Nashville Bids Tuneful Adieu To Mel Tillis

Steve Gatlin, Pam Tillis and Rudy Gatlin perform at the Mel Tillis Memorial at Ryman Auditorium on January 31, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by R. Diamond/Getty Images

The life of singer, songwriter, humorist, actor, author, bandleader and business mogul Mel Tillis was celebrated in a music-filled show on Wednesday morning, Jan 31.

The Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ole Opry and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member died last Nov. 19 at age 85. His memorial celebration included film clips and several people who spoke in tribute to the country-music great.

“His creations resonate with all of us,” said Country Music Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young. “Mel Tillis showed us how to connect who we are with who we ought to be. He died an accomplished man. He lives as an example of what we might be.”

“He changed the course of my life,” said songwriter, producer and former Tillis band member Buddy Cannon. “Anything I have in my career, I can trace to that.”

Opry CEO Steve Buchanan said that Tillis was, “a one-of-a-kind great guy, a true character.”

Street Corner Symphony (L-R: Kaleb Jones, Jeremy Lister, Kurt Zimmerman, Armand Hutton and Jonathan Lister) join Alison Krauss. Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Country Music Hall of Fame member Ralph Emery related the superstar’s accomplishments and recalled humorous incidents.
But it was the music of Mel Tillis that remained the celebration’s focus. Backed by the legendary Statesiders band, a bevy of talents took the stage to sing songs that Tillis either wrote or popularized.

Tillis’s outstanding band kicked things off with “I Ain’t Never.” Ira Dean did “I’m Tired.” Branson entertainer Splinter Middleton performed a rhythmic “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”

Host Emery interspersed his introductions with anecdotes. Pastor Kevin Shorey led the audience in prayer.

Steve & Rudy Gatlin offered “Come On and Sing” with Pam Tillis standing in for an ailing Larry Gatlin. Carrie April Tillis drew the day’s first standing ovation for her lovely rendition of “The Violet and the Rose,” featuring harmonies by The Stutterettes, Tammy Carter and Tonya Wainscott. American Idol alumnus Kree Harrison belted the ballad “Emotions,” penned by Tillis for Brenda Lee.

Ray Stevens performs at the Mel Tillis Memorial at Ryman Auditorium on January 31, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

“My daddy was a blessed man,” said Sonny Tillis (Mel Tillis Jr.). “How many people their whole lives get to do what they love to do?” He sang the shuffles “Heart Over Mind and “Burning Memories,” drawing a second standing ovation.

Collin Raye phrased excellently on “Send Me Down to Tucson.” Daryle Singletary gave a hard-country spin to “New Patches.” Lorrie Morgan offered the Tillis pop cha-cha “Strange,” originally recorded by Patsy Cline. Ray Stevens delivered a swinging “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” Ricky Skaggs had the audience wailing with him on the rollicking “Honey (Open That Door).”

Jamey Johnson delivered a bluesy, languid version of “I Believe in You,” and drew a standing ovation. So did Alison Krauss when she teamed up with the five-man a cappella group Street Corner Symphony on “Stick With Me Baby.”

“It’s been a long morning, but I have loved every second of this,” said Pam Tillis. She singled out The Statesiders for their superb musicianship throughout. The group is perhaps the last of country’s big bands. Mel Tillis always carried triple fiddles, two pianos, triple guitars and a full compliment of accompanying instruments and singers.

Jamey Johnson performs during the Mel Tillis Memorial at Ryman Auditorium on January 31, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

“It’s revered as the Standard,” remarked Jimmy Garstrung, who has played piano with the group for 35 years. “I don’t know that you’ll ever see the likes of it again. But what a band. What a band. Many of us were here for decades, and you won’t see that again either.”

“Daddy always closed every show with this,” Pam commented before beginning “Detroit City.” Brother Sonny did the recitation, and Tanya Tucker joined the day’s other performers, as well as a singing, standing audience for the song’s finale.

The two-hour show was staged at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville’s traditional venue for farewells to its kings and queens. It was aired live on WSM radio.


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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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