun, I love doing those! 

 

 

(CSC) 2. Two of your Country Music dreams came true in 2007 when you were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame! What does each honor mean to you as an artist?

 

(Mel Tillis)

You know, most of those things are voted on by the peers, and some members of the CMA. Not all members get to vote and it just makes me feel good that I’ve been recognized by other entertainers. I’m amongst some good company there. It’s taken me a long time, about 52 years. It’s really something. I owe a lot to my band, the Statesider Band, which I’ve had for many, many years. They’re first class… and my family and fans.

 

 

(CSC) 3. Tell me about the duet (Remind Me Dear Lord) that you recorded with the late great Dottie Rambo! What was it like to share that special visit with her, and how have you dealt with her passing?

 

(Mel Tillis)

You know, she sent me a copy of the song she wanted me to do. I did my part at my studio at the farm and she did her part someplace else. I don’t know where. Later on she came out to the farm for some publicity pictures. I had never met her before, until then. We talked a long time, and just had a great time. I think she enjoyed herself. We had some great pictures made that I’ll treasure. That was a great song. We’re really going to miss her. She was a great Christian writer and a very nice person. I was blessed to have met her and to have sung a song with her.

 

 

(CSC) 4. Tell me about the band that you were in (The Westerners) during the time you were stationed in Japan!

 

(Mel Tillis)

When I went to Okinawa in 1952 I was a baker. I served my country; I served cakes, cookies, pies, and donuts. (Laughs) I had a lot of time off as a baker. You know, as a cook or a baker or a meat cutter, you’re on 24 hours and you’re off 48 hours. I had a lot of time. I was in my little baking area in the mess hall and I had a little radio. I tuned in everyday to the far eastern network radio (Armed Forces radio), and I heard a little band on there and they called themselves The Westerners. They had a little studio over at a place called Rycom, an army installation. That was where The Westerners performed live shows for the radio for the GI’s. I heard one day that they were going to lose their singer. They said they would be over at Kadena Air Base Friday night at the Rocker Club, and if any of you out there think you can sing, just come on by, and we might have a job for you. Well, it was the NCO Club and I couldn’t get in there because I only had one stripe. A buddy of mine, a Staff Sergeant, said “I’ll take you in with me.” He took me over there and I auditioned for it and I got the job. For two years I learned how to play the bar chords on the guitar, how to work with a band, and how to write songs. Most of them are still alive. I think there’s about three of them that have passed away since. I treasured the experience I had with those guys.

 

 

(CSC) 5. Your first hit as a songwriter “I’m Tired,” recorded by Webb Pierce in 1957 helped launch your career as an artist. What do you attribute to him and the songwriting deal he afforded to you?

 

(Mel Tillis)

Well, I wrote that song. I had a manager in Tampa, Florida named Buck Peddy, and I was just starting out at the time. I was working with the railroad in Tampa, Florida. I worked as a firearm for the railroad and I was on the extra board so I used my railroad pass to go to Nashville on the train. I’d go to Jacksonville on the Atlantic Coast Line, and from Jacksonville I would get on the LNN to Nashville. It’s called the Louisville to Nashville Railroad. I’d go up there and they would say “We don’t need stuttering singers we need songs.” So I came back home and I continued to work as a firearm for the railroad and I tried to write songs in my head. As I was on the train with the engineers I wrote this song call “I’m Tired.” Matter of fact, I was in the strawberry patch when I wrote that song. I was on the extra board for the railroad and I would hire on for a job and get rolled because I didn’t have the seniority. So, I had to do odd jobs along with my railroad job. I was in my strawberry patch and I said “Oh Lord, I’m tired. Tired of living this ol’ way.” I just started singing the song.

 

In the meantime, my cousin introduced me to Buck Peddy who was supposed to be a talent scout who lived in Tampa. I went to his house and played him this song and he laughed and said “Ray Price is going to be in town this weekend, you want to go see him?” I said “Yeah, You know him?” He said “Yeah, I know him.” We went over there and saw the show, it was Ray Price and I believe Benny Martin was on the show too. I played him the song after the show and Ray liked it. He said “I’ll take it with me to Nashville. I’d like to record this song.” And Buck Peddy says “If you cut it, you can have 1/3 of it!” He didn’t ask me if he could have 1/3 of it. And Ray said “Okay. I’ll take it with me.”

 

Ray was backstage at the Opry singing the song and Webb Pierce heard it. He said “Hey, I like that song. Where’d you get it?” He said “From a songwriter down in Florida who can’t talk, he stutters.” He said “Are you going to record it?” And he said “Yeah, I’m thinking about it.” Webb said “You don’t need that song. You’ve had “Crazy Arms” which has been #1 for months.” He said “Well, I’m gonna cut it.” So he sang it to Webb and Webb remembered the first verse. He went to a songwriter in Nashville named Wayne Walker. He said “I’ve only got one verse to the song, Wayne. I can’t remember the others.” And Wayne he wrote two more verses to the song and Webb cut it.

 

I was laying in my bed one night listening to the All Night Show with Eddie Hill on WSM and the song came on and I said “Hell, that’s my song.” And the more I listened to it; by the second verse I said “Well, it’s almost my song.” Then it went on to the third and I said “Hell! I don’t know if it’s my song or not!” (Laughs) But I said “That’s my song and my melody, and I know it is.” I woke my momma up and told her “You’re gonna be rich. We’re going to Nashville!” It was a few months after that that I went to Nashville. Wayne didn’t get anything out of the song. Ray got 1/3 of it, I got 1/3 and Buck Peddy got 1/3. It went #2 for Webb Pierce.

 

I went to Nashville a few months after that and I signed with Columbia Records. My first record was a song called “Honky-tonk Song.” I put it out on Columbia and it got covered immediately by Webb Pierce. He covered my record, but he killed my record. He had a big hit with that one though. I think it went #1 for him. Then I was on my way, I guess you might say. I found out that I could write a song. I had no idea I could write a song before that. It seemed like everything fell into place for me, it just seemed to be my calling.

 

 

(CSC) 6. Having countless hit songs as a solo artist, what mindset do you prefer to be in when writing and what songs are your favorites to perform in your live shows?

 

(Mel Tillis)

Oh, just anywhere. I wrote the song “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” stuck in a traffic jam. By the time I got home I had the song written. I’ve got some of my favorites that I like. “Detroit City” and “Ruby” are a couple of my favorites. There are a lot of them out there. I tell you whose song I like to sing is Tommy Collins “New Patches.” I like the Harlan Howard song “Life Turned Her That Way.”

 

 

(CSC) 7. How did you initially come to find your phenomenal band “The Statesiders?”

 

(Mel Tillis)

I started putting them together I guess in the mid 1960's. I started off with just a couple of guys and then I started adding to the band. I’ve got three of them up there that have been with me for about 40 years. Let’s see, the fiddle players are Jimmy Buchanan and Ernie Reed. My steel guitarist is Terry Bethel. My band leader, Dennis Pratt, played the piano and does the strings. He’s been with me almost 30 years. The other piano player, Jimmy Garstang, has been with me for 29 years. My drummer Chuck has been with me for 15 years. My bass man Al Weir is from Minnesota. The guy on the bongos back there who also plays on harmonica has been with me now for 29 years, and he’s from Wyoming. My guitar player has been with me about 30 years. He’s from Springdale, Arkansas. My sound man has been with me about 18 years. We’re family and get along real good, and that’s what it takes. Everyone likes each other, and I treat them well too. It’s paid off because I’m still around; I play about 100 shows a year. Matter of fact, I leave here Friday for Oklahoma. I’m going to do a show with Ray Price and the Gatlin Brothers.

 

 

(CSC) 8. Looking back on your acting career, what did you appreciate about the numerous motion pictures you’ve been a part of through the years?

 

(Mel Tillis)

You know, people ask me “Mel, why are you doing this? You don’t have a big part.” I said “No, I’ve got cameos, but it’s a lot of fun. I get to hang around with the stars and the parties.” (Laughs) Besides that, I joined the Screen Actors Guild and I’ve got a pretty good little pension that comes in every month. I enjoy it. I’m not an actor, but it’s kind of like when I was a little boy playing with the other kids, you know, “play like this” and “play like that.” And that’s what it is. I enjoyed the movie I made with Roy Clark, “Uphill All The Way.” Roy and I produced that and were the executive producers. We were the stars of that one. We got to play all the way through it. I had some big action there, too. I had Burl Ives, Burt Reynolds, Trish Van Devere, Glen Campbell, Shep Woolley; I had a bunch of them in there.

 

In 1970 or 1971, I was doing the Porter Wagoner Show when I got a call from Glen Campbell to come out and be a semi-regular on the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour. I went out there and did that, I did about 17 or 18 of them. From there I went to the Johnny Carson Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, the Dinah Shore Show, The Dean Martin Show, Tony Orlando Show, The Price is Right, all kinds of TV things. That’s prolonged my career, I suppose, more than anything else. People know who I am, and only because of television. Johnny Carson asked me one time while we were in makeup (Johnny Carson Impression) “Hey Mel! If you really stutter, how come you want to stutter on the punch lines?” (Laughs) I said “Well, I don’t know. It just happens that way.”

 

 

(CSC) 9. What are you most proud of about your daughter, country music legend Pam Tillis personally and professionally as a country music star and your other children as well?

 

(Mel Tillis)

I’m proud that she found early in life what she wanted to do. She’s done very, very well with what she does. She sings, she writes, and she acts. She’s been in the movies too; TV movies I think. She just got back from Ireland. She was over there for 30 days. I’m awfully proud of her success. My son’s done alright, Junior. He co-wrote the song “When I Think About Angels” by Jamie O’Neal. He also co-wrote “The Ride” by Chris LeDoux. What a great song that is, “The Ride.” He wrote Ricky Skaggs’ “Lonesome” and “Dry as a Bone.” He’s got some good songs. He’s a good writer. My baby girl is a senior at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Her name is Hannah. Then Carrie April does some stuff off Broadway. She did “The Music Man” with John Davidson and Beauty and the Beast. She did the Tammy Wynette story and she looked and sounded exactly like her; that was just amazing. I have two daughters in Branson. Connie is in real estate. She sells time shares, condos, and things like that. The other one, her name is Cindy; she is the spokesperson for abused women. She goes all over the country, making speeches, raising money, for the awareness of abused women. I’m proud of her.

 

 

(CSC) 10. What’s the most important lesson you’ve taught Pam about the music business?

 

(Mel Tillis)

Well, to be yourself. Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not. Make them like you. There are so many acts that I’ve seen that can go out there and really be a horse’s ass. I’m not going to name any but believe me they’re out there. There are a lot of good humble people out there too.

 

 

(CSC) 11. What is your take on the current trends of country music? Are you impressed with any of the latest songs that are hitting the radio airwaves?

 

(Mel Tillis)

Yeah, there’s a few out there that I like. Not many. There are some good ones. Tim McGraw had that one “Live Like You Were Dying.” That was a great song. Toby Keith just had a great one, “God Love Her.” I like “Friends in Low Places” (Garth Brooks). Those are good songs. Trace Adkins comes out with some good songs. There are some good songs out there, but like I said, a lot of them are alike. They have 100 verses in it. When we wrote our songs, we’d write the verse and the chorus, turn around and do another verse over and that was it; and they were hits. I had a song that I wrote with the Everly Brothers in 1968 I think called “Stick With Me Baby.” It’s a simple little thing. Anyway, Allison Krauss and Robert Plant recorded it last year and put it on that album. Hell, it sold about two million albums. (Laughs) It’s so simple; “Everybody’s been talking. They say our love isn’t real. That it would soon be over, but that’s not the way that I feel. I don’t worry honey let them say what they may. C’mon and stick with me baby and we’ll find a way.” That’s it!

 

 

(CSC) 12. Tell me about your protégé Kenyon Lockry! How did you discover him?

 

(Mel Tillis)

I went on a hunting trip with a buddy of mine here in Florida, Mike Parton. He has a ranch outside Disney World; about 80,000 acres. We were sitting around the campfire, about 4 or 5 of us, and Mike said “Hey, I got somebody I want you to hear.” I said “I don’t want to hear anybody out here in the woods. I’m just having a good time with you guys here.” He says “You’re gonna hear it anyway.” He went and got his pickup and pulled up to the fire, and he played this CD that had five songs on it. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought the kid was really, really good. I said “You call him and tell him I’ll be getting hold of him.” I waited about a month before I called him. He was just leaving; his daddy was bringing him up to Nashville in their motor home. His daddy was going to fly back and he was going to live in Nashville in the motor home, and see if he could get a break here or there. I caught him just in time. (Laughs) I said “Man, you don’t want to get up there in all that mess if you can help it. You’re a good kid and you could go astray.” And Lord have mercy, his parents really thanked me. At the time he was only 22. We’ve been working with him. Pete Fischer’s been using him on the Grand Ole Opry and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. It’s going to take a little time, but he’s really good and he’s going to make it. He works about three days a week. He has a band called the The Freegrazers, like the cattle. I’m going to change the name of his band to the Meerkats. (Laughs)

 

 

(CSC) 13. What prompted your decision to create and become involved with the Mel Tillis & Friends Fishing Tournament held annually in Steinhatchee, Florida?

 

(Mel Tillis)

Well, I’m a 33rd degree Mason, and at our tournament we raise money for the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital. We’ve had it for three years in a row now, with next year being our fourth year. This year we had Bobby Bare, Johnny Lee, my son Mel Jr., Kevin, and Kenyon was there to sing. We had a big time and raised a little money for the kids. It’s for charity, and we have a good time, too. The Shriners came from Jacksonville, Florida with all the cars and stuff, and we had a ball.

 

 

(CSC) 14. When you aren’t working on the road or recording music, what do you find yourself doing on your leisure time?

 

(Mel Tillis)

Well, I’m writing my novel. I’m kind of hung up right now in the courtroom scenes. I have to find a lawyer so I can get the courtroom procedures down right. When I do that I’ll be finished with it. I do oil painting. If you go to my website you can see some of my paintings. I love to do that. It takes your mind off everything else. I love to fish from time to time. I’ve got a 13-acre lake behind my house in Florida. I’ve got three lakes on the farm in Tennessee. I have a recording studio up there. I go up there occasionally and I write songs. Carrie April lives on the farm and so does my son. I’ve had that place for about 40 years. I love to garden also.

 

 

(CSC) 15. Out of all the great accomplishments you’ve made in your music career…what do you cherish most about the business and adventures that came with it?

 

(Mel Tillis)

There’s a lot of excitement in it. Like if you write a song and it’s a hit, boy does that make you feel good. If your records a hit, that makes you feel good. If you draw a good crowd and they’re happy, that makes you feel good, and all the good things that come with it. The money is good. It allows you to do some things that would probably be impossible if I’d just stayed a baker. So it’s allowed me to do some other things I enjoy that I can share with the family.

 

 

(CSC) 16. In closing what’s one interesting trait and/or talent about yourself that people may not already know and what would you like to tell your dedicated fans?

 

(Mel Tillis)

You know, I don’t know. All my fans, they know a lot about me, but they wouldn’t know about my personal life because I don’t let that out a lot.  I want to thank my fans who have stood by me all these years. I sure do appreciate them.

 

 

For more on Mel Tillis, check out his official website here; http://www.MelTillis.com

 

 

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