Mel Tillis has always stuttered when he talked. Not when he sings, just when he talks. And it nearly cost him a career.
Had it not been for the late Minnie Pearl, the Nashville humorist who always wore a hat with a price tag attached, Tillis might not have had his amazing success.
Tillis, who has been performing for half a century and brings his act to Penn's Peak on Friday night, said Pearl gave him the best advice he ever received.
He recalls that he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry with the legendary Roger Miller, but couldn't thank his audience because he stuttered so badly. So, Miller thanked the crowd for him.
Pearl admonished Tillis, "If you're going to be a recording artist, you must introduce your song and most importantly, thank the audience."
"I told her, 'They'll laugh at me,'" referring to his stuttering.
"She said, 'No. They'll laugh with you.'"
Speaking in an interview from his ranch in Nashville, Tillis acknowledged, "I owe it all to Minnie."
He still stutters. He said, though, "The more I talk, the less I stutter."
The stuttering has become a sort of trademark.
Though Tillis has been recording since the late 50s, his biggest success came in the late 60s and throughout the 70s when he had such hits as "Who's Julie," "Heart Over Mind," "Coca-Cola Cowboy," "These Lonely Hands of Mine," and "The Arms of A Fool." In his career, he has posted 60 songs on the Billboard chart, including six which reached number one and a whopping 31 which made it into the top 10.
His concert begins at 8 p.m. and tickets will be available at the door.
Besides being a singer, Tillis is an actor (he had roles in numerous movies including "Every Which Way But Loose" and "W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings"), he's a songwriter having written several of his own songs and hits for other performers, he's a fisherman, he's an entrepreneur having owned a theater in Branson for many years as well as his own record company, and he's an artist, with one of his paintings fetching nearly $80,000 in a fund-raising effort for Masonic America.
He's also a husband and a father of six children - five daughters and a son. Among the children is country singing sensation Pam Tillis, who also has quite a list of major hits.
Mel laughs at the fact that Pam was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville before he was. Because of this, she was able to perform the induction ceremony when he entered the Opry in 2007.
The country great has had many jobs before his success as a musician. He drove a milk truck, during which time he wrote the song "Heart Over Mind." He drove a cookie truck. He worked as a fireman on the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The latter job was his for just 33 days. The train on which he worked went into Nashville and while there he knocked on doors to land singing jobs.
He went to three different record producers: Cedarwood, Acuff, and Tree. He signed with Tree and allowed them to have the royalties. "Thirty-to-forty years later, I bought the company," he said.
His band, the Statesiders, has remained constant. Three of the members have been with him over 40 years, two for 31 years, and two for 18 years.
Tillis, who will turn 78 in August, says he is in great health and hasn't slowed down. "I can outrun every one of my band members," he joked.
His ambition has him still doing about 100 shows a year.
His next album will be different than all his privious ones, he said. Due out this summer, it will be a comedy album called "You Ain't Gonna Believe This."
He said he never thought of himself as a comedian.
When he operated the theater in Branson, he recorded all his performances. He looked back on the tapes and saw the laughter he got from the audience when he told funny stories.
He picked out 20 of those best stories and put them on his new album.
"My comedy is stories," he said. "I'll tell some of these stories in Jim Thorpe on Friday."
Besides the stories, Tillis will be singing a lot of songs, including many of his big hits.
"I love you folks in Pa.," said Tillis. "You're in a beautiful part of the country."
"I'm looking forward to having a great time Friday night," he remarked.
The concert by Mel Tillis will get underway at 8 p.m. Friday at Penn's Peak. This is the first time Tillis has performed at the Peak. Tickets, $34 and $29, are available at the door. For more information, visit www.pennspeak.com. The Web site for Mel Tillis on which you can also get information on his artwork is www.meltillis.com.