A funny thing happened to country music icon Mel Tillis on his way to the recording studio: He decided to cut his very first comedy album.
No kidding: Back in the 1970s, 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 his 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.” But You Ain’t Gonna Believe This — a critical success and a Grammy Award nominee — proved to have an even wider cross-demographic appeal. Indeed, it continues to be a steady seller more than a year after it first appeared on the Billboard comedy chart. And to hear Tillis talk, we’re in for a follow-up album or two. Or more.
We recently caught up with Tillis before a Grand Ole Opry appearance, to talk about this latest in his long line of career triumphs. Relaxing inside an impressively appointed tour bus parked in back of the famed Nashville, Tennessee, venue, he gleefully noted that, throughout his more than 50 years in show business, he’s gotten some of his biggest laughs by making himself the punch line of his jokes. It’s a trick he mastered long before he became a professional entertainer.
COWBOYS & INDIANS: What’s the story behind You Ain’t Gonna Believe This, Mel? What inspired you to release such a change-of-pace album?
MEL TILLIS: Well, you now, all my life, comedy has been a part of me. I remember when I started 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 going 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.” And 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, “Bleep, I’m trying to quit.”
C&I: How much of an impediment was it when you were first starting out?
TILLIS: 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.
C&I: And you didn’t stop there.
TILLIS: Yeah, 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.
C&I: So how did the comedy album come about?
TILLIS: When I went to Branson [Missouri] and I built my theater out there, I taped all my shows. And when you do an hour and a half on stage — well, being a stutterer, people wanted to hear me talk. And I would tell these little stories — and my stories are 85 percent true. If they need a little help, I’ll help them.
Anyway, I began to tell stories, and people laughed, so I guess they liked them. For 13 years, I taped every one of my shows. And I have all those tapes out at my farm in Ashland City, Tennessee. And I got a recording studio out there. And some lakes — all my buddies come out and fish on my lakes. Blake Shelton, Toby Keith — they’ve all been out there. And they’ve all told me, “Man, you need to put this stuff out there.” So I decided to do just that.
TILLIS: Well, it came in at No. 3 on the Billboard comedy chart. And it was nominated for a Grammy. So I guess I’ll keep telling these stories. Because I’m getting pretty good at it. And I’ve got enough for 10 more albums.
C&I: In just a few minutes, you’re going out onto the Grand Ole Opry stage for, oh, I dunno, maybe the zillionth time. Do you still get a thrill or a chill when you stride into that circle on stage and think about all the folks who have been there before you?
TILLIS: Oh, I think about, yeah. Like I say, I came here in ’56, ’57, and Roy Acuff was still around. And Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe — a lot of them were still around. And I got to meet some of those guys. All of them, really. And I’m so proud of that. And Little Jimmy Dickens is still here. He’s, what, 90 years old? And I’ve known him for, like, 55 years. We used to tour together — I used to drive. And he’s full of wisdom. I asked him one time, “You have any brothers or sisters?” He said, “Oh, yeah. Thirteen.” And I couldn’t help myself. I started to ask, “Are any of them ... ?” But then I paused, ’cause I felt bad about asking. But he didn’t care. He laughed and went right ahead and answered: “No, they’re all regular size.”
C&I: Do you ever still get stage fright?
TILLIS: It depends on the venue. Like, when I’ve been up there in New York City and played somewhere like Carnegie Hall — yeah, that can be a mite edgy. But the longer I’ve been in this business, the more I feel like I know what the hell I’m doing. Most of the time, it’s just another gig. And you do your best.
And I’ve got the greatest band in the world — The Statesiders — and they’ve been with me for a long time. I’ve got two guys who have been with me for 42 years, I’ve got five guys who have been with me for 32 years, and two guys for 15. So I’m very comfortable out there with them.
For more information on Mel Tillis, visit www.meltillis.com.