Over his 50-year entertainment career, Mel Tillis has run out of awards to be won. Beginning with winning the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976, Tillis was later inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, included in multiple halls of fame and, most recently, received the National Medal of Arts.Even after all of that he keeps coming back to the stage — Sunday it’ll be at the Clearwater River Casino east of Lewiston.
Tillis was originally scheduled to perform at the casino last December, but he canceled the show for health reasons. He’s in good shape now, he says, so 360 caught up with him via phone from his Tennessee ranch to find out what brings him to the stage.
360: Most people your age (82) are retired. Why are you still running around the country performing?
Tillis: I love what I do. Plus, I got the band that has been with me for so long, if I quit, they’d be out of a job. You know, I love to entertain. If it wasn’t for humor, I don’t know if I’d have made it.
360: Was it your humor that got you where you are? Or was it something else?
Tillis: It was my hard work. I went up to Nashville to be a singer, but no one would listen to me when they heard me stutter. So I was told to go back to my home in Florida and write songs. I worked on the railroad there and my job was slow, so I’d write songs. Those songs just came to me. They were gifts. If you want to know the truth, I’m not that smart, I’ve been told that a bunch of times.
360: Your stutter initially seemed to hold you back from a musical career. How else did it influence you?
Tillis: My dad stuttered, my brother stuttered, so I stuttered. That was the way we talked. One day I came home from school and I asked my mamma, “Mamma, do I stutter?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “The kids at school are laughing at me.” And she said to me, “Well, if they’re going to laugh at you, give them something to laugh about.” I went back to school the next day and I did. That was my first day in show business.
360: Your stutter turned you into an entertainer, which extends well beyond musical performances. You’ve been on the stage as a comedian, on TV shows and even landed movie roles. What was it like to do all that with a stutter?
Tillis: I did it all. If I stuttered, I stuttered. If I didn’t, I didn’t. Sometimes I’d go on shows and they’d have cue cards and write in a stutter for me. I wouldn’t do that, I said, “I stutter where I stutter and I don’t stutter on that word.” My stutter has been a blessing in a lot of ways. It’s helped me to try harder and to be somebody that helps other people. After the shows, I’ll spend a little time with children who stutter, let them know it’s OK. I still get mail from people I talked to years ago.
360: What do you think was your main contribution to country music?
Tillis: I just did what I did and it worked. I had the humor thing and it really worked. And then I had all the hit songs I wrote over the years. Then I get people saying, “Hey Mel sing this, hey Mel sing that.” It’s a good feeling to know you’ve done something that makes people happy.
360: What do you have planned for Sunday’s show?
Tillis: Boy, I’ll be doing a bunch of songs, including some I didn’t record — “Detroit City,” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Digging Up Bones.” I wrote and recorded “Digging Up Bones,” but the producer didn’t put it on my album. Along comes Randy Travis and he put it out. But in my version, I’ve got another verse in there. I thought the song was too short so I added another verse — Randy doesn’t have that in his version, so people can hear it at the show.
If you go:
WHAT: Mel Tillis
WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Clearwater River Casino, east of Lewiston
COST: Ticket prices are $25, $40, $60 and $75. Purchase tickets at the casino box office or through www.ticketswest.com.