News Column

Get ready to shuffle to the sounds of Mel Tillis

June 13, 2014

By Richard Carter, Times Record News, Wichita Falls, Texas

June 13--Once upon a time in the early 1950s, a young airman named Mel Tillis wrote a song about pulling kitchen duty in Okinawa, Japan, and then performed the tune on Armed Forces Radio Network.

The rest is history. Tillis went on to write more than 1,000 songs, record 80-plus albums and receive all of country music's major awards. He remains one of its most treasured entertainers.

Tillis and his veteran band, the Statesiders, will perform June 21 as headliners of the 27th annual Legends of Western Swing Festival at the MPEC's Ray Clymer Exhibit Hall.

The festival runs from 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday through June 21 and features 12 western swing bands. Each group will perform during the afternoon and then will return after a dinner break to play at night.

Tillis may have started writing songs in the Air Force, but he originally was a snare drummer in the high school band.

"I played in the band during the first half of football games, and after we marched, I ran in and changed into my football uniform, so I played football the second half," he said.

Once in the Air Force, he found himself stationed in Okinawa.

"I was always on KP duty, and so I wrote a song about it. 'Clank clank go the pots and the pans, into the KP rhythm of a soldier man,'" Tillis said by telephone during his recovery from heart bypass surgery.

While in the military, he joined The Westerners band (1952-1954), "and there wasn't a damn one of us who were from the West," he said with a laugh.

The Westerners performed his KP song on the radio, and the song went out from Japan to Korea.

"Somebody taped it, and years later a guy came by at one of our shows in Branson and he gave me a CD with my song 'The KP Rhythm of a Soldier Man.' I didn't know a recording even existed."

Tillis' next song that hit the radio would come several years later and made a much bigger impression. Webb Pierce's recording of "I'm Tired" hit No. 2 nationally in 1956.

The song got Tillis to Nashville, where his label temporarily sidelined his singing aspirations.

"They said I needed to write songs, and I said, 'I can sing,' and they said, 'No, you need to write songs.' I started writing songs, and I was successful."

Tillis recorded his first single for Columbia, "Honky Tonk Song," in 1957.

"Webb (Pierce) had heard my single, and he covered it and killed my record, but it was OK. He had a No. 1 hit with it, and I was off and running then."

Tillis laughed and said he quickly learned that any time someone covered one of his songs, it was more income for him, and that was good.

Among his favorite performers to cover his material were Hank Snow, Carl Smith, Jim Reeves, Eddie Arnold and Ray Price.

At 81, Tillis has been in the music business for 58 years and still writes songs.

"I don't know how many songs I've written. I still find one in my sock drawer every now and then."

Tillis became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2007 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame the same year. He's been named Songwriter of the Decade twice by BMI.

Perhaps his best-known tune is "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," made famous by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.

Tillis has recorded 36 Top 10 singles and nine No. 1 songs, two of which were on the "Every Which Way But Loose" soundtrack. He appeared in the movie with Clint Eastwood, one of numerous films and television appearances that ranged from cameos to leading roles.

Tillis formed The Statesiders in the mid-1960s, and a number of its members have been with him for more than 40 years.

The name of the band came from a song he had written about his Okinawa days called "Stateside."

"I would wander into the little villages, and I was just homesick. I really was missing stateside."

The Statesiders can play pretty much any country sound he's written or performed over the years, including Texas Swing.

Tillis loves to play shuffles, and he recorded songs with Bob Wills and his Western Swing Band, such as "Looking Over my Shoulder" and "I Wish I Felt This Way at Home" (1967).

"I still do dances, but there aren't as many around as there used to be. I am looking forward to coming to Wichita Falls to play," he said.

Tillis was pleased when Legends producer Gloria Miers contacted him in 2013 to play the show for the first time, and he and his band "are looking forward to playing a potful of shuffles," with a set list that may be expanded to some of his other material.

"I'll be doing what the people want. I love what I do, and I carry the best band in country music."

Looking back over his career, Tillis said that there's been so much to be happy with. "I am so thankful to be blessed with a big family, five girls and one boy. My career has been one good thing after another. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing."


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Source: Wichita Falls Times Record News (TX)

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