Review: Mel Tillis – The Best of Mel Tillis: The Columbia Years (Legacy, 2011)
Mel Tillis – The Best of Mel Tillis: The Columbia Years (Legacy, 2011)
A decade before Mel Tillis found 1970s fame as a singer on Kapp and MGM, he recorded a number of terrific, often adventurous sides for Columbia. Tillis had been writing hits for years charting sides with Webb Pierce, Bobby Bare, Stonewall Jackson and others, but his own singles, including “The Violet and a Rose” and “Sawmill,” found only limited success. Legacy’s 24-track collection, a digital download reissue of Collectors’ Choice’s out-of-print CD, is a treasure-trove of Tillis originals, many co-written with Wayne Walker. Many of these titles were hits for other singers, including eight for Pierce, and while it’s a treat to find Tillis’ original versions of “Honky Tonk Song,” “Holiday for Love” and “A Thousand Miles Ago,” it’s even more interesting to hear the range of styles he tried out. There are Louvin-inspired harmonies inn “Georgia Town Blues,” a twangy proto-rock guitar in the tall tale “Loco Weed,” a calypso beat for “Party Girl,” and a cover of “Hearts of Stone” (which was also recorded by Elvis Presley, Connie Francis and Red Foley) that has wailing sax and Cameo-Parkway styled backing vocals. Tillis’ lack of hits at Columbia no doubt contributed to his stylistic flexibility, and though he sounds most deeply at home on honky-tonk sides “Heart Over Mind” (a hit for Ray Price) and “Tupelo County Jail,” he remained engaged and enthusiastic when singing the Johnny Horton styled historical tale “Ten Thousand Drums” and teen tunes like “It’s So Easy.” Tillis would found tremendous fame as a singer and personality in the 1970s, but these earlier sides for Columbia show convincingly that his success in the spotlight should have come much sooner.
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