Country Music Hall-of-Famer Mel Tillis passed away early Sunday morning at the age of 85. The legendary singer, songwriter and comedian — who turned his famous stutter into a comedy trademark — had battled intestinal issues since early last year. A statement on behalf of the family says Tillis died of suspected respiratory failure.
After serving in the Air Force, the Florida native born Lonnie Melvin Tillis found work on the railroad, using his railway pass to take the train to Nashville to pursue a career as a songwriter. Though he’d eventually amass 35 top-ten hits and six number-ones on his own, some of his greatest successes came crafting song for others, including Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Waylon Jenning’s “Mental Revenge,” and classics like “So Wrong” and “Strange” for Patsy Cline.
His own chart-toppers like “Coca-Cola Cowboy” and “Good Woman Blues” were part of a sixty-year career that saw Tillis take home one of country music’s highest honors in 1976, the CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy. Along the way, he even recorded an album of duets with Nancy Sinatra, and appeared in movies like Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run. His final #1 on the country chart came with “Southern Rains” in 1981.
In the nineties, Mel was one of a handful of artists who helped country music establish a stronghold in Branson, Missouri, as he opened a theater and performed there regularly. In 2007, Tillis received two of country music’s highest honors when he was officially inducted into both the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. President Obama awarded Tillis the National Medal of Arts in 2012 for his contributions to country music.
Mel Tillis is survived by six children, including 1994 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Pam Tillis, who was scheduled to be on the road Saturday night performing with Terri Clark and Suzy Bogguss. A statement on Pam’s Facebook page calls her father’s passing “sudden and unexpected,” adding that he was dearly loved and one of a kind,” and “a master songwriter, brilliant comedian and beloved father.“
Funeral services are planned in both Florida and Nashville, though details are still pending.
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