RIP M-M-Mel Tillis. One of the most unlikely entertainers I’ve ever met, Mel turned his chronic stutter into an asset as he played it for laughs. He was a big deal in the 1970s, when I inadvertently found a home for some of my earliest freelance work writing about country musicians. I met him much later, in the early 90s, when a magazine sent me to report on a then-new “Hillbilly Vegas” sprouting up in Branson, Missouri. Mel was one of the artists who had “retired” to Branson to escape the grind of the road, though he was still performing at his own theater 6-7 days a week.
It was there, in his dressing room before a show that I first encountered the Country Music Hall of Famer in his underwear, ironing his powder blue suit pants. No roadies for Mel and no pretense, as he invited me to ask away. I flipped on my recorder and alternately scribbled and waited—he was a stutterer, all right—as Mel answered my questions and pressed out his wrinkles. Suddenly he thundered, “OH SHIT!” (no stutter) when he burned himself with the iron. I hope still have that tape. Amazingly, Mel’s stutter disappeared when he was in his true comfort zone—singing.
Mel was a hugely successful songwriter, penning many country number ones for himself and others. He didn’t dwell on his shortcomings, but just got into the arena and played—a inspiration for my forays onto center stage in recent years. All that, and he was a genuinely nice guy. I’ll m-m-miss him.