By Jim Jerome
Updated November 15, 1976 12:00 PM
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Some great Nashville artists play on acoustic or pedal steel guitars, others on banjos and fiddles. Mel Tillis’ uniquely ingratiating talent is playing on a speech impediment. For two decades, Tillis, 44, has cracked up country music audiences in concert and on TV by saying, “I been stutterin’…all my life—18 years p-p-professionally.” His defusing humor has won Tillis not pity but some 200 bookings a year instead. His fond national following also includes Music City’s tightly strung elite, and last month the 5,000-member Country Music Association voted the unsung, tongue-tied Tillis Entertainer of the Year, Nashville’s Nobel Prize.

Some insiders explain Tillis’ upset as a backlash vote against both the Austin renegades like Waylon Jennings and the pop pasteurizers like Olivia Newton-John. “Mel is absolute country, Nashville establishment,” says CMA board chairman Jim Foglesong, “not someone who has crossing over into pop on his mind.” Either way, Tillis’ triumph left him “surprised,” he says. His LP sales are solid but not overwhelming (averaging 100,000), and, though he’s had “jillions of Top Tens,” only one (I Ain’t Never) has ever hit No. 1 on all trade charts. Instead, he credits his nonstop touring grind, scores of TV appearances and his own 13-week syndicated show two years ago with establishing his identity.

Thanks to the award, he says, his guarantee for a major concert will triple to around $20,000. He’ll buy his men a $25,000 set of new costumes and a second touring bus. Though his guffawing audiences adore his stuttering shtik, Tillis says the act has helped him beat it. “The more I go onstage and feel my independence and that power over audiences, the less I stutter. One of my main objectives in life has been to whip this som’bitch, daddy.” Curiously, he has no hangfires shooting off four-letter words (or singing). “I’m gonna whip it,” he vows. “If it only worked the way it did in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where an inmate loses his stutter after shacking up on the ward, I’d be talkin’ jes’ like…D-D-Don Ameche.”

His struggle was recently highlighted when scripts for some Purina dog food TV spots were rejected by two networks because, he says, “They thought viewers would object to my stutterin’. They’re denyin’ handicapped people the right to work.” NBC has since come around after his widely publicized complaint. CBS hasn’t, and Tillis threatens to sue for $5 million.

The tense, uneven rhythm of Tillis’ speech and his comic timing rivet listeners, particularly when he’s at his most entertaining—on all-night bus rides with his band, the Statesiders. For hours he and his brother Richard, 46, his nonmusical road manager, sustain a felicitously foulmouthed, beer-fueled recitation of their shared folklore over the crackle of the CB. (“I don’t use CB ’cause I cain’t…talk in it. If I did, I’d call m’self Old F-F-Flutterlips.”)

“We don’t tear up hotels,” Mel says, “but we have ourselves a good ole time.” Despite the long hauls (120,000 miles last year) and truckstop cuisine, the dark, close intimacy on the bus offers a liberating looseness for Mel and the band. “I find it relaxin’. I could spend all my time in Nashville doin’ things I don’t wanna do—promos, TV shows, interviews, sessions, phonin’. I get itchy when I’m in town too long.”

“Tillis hunkers just 100 days a year at his 18-room home, with wife Doris, their four daughters aged 19, 16, 15 and 4, and Mel Jr., 13. During those stays he often drives to his 700-acre farm 45 miles from Nashville, where he harvests “enough corn to feed my cattle” and cultivates 21 acres of tobacco. He owns two lakeside retreats in his home state of Florida but says, “I get down there to fish maybe three days at Easter.”

Tillis candidly admits that touring has created “not the happiest of atmospheres at home. Doris can’t expect me to stop this dream in the middle. I still love her, but I know I’m not the husband I oughta be. We don’t do enough things together as a family. I know that. But damn, workin’ for that farm’s been my dream all my life, and I know they understand that. Anyway, country stars don’t run off and leave home. The Protestant conscience—and family values—are too important.”

Tillis remains tied, by his stutter, to the agonies of his Pahokee, Fla. childhood. The son of a baker, he first realized something was different “when my first-grade teacher asked me to stand up and read out loud and nothing came out. Everyone laughed.” Tillis eventually quit the University of Florida and spent four years in the Air Force at the time of the Korean war. Back home, he worked in a bakery, was a railroad fireman, then drifted to Detroit before moving to Nashville to find himself as a composer. It was about 15 years before he could publicly perform his own songs (like Detroit City and Ruby) in his rich, rustic baritone.

Now at the peak of his performing career, he writes less but has earned more than $1 million for four years running—without any superstar trip. “I seen some great people earn a fortune and then throw it all away with Caddylacs and valets. I don’t need no drones hangin’ onto me. Every penny I made I put into land, ’cause that way I cain’t mess up. I’m self-managed, I have my eyes open, and, daddy, I control my own destiny.”