The photo on the cover of Mel Tillis’ 1979 album Me and Pepper looks like a painting. It depicts Tillis on the back of his horse Pepper, of course, in an open field. And actually, just Tillis and Pepper look painted, giving them a larger-than-life stature. I suppose that presence matches his significant standing in country music at the time, though the look-at-the-star-at-home nature of the cover is no doubt meant to match his affable, humble persona. By then he was a country-music personality as much or more than a musician. He had amassed hits as a songwriter and singer. In the 1960s, he wrote hits for Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Kitty Wells, and more, ending the decade with Kenny Rogers’ huge hit “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. As a singer, he achieved his first Top 10 hits around the same time. In 1969, he had two, with more to come in the early ‘70s. By 1979, he had been named by CMA as Entertainer of the Year (a big deal then and now), had entered the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and had co-hosted a TV variety show. He performed in Vegas, appeared in Hollywood films, wrote fewer songs and became known as a country entertainer, more than just a singer or songwriter. He was a recognizable face and voice, known for his stutter and for making light of it.
Tillis’ stint on Elektra Records, represented by reissues of his three Elektra solo albums, took place in this context. He was no longer writing songs at the pace he once did. He was already a star. With these albums he was just trying to keep pushing things along, to make some more albums and have some more hit songs on the radio. According to Colin Escott’s liner notes, Tillis was not that pleased with the results overall. Escott quotes Tillis as saying, “I went with Elektra ‘cause they gave me a good amount of money … but it didn’t work out.” All three albums attempt a balance between a stripped-down classic country style, recalling Tillis’ roots, and the lush, strings-driven pop approach that would, it seemed, be more likely to get songs on the radio. Tillis and producer Jimmy Bowen fought over that balance, according to Escott, and you can hear it.
Sentimentality is a key part of Tillis’ musical personality, yet it begs for some tempering by the music, to make it not too saccharine to stomach. These three albums bounce back and forth over that line, with the best moments of each album keeping the sound spare enough to keep the focus on the singer and the song. Tillis doesn’t have an especially unique singing voice, but when he sings in a straightforward way, he can shine. The more complicated things get, the murkier. When the production amplifies the sentimentality too strongly, which happens to an extent on all three albums, Tillis either disappears or comes across as duller than he is.
There were two hit singles on Me and Pepper: “Blind in Love” and “Lying Time Again”. On the first, Tillis’ persona is that of a lovesick fool: “You can treat me any way you have a mind to / ‘Cause I’m blind in love with you”. That bookends the album with the less-successful but similar “You Threw Away the Mold”, where he fawns without the awareness that he’s fawning. In “Lying Time Again” he’s at the other side of the game of love, making up stories to cover up that he’s been in another woman’s arms. Throughout the album, he’s wrapped up in some lover’s game, or soaking in drink in the aftermath. The best songs aren’t too dressed-up, with Tillis getting to the gut of the song, the hurt in it. Those two hit singles were hits for a reason, but even better is “This Is Me”, where he tries to ease a lover’s mind … a mind that, he asserts, “has created a cliché collage of the past” instead of dealing with him as he is.
1980’s Your Body Is an Outlaw is a little sappier than Me and Pepper at times, like on the title track, “She’s Just Being a Woman”, and the super-cheesy “Love Up a Storm”, which Tillis sings surprisingly strongly anyway. Tillis’ voice and personality on the album have more backbone than on Me and Pepper, which helps. Better still, the album has a Texas-swing soul that connects it more deeply with the past, first on Billy Starr’s “Steppin’ Out”, which is carefree in feeling but carrying hurt within, and then on Bob Wills’ classics “Stay a Little Longer” and “Cherokee Maiden”. He plays those two songs, and the similar “Rain On My Parade”, with a certain putting-on-a-show quality that today can’t help but recall Tillis’ presence in Branson, Missouri in the ‘90s. The same is true of some of his most sentimental moments. There’s a “Thing Called Sadness”, as one song is titled, in even these songs, though—that old tear-in-your-beer side of country. The best sad song on Your Body Is an Outlaw is “Whiskey Chasin’”, which sounds less Texas dancehall than a lonely rainy afternoon in a dark old bar. Written by Buddy Cannon, then Tillis’ bass player and now a successful producer for Kenny Chesney and others, the song has both a melancholy melody and lyrics that set as vivid a scene. “Seems like every time the saddest song is played a sadder one will start”, Tillis memorably sings.
Southern Rain seems like a concerted effort to maintain one particular atmosphere across an album, compared to its predecessor. That mood is more stripped-down but also more of a radio sound: slick and accessible, but also with fiddles, steel guitar, and that simple country-ballad shuffle. It occupies some middle ground between the dueling sounds of the last album. At its worst, it’s less distinctive. The ballads “Million Old Goodbyes” and “Sweet Desire” are too corny for their own good. “Southern Rain”, the biggest radio hit off any of Tillis’ Elektra albums (it hit #1) convincingly carries homesickness within it, but still feels a little overdone compared to his lonely songs that are anchored more firmly within a country foundation. Those include “Pyramid of Cans” (which opens up sounding like “What Made Milwaukee Famous”, not coincidentally) and “Forgive Me for Giving You the Blues”. “Shame on You Shame on Me”, another stab at cheating as a subject, and “Louisiana Lonely”, regional like the title track, successfully take the honkytonk core of those songs in more of an FM Radio direction, and pull it off well. Those two songs might be the best representation of the direction Tillis and Bowen were headed with Southern Rain, a direction that, as with the other two albums, they hit dead-on at times and missed at others.
These albums weren’t a fulcrum on which hinged Tillis’ career or legacy, though. He already was a star at this point, and continued to be one, using his personality and love of country music to keep pushing along to this day. In October 2007, he was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame, described in the process as an “all-around entertainer”. He still records and performs from time to time, but his website also reflects the hobbies of someone essentially in retirement: painting and fishing.
Me and Pepper
Your Body Is an Outlaw