Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis, who performs at the Texas Ampitheatre on Saturday, didn't know years ago if he was going to make it in the music business. He didn't have any trouble singing. But he sure did talking.
As most of his fans know by now, Tillis stutters and has since his childhood when he contracted malaria. Now he makes a joke of his stuttering and gets people to laugh with him about it.
But when he was starting his career in Nashville decades ago, Tillis was concerned people would laugh AT him.
One time, after he performed with Roger Miller (of "King of the Road" fame) and Minnie Pearl, the comedienne with the funny hat and the price tag dangling from it, she took him aside.
“Melvin, you are going to have to introduce your own song,” Pearl told him. Then at the end of the song, he needed to thank the audience and then sign autographs, she advised.
Tillis told her he was embarrassed about his stuttering and was afraid people would make fun of him.
“No, they won't, Melvin, they'll laugh WITH you,” Pearl responded.
"Miss Minnie was right," Tillis recalled in a phone interview this week. He's back in Texas and performed a sold-out show in Arlington, and will appear at the Texas Ampitheatre this Saturday night with his longtime band, the Statesiders. Jake Hooker is the opening act.
Tillis said he thought he'd visited Glen Rose before.
“I've been in Texas so many times over the years I can't remember all the places,” he said. “I do remember something about dinosaurs.”
The show will last about an hour-and-half, Tillis said. He cuts it a bit shorter when he performs at casinos.
“Otherwise, they'll put a hook out there and pull me off the stage,” Tillis joked.
That won't happen onstage in Glen Rose. Audience members can expect to hear “a little country, a little Western swing, a little stand-up comedy and after the show I'll sign autographs,” he said. “I don't do a concert, I do a show.”
He also will take song requests from the audience and likely will perform a gospel song and patriotic song at the end of the show.
Tillis can claim one of the longest careers in the country music and entertainment business. Over more than 50 years he has recorded more than 60 albums, had 35 Top Ten singles and has written more than 1,000 songs, 600 of which have been recorded by other artists. Kenny Rogers turned his “Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town” into a hit, as did George Strait with Tillis' song “Thoughts of a Fool” and Ricky Skaggs' rendition of “Honey, Open That Door.”
Tillis also is a storyteller. He's compiled some of his funny stories into a comedy CD titled “You Ain't Gonna Believe This…," which hit No. 4 on Billboard's comedy chart. A sampling of the track list includes titles such as “I Thought He Only Had One Eye,” “Biscuit in the Pocket,” “Peed on the Matches,” "Chickens in the Sack” and “Blow It Out with the Hose.”
“My stories are 85 percent true,” Tillis said with a laugh.
Since he's open about stuttering and incorporates anecdotes about stuttering into his act, Tillis said he receives e-mails and letters from mothers and fathers with children who stutter and others who thank him.
“It's rewarding to me to let them know that there's another world out there for stutterers,” Tillis said.
After growing up in Florida and leaving to make his fame and fortune, Tillis has returned to his home state and now lives on a cattle ranch in Ocala. But he said he feels a special connection with Texas after having performed with Western swing legend Bob Wills in the 1960s as a special guest artist.
Tillis doesn't play the guitar on his records, but he does on the stage. He'll pick it up and play as he tells a story, then put it down and pick it back up.
“It makes people think I know what I'm doing,” he said.
Tillis is something of a Western renaissance man. In addition to singing and writing songs and comedy, he paints and is at work on a novel. It's called Actin' Sheriff and is set in Palm Beach County where he grew up.
“It's about a sheriff who's going into the hospital to have a hemorrhoid operation and he appoints his sergeant as acting sheriff,” Tillis said. “Then all hell breaks loose. It's one laugh after another. It'll make a heck of a movie.”
He's writing the novel under a pseudonym, Pilgrim Williams.
“Hell, Mark Twain had one, so I might as well,” he said.
Tillis' paintings include portraits and still lifes. He's taken private art lessons and likes to work in oils.
“I switch back and forth between the novel and painting and being on the road,” Tillis said.
He said he doesn't tire of being on the road, even at age 79.
“That's what I want to do,” he said. “I hear a lot of artists who say they just hate it. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.
"I'm in great shape," Tillis added. “I believe I can outrun every one of my band members."
Country music has changed a lot since Tillis got in the business. He certainly put his personal stamp on it.
“When Roger Miller and I came to town, it changed," he said. "Ten years later, when Willie Nelson came, it changed again. It has to change. If it doesn't, it gets stale.”
Tillis keeps looking for outlets for his creativity to see that doesn't happen to him.
Tickets are available for Saturday's Mel Tillis show by calling the Somervell County Expo office at 254-897-4509; prices are $26, $36 and $46. A seating chart is available on the Expo's Web site at www.glenroseexpo.org.
To learn more about Tillis, his music and comedy and to view his paintings, visit his Web site at www.meltillis.com.