New Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis isn’t resting on his engraved plaque. In fact, to hear the excitement in his voice, you’d think he was just launching his career instead of justifiably savoring its fruits.
The trim 75-year-old singer, songwriter and actor continues to perform some 100 shows a year with his hard-driving, uniformly dressed, 10-piece band, the Statesiders. And he’s just as busy off the road. When he’s not gardening or recording at his farm in Tennessee or managing his home office in Ocala, Fla., you might find him slugging away on his comic novel, revising his biography or learning lines for his next movie.
That movie, he tells CMT.com during a phone call from Ocala, is a Western called Palo Pinto Gold, due out next summer. Acting with him is his old pal and fellow Grand Ole Opry member, Roy Clark, and singer-songwriter Trent Willmon. “We don’t get the girl,” he says. “We get a mule apiece.”
The novel he’s writing is a comic undertaking tentatively titled Acting Sheriff. “It takes place in 1947 in Palm Beach County, where I’m from,” he explains. “[In the book], the sheriff goes into the hospital to have a hemorrhoid operation, and he appoints an old boy from Pahokee, my hometown, as acting sheriff — and all hell breaks loose. Oh, it’s funny.”
His authorized biography, Stutterin’ Boy, came out in 1984 and was written by novelist Walter Wager. Tillis said he had qualms about Wager’s approach. “He wrote it the way he talked,” he complains. “He’s from Brooklyn. He didn’t use any of my colloquialisms at all. I was unhappy with that.” So Tillis has pledged himself to revise and update the life story.
When it comes to literary models, Tillis invokes one of the best.
“I read somewhere that Mark Twain said that he gets up in the morning, makes a pot of coffee, lights a cigar and starts lying,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Hell, I can do that.'” When inspiration seizes him, he notes, he’ll roll out of bed as early as 4 a. m. to write.
Although he’s cut back on his songwriting, the composer of such classics as “Detroit City” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” can brag about a couple of new cuts from his old catalog. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant recorded his “Stick With Me Baby” for their current CD, Raising Sand. Tillis originally wrote the song for the Everly Brothers.
More recently, Little Richard covered “I Ain’t Never,” a 1959 hit Tillis penned for Webb Pierce. The recording is for a benefit album on behalf of radio personality Don Imus’ ranch for sick children.
A measure of Tillis’ stamina is that he’s kept his band on payroll without fail for the past 39 years. A couple or so members have been with him from the start. He’s proud of both their sound and their look. “I dress ’em to the nines,” he boasts.
Tillis had his own theater at Branson, Mo., for 13 years. Then, five years ago, he sold it and returned to his old stomping grounds in Florida.
Earlier this year, Tillis was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry by his daughter, Pam, who’s been an Opry member since 2000. He says he plans to play the revered radio show at least 12 times a year.
“I always wanted to be a member of the Opry,” he reflects, “but I was always gone. I was doing the Johnny Carson show, the Merv Griffin show, the Mike Douglas show — every show you could name — the Dean Martin show, Hollywood Squares and 13 movies. I just didn’t have the time to commit to being a member.”
While Tillis is still clearly delighted over his ascension to the Country Music Hall of Fame, he says many other performers should have preceded him, among them Tommy Duncan (the fabled singer from Bob Wills’ band), Slim Whitman, Hank Locklin and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. “There are a lot of them that have been overlooked,” he concludes.
Just in case his other activities don’t keep him busy enough, Tillis remembers that he’s also working on a comedy album, a step he’s never done before in spite of being legendary for his humorous quips and outlook.
“It isn’t a standup [album],” he says. “I tell stories — kind of like Bill Cosby does. I’ve got a jillion stories.”
We bet he does.