Talk about good timing: Mel Tillis joined the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year. But it’s not uncommon for Mel to have more than one thing going on at a time. His career has often followed dual paths simultaneously: songwriter and entertainer, singer and actor. In fact, if the stuttering singer hadn’t been so busy, he might have become an Opry member sooner.
“I always wanted to be a member of the Opry,” Mel once told interviewer Edward Morris, “but I was always gone. I was doing the Johnny Carson show, the Merv Griffin show, the Mike Douglas show — every show you could name — the Dean Martin show, Hollywood Squares and 13 movies. I just didn’t have the time to commit to being a member.”
Mel makes the time now, appearing at the Opry several times each year, and he brings a rich history with him.
Mel moved to Nashville as an aspiring songwriter in 1957 after Webb Pierce had a Top 5 hit with “I’m Tired,” a song Mel says Webb first heard Ray Price singing backstage at the Opry. Pierce also had a hit with Mel’s “I Ain’t Never,” and, soon, Mel was writing hits for all sorts of singers: Bobby Bare (“Detroit City”), Ray Price (“One More Time,” “Heart Over Mind,” “Burning Memories”), Jack Greene (“All the Time”), Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”), and Ricky Skaggs (“Honey (Open That Door)”).
At the same time, Mel launched a recording career that has yielded 67 Top 40 hits, including chart-toppers like his own version of “I Ain’t Never,” “Coca Cola Cowboy,” “Good Woman Blues,” and “Southern Rains.” In 1972, the Country Music Association named him Entertainer of the Year.
Mel also stepped out of the country music world and tried his hand at acting. He appeared in several television movies and the feature films like Every Which Way But Loose, W.W. & The Dixie Dance Kings and Uphill All the Way.
Today, new generations continue to discover the songs of the man who received the Academy of Country Music’s Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award in 2010: Opry member Alison Krauss and Robert Plant revived his “Stick With Me Baby,” originally written for the Everly Brothers, for their Grammy-winning Raising Sand album, and Jamey Johnson covered “Mental Revenge” for his 2010 album, The Guitar Song.
So Mel kept plenty busy in the 50 years between his first Opry appearance and the night he finally joined the show’s cast.
“I thought, ‘Boy, that took a long time, but it finally happened,’” he said on the night of his induction. “My mother used to say, ‘Son, if you want something really badly, and you dream about it, and you work toward it, it’ll happen.’ And it finally has happened. Mama was right.”
“The Opry’s always been on my mind. God bless the Grand Ole Opry.’”