It’s easy to forget today that Mel Tillis the songwriter was not always a pillar of Branson; 40 years ago he was a peer of Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Roger Miller and Willie Nelson. A superb honky-tonk vocalist and hitmaker, Tillis left a magnificent wealth of material on Columbia, Kapp, MGM and MCA, all unavailable.
Changing times alone weren’t to blame. Tillis was an established Nashville star when he became a fixture on talk shows and Bob Hope specials, titillating mainstream America with his stuttering good ol’ boy persona (he’d learned to control the stuttering long ago). Like Buck Owens’ years with “Hee Haw”, these exploits overexposed and distorted his true legacy.
Eldest daughter Pam was the impetus behind this earthy, largely unforced Mel retrospective. As producer, she wisely placed some tunes close to their original contexts, while recasting others in contemporary settings to demonstrate their timelessness. Even the guest artists take a backseat to the songs, as it should be. Mel’s notes, replete with fascinating, often hilarious tales of each tune’s genesis, are a treat in themselves.
“I Ain’t Never” rides the same aggressive shuffle beat as Webb Pierce’s hit version. The uptown elegance of “Emotions” honors the interpretations of both Carl Smith and Brenda Lee, just as “So Wrong” acknowledges Patsy Cline’s. The stark string quartet arrangement of “Detroit City” frees it from being another clone of Bobby Bare’s hit version. Mel appears once (in fine voice) on the closing track, “Come On And Sing”. It’s a bit precious, but not enough to mar this very worthy project.