“I was in my garden … holding an eggplant when my cell phone went off,” said Mel Tillis, recalling how he first heard he’d been selected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The announcement that Tillis, Vince Gill and radio and TV personality Ralph Emery are the Hall’s newest additions was made Tuesday (Aug. 7) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater in Nashville. All three honorees were on hand for the event.
The voice at the other end of Tillis’ cell call was Tammy Genovese, chief operating officer of the Country Music Association, the organization that bestows the award. During Tuesday’s press conference, she told the audience of reporters, music executives and fans that it thrilled her to place the calls to the new inductees. She later told Tillis she should have at least gotten an eggplant in return for her good news.
All three men seemed genuinely moved at being chosen. It took Gill a minute or so to compose himself and wipe away the tears after he began to speak. He was finally able to gain control by praising the other nominees and recounting his first meetings with them.
Emery — who carried the torch for country music through many local, syndicated and network radio and TV shows, plus a series of bestselling memoirs — confessed, “I never thought I’d be in the Country Music Hall of Fame, at least not in my lifetime.”
Conceding it was difficult for him to convey the intensity of his feelings at receiving the honor, Emery quoted what Barbara Mandrell had told him when he asked her how it felt to fly with the Thunderbirds aerial acrobatics team: “She said it’s sort of like explaining what sex feels like to someone who’s never had it.”
Mandrell presented Emery to the crowd, while Brenda Lee and Country Music Foundation director Kyle Young, respectively, introduced Tillis and Gill. Because they are so short, Mandrell and Lee had to stand on a container to peer over the podium. When the tall Gill came out, he, too, stepped onto the container instead of pushing it aside, a move that made him look like a jack-in-the-box.
Emery thanked John R. Richbourg, the legendary Nashville disc jockey, for getting him his first job at a small radio station in Paris, Tenn. But he reserved his warmest praise for his wife of more than 40 years, Joy. He also introduced the two of his three sons who were in the audience. A pioneer in bringing country music to television, Emery hosted such pace-setting variety shows as Pop! Goes the Country and Nashville Now.
In her presentation of Tillis, Lee said she met him 51 years ago, when she was 10 years old and joining the tour he was on. Besides Tillis, the tour headlined Faron Young, George Jones and Patsy Cline, all notorious hell-raisers. “You think that wasn’t something!” Lee said, rolling her eyes.
Lee reminded the audience that Tillis had triumphed as a songwriter, singer and movie actor. He was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976 on the strength of such compositions as “I Ain’t Never,” “Tupelo County Jail,” “Detroit City,” “Heart Over Mind,” “Honey (Open That Door)” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” That same year, the Country Music Associaton voted him entertainer of the year.
As a recording artist, Tillis scored such No. 1 hits as “I Aint’ Never,” “Coca Cola Cowboy” and “Southern Rains.” His movies included W. W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, Smokey and the Bandit II and Every Which Way but Loose.
“The hardest part [about the award],” said Tillis, “is that you’re not supposed to tell anybody. I’m not going to lie to you folks, I told my son.” He said his band members weren’t in the audience because they were driving back from Canada, where he had been on a show Sunday (Aug. 5) with “Dirk somebody” and “that boy from Oklahoma.” (As it turned out, he was alluding to Dierks Bentley and Blake Shelton.)
After reciting a long list of gratitudes, Tillis concluded, “Last, I want to thank this little angel on my shoulder who’s been with me and took care of me.”
The crowd reserved its wildest cheers for Gill. As soon as Young mentioned the name “Vince” and a youthful picture of Gill flashed on the onstage screen, the audience jumped to its feet. Citing the astounding number and variety of artists Gill has worked with, Young said he was “a living prism refracting all that is good in country music.”
Like Tillis, Gill is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He has won 18 Grammys, an equal number of CMA trophies and for 12 years was the host of the annual CMA Awards television show.
Once Gill got past his tears, he hit his usual comic stride. He recalled his first appearance as a guest on Emery’s TV show and how he kept bursting in with answers before Emery, who spoke in slow, measured phrases, could complete the questions. “I was a smart ass,” he admitted.
Gill said he first met Tillis in 1979 or ’80. “I was in a rock band,” he continued, “and I thought we could party.” But he said he discovered that he and his bandmates in Pure Prairie League were strictly amateurs compared to Tillis and his rambunctious troupe, the Statesiders.
“There was that little element of Deliverance in there that scared the hell out of me,” Gill explained. (His reference is to the homicidal tribe of hillbillies that pursued the main characters in the movie, Deliverance.)
Everything he has achieved in music, Gill continued, has been “because it always felt like fun.” He added (with a smile) that he hadn’t accepted his present post as board president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to further his chances of being voted into the Hall.
Gill thanked his wife, Amy Grant, who sat in the audience, for providing him “the kindest, most gracious years I’ve spent on this earth.” He noted he made his first record in 1974 while he was still in high school in Oklahoma City and that the song had become a hit on local radio. “I’d take that today,” he joked, referring to the fact that his songs get little airplay now.
He spoke of the unparalleled joy he felt when he heard his song on the radio for the first time. He said he had a citizens band radio in his car at the time and immediately went on the air to alert other CB buffs in the area that his record was being played.
Gill said when he was notified he’d been chosen for the Hall of Fame, he got into his car and began driving around and listening to “Willie’s Place” on XM Satellite Radio. He said the first three songs he heard on the show carried a special emotional resonance for him. “I just wept,” he said.
Following the acceptance remarks, the CMA wheeled out a cake to celebrate Tillis’ 75th birthday, which is on Wednesday (Aug. 8). Then, with Brenda Lee leading the way, the celebrants sang “Happy Birthday.”