Mel Tillis, who died Sunday at 85, was known to the casual country fan for being a guy who cracked good-natured jokes about his stutter on Hee Haw, but he was also responsible for writing some of the genre’s most indelible songs. While the Country Music Hall of Fame member enjoyed his own run of hits as a singer and performer, his many contributions as a songwriter kept his work on numerous charts over a period of more than four decades. From his early work with honky-tonk hero Webb Pierce to later recordings by George Strait and Ricky Skaggs, Tillis proved he had a knack for mixing humor with heartbreak, fitting true-to-life scenarios with expertly crafted melodies that were recorded again and again. Here are 10 of his finest.
Tillis took real-life inspiration from the murder-suicide of a World War II veteran and his wife to write the ominous story of post-war jealousy that became “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Tillis, a Korean War veteran, framed it around injuries sustained in a “crazy Asian war,” but imagined his damaged Hemingway hero growing increasingly emasculated by his inability to keep his wife from dressing up and walking out the door. Johnny Darrell was the first to record it in 1967 and the Killers would cut a version in 2004, but it was Kenny Rogers and the First Edition who came up with the definitive version in 1969 – a combination of upbeat rhythm and heavenly backing vocals that conspired to make Rogers’ soulful croon sound extra sinister when he caressed the line, “I’d take my gun and put her in the ground.” Every bit as scary today as it was when it was released. J.F
A moody contemplation on what it’s like to be replaced by a new love, this served as the B-side of Patsy Cline’s 1962 hit “She’s Got You.” Boosted by Cline’s mighty vocal and Owen Bradley’s tropics-tinged production, the tune, co-written by Fred Burch, has endured, and not just as a country favorite. Alt-rock band the Czars covered it and more recently Alex Turner, lead singer of British rock’s Arctic Monkeys, also performed an acoustic version. On the Cline tribute disc from 2003, Michelle Branch gave it a sensuous reading as well. S.B.
Frequent Tillis collaborator Webb Pierce originally recorded “Honey (Open That Door)” in 1974, but it was ultimately traditional revivalist Ricky Skaggs that claimed it as an enduring hit. Released in 1984 from the album Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown, it became Skaggs’ seventh Number One during his unstoppable early Eighties run. Tillis’ innate sense of humor is on display here – his narrator is no heartbroken hero, having gambled everything away and hitched his way back from Dallas only to find that his lady took off during his absence. It never dawns on him, but it seems pretty obvious to the rest of us that the titular “Honey” was smart to pack up and leave without a trace. J.F.
The six-million-selling Pure Country soundtrack to George Strait’s 1992 film remains his biggest selling album, buoyed by hits like “Heartland” and “I Cross My Heart.” But the deeper cut “Thoughts of a Fool” is not to be overlooked. A hit 31 years earlier for Ernest Tubb, the song also illustrates one of Tillis’ most prominent gifts, the ability to voice his inner dialogue out loud in song (in spite of a lifelong stutter), expressing himself without hesitation and with a clarity that somehow resonated with all of us. S.B.
Many rural Southerners found steady work in the mid-century by moving north, but the tradeoff was they were often separated from the families they were laboring to support. Tillis’ and Danny Dill’s “Detroit City (I Wanna Go Home)” captures that anxiety and homesickness, imagining a man who carries on the charade that everything is fine while dreaming of the cotton fields back home when he lies down at night. Billy Grammer and Bobby Bare both released recordings of the song in 1963, with later recordings by Tom Jones and Dean Martin. Bare’s, with its unforgettable walking guitar intro, was a Number Six hit. By the end, his narrator is defeated – prepared to swallow his pride and hop a southbound train, no richer than when he left. J.F.
Tillis and Webb Pierce co-wrote “I Ain’t Never” and each performer enjoyed a major country hit with the indignant tune more than a decade apart. Pierce’s version came first, in 1959, a rockabilly-tinged shuffle with Nashville polish that made it all the way to Number Two and enjoyed some crossover success on the pop charts. Tillis released his own recording of it in 1972, a more rock-oriented production sung in a lower register than Pierce’s. That one became Tillis’ first Number One as an artist. Other recordings over the years include everyone from Connie Smith to John Fogerty. J.F.
In 1967, years before he grew his hair long and wrested control of his recording career, Waylon Jennings could nevertheless execute moments of musical brilliance. This twangy Top 15 rendition of a song that Tillis would also hit with in 1976 was certainly among Jennings’ earliest examples of that. It’s also one of Tillis’ most acerbic, irony-free tunes, where every hope is tied to some inconvenient, catastrophic or even tragic outcome. Among the many others who have tackled it through the years: Johnny Bush, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Darrell, Barbara Mandrell and Gram Parsons. S.B.
In December 1965, Charley Pride was newly signed to Nashville’s RCA label, but radio promoters were cautious about revealing his race to the public. What “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” which was released that month, revealed immediately was an extraordinarily talented vocalist who would soon be the most successful African-American artist in country music. A small field, to be sure, but with “Cowboy” Jack Clement as his producer, Pride managed to get hold of some exceptional material. But this chilling Tillis tune, about a man who watches in the shadows as his wife and another man carry on an affair then takes deadly revenge on both of them, was probably a bit too intense for country listeners, as it failed to chart. S.B.
Penned by Tillis with Wayne Walker, this song about moving on from a relationship by destroying all evidence it ever happened was a Top 10 country hit for Tillis in 1977, not long after he was crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year. But it had already reached Number Two in 1964 in a lush pop production for Ray Price. Others who would record it included Waylon Jennings in 1964, Kitty Wells a year later and Jerry Lee Lewis in 1969. In 2002, Pam Tillis included her version of the mournful breakup tune on It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis. S.B.
Clocking in under two minutes, “I’m Tired” is a fine example of Tillis’ mastery of economy. Webb Pierce released his single version in 1957, and his lonesome hillbilly whine is a natural fit for the exhausted, heartbroken character at the center of the story. In three short verses, he moves from searching, to hoping against all odds, to bitter and despondent. “Oh Lord, I’m tired of living this old way,” he sighs in the refrain, and we know better than to expect some happy resolution at the end. J.F.