Photography: Joe Leydon

The Country Music Hall of Famer was 85 when he passed away Sunday.

Once again, it’s time to say goodbye to one of the greats: Mel Tillis, the county music icon who transformed what could have been an impediment — his trademark stutter — into an amusing and endearing element of his showmanship, passed away early Sunday morning at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Florida at age 85. According to his press representative, Tillis had battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered. The suspected cause of death is respiratory failure.

A native of Tampa, Florida, Lonnie Melvin Tillis was born on August 8, 1932. During his decades-long career, he recorded more than 60 albums, had 35 Top Ten singles, six No. 1 hits (“I Ain’t Never,” “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” “Southern Rains,” “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” and “I Believe In You”), received the Country Music Association’s coveted Entertainer of the Year award, and was elected a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He wrote over 1,000 songs, 600 of which have been recorded by major artists including Kenny Rogers (“Ruby, Don't You Take Your Love to Town”), George Strait (“Thoughts Of A Fool”), and Ricky Skaggs (“Honey, Open That Door”). Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) named him Songwriter of the Decade for two decades.

In 2007, Tillis received two of Nashville’s highest honors: He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Five years later, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts.

But wait, there’s more: Back in the 1960s, Music City News readers voted Tillis “Comedian of the Year” for six years in a row, in appreciation of his free-wheeling between-songs chatter – punctuated with that trademark stutter -- during live performances. But it wasn’t until 2010 that he took the funny business seriously enough to release You Ain’t Gonna Believe This, an uproariously funny collection of tall tales, folksy commentaries and shaggy-dog stories culled from 13 years of his concerts at the now-shuttered Mel Tillis Theater in Branson, Missouri. In the liner notes for the CD, Tillis wrote: “You truck drivers, Wal-Mart shoppers, Cracker Barrel eaters and all the rest – enjoy. It’s for your entertainment.” Even so, You Ain’t Gonna Believe This – a critical success and a Grammy Award nominee – proved to have an even wider cross-demographic appeal. Indeed, remained a fixture on the Billboard comedy chart for more than a year after its initial release.

“All my life,” Tillis told me during a 2011 interview at the Grand Ole Opry, “comedy has been a part of me. I remember when I started to school.  I was six years old, in Plant City, Florida, and I didn’t know that I stuttered. My dad stuttered a little bit, and my brother stuttered a little bit, and we thought it was just normal. But when I started to school, they got to laughing at me. And I didn’t know what was happening. I came home the first day, and I asked my mom, ‘Momma, do I stutter?’ And she said, ‘Yes you do, son.’ And I said, ‘They laughed at me, momma.’ And she said, ‘Well, if they’re gonna laugh at you, give them something to laugh about.’

“So I went back to school the next day – and that was my first day in show business. See, I could ad lib with that stuttering. And that’s what I did the rest of my life, all the way through school. Of course, I found I could sing without stuttering. And I learned how to play the guitar. So, man, I was real popular, because I could sing at all the parties. It was always, like, ‘Man, look at old Melvin.’

“And humor’s remained a part of my life. It’s helped me, because I did stutter. But the more I talk while I’m on stage, the less I stutter. In fact, some guy came up to me after a show not long ago, and he told me, ‘Hell, I thought you stuttered. I came to hear you stutter.’ And I told him, ‘Shit, I’m trying to quit.’”

On a more serious note, Tillis admitted that, at the very start of his showbiz career, the stutter was a handicap.

“When I first came to Nashville – in 1956 or ’57, I think it was – I went to work with Minnie Pearl. And Minnie was doing a summer fair tour all over the Midwest. And she hired me to be a singer, and play the rhythm guitar. And Roger Miller was a fiddle player. And in those days, I couldn’t say nothing without stuttering, so Roger Miller would introduce my song. I would sing the song, and when I’d finish, Roger would say, ‘Mel says thank you.’

“Well, Minnie noticed that. So one day she called me over, and she said: ‘Melvin, if you’re going to be in this business, you’re going to have to introduce your own song, and you’re going to have to thank the people when you finish, and you’re going to have to sign autographs.’ Now, like I say, back in those days, I could hardly talk at all. I’d get all nervous, and swell up with all kinds of facial expressions. So I said, ‘Oh, Miss Minnie, I can’t do that. They’ll laugh at me.’ And she said, ‘No they won’t, Melvin. They’ll laugh with you.’ So from that day on, I started telling stories on stage.

“And the next thing I knew, hell, I was on the Johnny Carson show.”

After that, there was no stopping him. “Yeah,” Tillis told me in 2011, “I did all those shows back in the day – The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Dinah Shore Show, The Dean Martin Show. All those shows – and movies, too. It’s all been a blessing for me.”

Tillis had several film credits on his resume, including small roles alongside such notables as Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Burl Ives in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), The Villain (1979), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981), and Beer for My Horses (2008). In 1986, he and fellow country music star Roy Clark played the lead roles in Uphill All the Way, a comedy about two bungling good old boys who are mistaken for notorious bank robbers, and hunted by a no-nonsense sheriff (Burl Ives).

On television, Tillis performed on numerous episodes of Hee-Haw and The Porter Wagoner Show, and appeared as a guest star on such series as Nashville 99, The Dukes of Hazzard, and The Love Boat. He and model Susan Anton were co-hosts of the short-lived 1978 variety show Mel & Susan Together.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young eulogized the celebrated singer-songwriter Sunday in a prepared statement:  “Mel Tillis spent a lifetime giving us joy and laughter and music, which is why his death brings such sadness. Had he never stepped on a stage, he would still have been one of the funniest and most genuine people on the planet.

“But his whimsy and warmth were only a part of his appeal. He wrote some of country music’s most compelling and consequential songs, he fronted a remarkable band, and he sang with power and emotion. He also shone as an inspiration, revealing what others called an impediment as a vehicle for humor and hope.”

Among the other tributes offered on Sunday:

Bobby Bare: “I’ve lost a brother. Mel was the very first person I met when I came to Nashville in the late ‘50s and we’ve been friends ever since. I’ve lost another fishing buddy and a talented, talented brother. Without Mel and ‘Detroit City’ [the hit song co-written by Tillis], I probably would not have had a career. Mel’s one of those people you’ve got to love.”

Randy Travis: “Mel was a special friend, great artist, and constant inspiration to me — Heaven’s choir just got sweeter.”

Charlie Daniels: “Mel Tillis, you will be missed by so many of us you touched over the years. Rest in peace my friend.”

Jeannie Seely: “All I could think of when I heard the news of Mel’s passing was ‘one of the brightest lights in country music went out last night.’ He left an amazing legacy with his songs, but I will always remember his humor more than anything else. It’s sad to think there will be no more ‘Mel Tillis stories.’”

Lorrie Morgan: “It’s a sad day in country music but even sadder for the family and those of us who loved the late, great Mel Tillis. His life was the stage and making people laugh for years. He was truly one of the kindest men in the business to me. He was great friends with my dad and my uncle Bill and he’s treated me like a daughter. My heart breaks for the future of the Tillis family while they heal. It’s a hole that will never be filled for them. God bless Mel Tillis and the Tillis family.”

Moe Bandy: “Mel was a great entertainer who inspired me so much. I am deeply saddened. What a great friend he was to me. I just thought the world of him. We will miss him dearly. His great songs will be with us forever. God Bless his family.”

Johnny Lee: “I was honored to be Mel's friend! He took me under his wing a long time ago and for that I will be forever grateful. The world has lost a truly talented man. His music and hilarious stories will live on forever. Rest in peace my friend, I'll see you on the other side.”

Here is Mel Tillis performing one of his biggest hits, “Coca Cola Cowboy.”

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