Mel Tillis’ Classic Elektra Years Reissued On Collectors’ Choice

Mel Tillis has charted more than 100 hits as a performer and songwriter, starred in half a dozen movies, and became one of the few country artists to figure out the business side of the music business. Some of the biggest hits of his career were created during his tenure at Elektra Records (1979-82). And now, three long-out-of-print Elektra albums — Me and Pepper (1979), Your Body Is an Outlaw (1980) and Southern Rain (1981) — will be made available as remastered CDs on Collectors' Choice Music on April 29, 2008. Liner notes were written by Grammy Award-winning musicologist Colin Escott.

Tillis was born in Tampa, Fla. during the Great Depression. He began stuttering at age three, but soon discovered he didn't stutter when he sang. After spending 1951-55 in the Air Force, he headed to Nashville to begin his musical career. Singers, of course, had to talk between songs in live shows, but Tillis' stuttering soon became part of his act. In 1957, he signed to Columbia and later recorded for MGM.

Two decades later, in 1979, Tillis celebrated a No. 1 country record with "Coca Cola Cowboy" just as his MCA Records contract was coming to a close. He followed longtime producer Jimmy Bowen from MCA to Elektra Records. According to Escott's liners, Tillis and Bowen "fought, but respected each other. Bowen liked full productions. Mel didn't. "'Do me an effin f-f-favor, '" Bowen remembered Mel saying, "'Don't put no more new sh** on my records.'" Asked why, Tillis replied, "Cause I'm up to two buses, a truck and a 15-piece orchestra, and it's breaking me on the road!"

Tillis' first album was Me and Pepper, Pepper being the name of his horse, pictured on the front cover. The backing band featured James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, respectively Elvis Presley's guitarist and pianist; plus Sonny Curtis, guitarist from Buddy Holly's band The Crickets. However, they didn't rock too hard — this after all was the "countrypolitan" era. Daughter Pam Tillis — herself later a country star —was featured as a backing vocalist. The album spawned two Top 10 hits — "Blind in Love" and the quintessential cheatin' ballad "Lying Time" — as well as a No. 30 country hit with "Fooled Around and Fell in Love."

1980's Your Body Is an Outlaw produced two hits right out of the box: the title track (written by Billy Star, and a previous hit for Cowboy Copas, Ernest Tubb and Johnny Bond), which reached No. 2, and the Top 10 follow-up "Steppin' Out." The album also includes "Whiskey Chasin', " written by future Kenny Chesney producer Buddy Cannon, plus "Blue Eyes, " written by Hank Williams' pedal steel player Don Helms with Bill Monroe band member Merle Taylor and initially recorded in 1955 by Ray Price.

The third and final album in Tillis' Elektra trifecta was the successful Southern Rain, issued in 1981. The long-player's sound was edgier and less countrypolitan, containing no attempts at pop crossover and no oldies. The album's title track, written by Roger Murrah, hit No. 1 on the country charts, standing as Tillis' final chart-topper. The album also featured "Here's Looking at You, " penned by Sandy Packard, who'd written "Coca Cola Cowboy."

Before leaving Elektra, Tillis also released a duet album with Nancy Sinatra, which is not part of the Collectors' Choice retrospective. He then returned to MCA Nashville. Tillis also became a founder of the Branson, Mo. scene, opening his own theater in 1992 and closing it in 2002, while continuing to play the town regularly. He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007 by daughter Pam. He remains a towering figure in the emergence of country music.

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