County great Mel Tillis has more stories than he knows what to do with.
As one of Nashville’s most prolific songwriters and signature voices, the 81-year-old has told countless tales to audiences everywhere. Still other stories have been relayed in his 1984 autobiography, “Stutterin’ Boy.” And now the showman has finished and is awaiting publication of his first novel, “Actin’ Sheriff.”
The book has been picked up by the Simon & Schuster imprint Howard Books and should be released in the near future, Tillis said.
But the singer, songwriter and now author already has started on his second book, “A Goat Named Guano.”
“Don’t ask me where it comes from, I sit down and it starts coming,” Tillis said in a phone interview from his farm in Tennessee. “It’s the same with songs. I didn’t know I could write a song. I went to Nashville and they said, ‘Obviously you need to do something other than sing. You can’t talk.’ So I went back to Florida and started to write. Then I came back to Nashville with two songs. That’s how things got started.”
Those songs were “I’m Tired” and “Honky Tonk Song,” which both became hits for Webb Pierce. The rest, as they say, is history. His accolades include Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, County Music Hall of Fame and the National Medal of Arts through a career that has spanned 57 years.
Over those years, Tillis has released 60 albums, which have spawned 36 Top 10 Billboard singles and nine No. 1 hits, including “Good Woman Blues,” “Coca Cola Cowboy” and “Southern Rain.”
The country legend still plays about 100 shows a year with his band, the Statesiders, which he calls the “longest-running band in country music.” Two of its members have been with him 47 years; five others have played with him for 35 years.
“You know, I love what I do,” Tillis said. “I absolutely love it. I can’t hardly wait to get on stage. I’ve been at it for 57 years now and I still keep as busy as I want.”
Tillis also makes sure to play a few dates together with his daughter, country star Pam Tillis.
Throughout his career, Tillis has been known as a storyteller and a comedian, as well as a singer. This is no small feat considering his lifelong struggle with a speech impediment. But instead of letting it hold him back, Tillis used his stuttering in his shows.
“A lot of folks, if they have a kid who stutters, or even older people who stutter and come through my autograph line, they’re amazed that I’ve been able to live with it,” he said. “I can’t stand up and read. I never could do that, even in high school, like giving a book report. I still can’t read a cue card or I’ll stutter. If I’m up there on my own and I know what I am supposed to be doing, I can say it.”
It was advice from two women, one his mother and one country legend Minnie Pearl, that got him to overcome his worries about stuttering. Tillis remembers going to school for the first time at age 6 and coming home to his mother.
“I said, ‘Mama, do I stutter?’ She said, ‘Yes, you do, son.’ I said, ‘Mama, they laughed at me.’ And she said, ‘Son, if they’re going to laugh at you, give them something to laugh about.’ So I went to school the next day and it was the very first day in showbiz.”
Then, when he was just breaking into the music business in Nashville, Tillis played rhythm guitar in Pearl’s band. She let him sing a couple of his songs. But he never spoke on stage – letting others introduce songs and thank the crowd.
“Minnie called me over one day, she said, ‘Melvin, I noticed you have a little speech hang-up.’ But she said, ‘Let me tell you this, if you are going to be in this business, you need to introduce your own songs, and when you’re finished, you need to thank them yourself.’ I said, ‘Minnie, they’re laughing at me.’ She said, ‘They’re laughing with you.’ So that’s how I started talking on stage.”
Tillis got so good at talking on stage that he won the Country Music Association’s Comedian of the Year award six times in the 1970s. He appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” 28 times. He has also acted in numerous feature films, including “Every Which Way But Loose” with Clint Eastwood, “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings,” “Cannonball Run I and II,” “Smokey and the Bandit II” with Burt Reynolds and a leading role in “Uphill All The Way.”
“I’ve been truly blessed,” he said. “I like to do a little comedy on stage. A lot of the stories are even true. We try to entertain, we don’t just sing.”
But back to his latest tall tale. His book, “Actin’ Sheriff,” is set in 1947 Palm Beach County, Fla. The humorous novel follows a man who takes over when the real sheriff has to go to the hospital for a hemorrhoid operation. Predictably, “all hell breaks loose,” Tillis said.
“The one thing I learned in high school that I can still do is type,” he said. “So I finished a novel. It’s comedy. You’ll laugh all the way through it.” Kind of like what Tillis has been doing his whole career.