Country Music: Off the Beaten Path with Mel Tillis

by Max Sparber

Mel Tillis, one of the Country music's superlative songwriters and a defining voice of 1970s country, died Nov. 19 at the age of 85. Unfortunately, but for a few best of albums, most of his substantial recording career in not currently available for download.

Ordinarily, when a Country great dies, I like to take a ramble through their odder material, but, with Tillis, there isn't that much of it easily accessible. Perhaps his death will cause a reissue of his work, and I can revisit it, but, for now, I will offer four of his wilder original songs and four surprising covers of songs Tillis wrote or co-wrote.


“Loco Weed,” 1960

A song about a hepcat cowboy that, with swirling electric guitar and “The Stroll”-styled background vocals, sounds like Country music discovered garage rock a half-decade before anyone else.

“Shanghaied,” 1970

Tillis sometimes seemed like a deranged version of Johnny Horton, performing cheery songs about frontier history, such as this song in which he is literally drugged and sent to see during San Francisco’s gaslight era.

“Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” 1972

A chipper “Battle of New Orleans”-song with a mournful harmonica, in which Tillis sings of his love for an outhouse and pleads that it not be torn down.

“Wine,” 1972

Built over a memorable “Tobacco Road”-style electric guitar riff and featuring a Nashville sound-style chorus, the production masks the bleakness of the lyrics, detailing the privations experienced by a wino.


“Detroit City,” Solomon Burke, 1967

This homesick ballad has enjoyed some memorable version, including Bobby Bare’s chart-topping version and Tom Jones horn-blasted rendition. But Solomon Burke turns into a superb R&B song, a classic example of Soul Country.

“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” Leonard Nimoy, 1970

Leonard Nimoy. The actor who played Spock never got as much grief over his recording career as Bill Shatner, probably because he sounded more like a hip uncle than a hysterical screamer. But this rollicking version of the Tillis song, with Nimoy almost whisper singing the melancholy lyrics, sounds decidedly off even before the song reaches it’s inappropriately misogynistic climax.

“I Ain’t Never,” Carol Channing and Webb Pierce, 1977

An impossible to describe duet with Channing just Channing things up, Pierce sounding like he’d been punched in the throat, and a Country disco arrangement.

“Thoughts of a Fool,” Jeff Cole, 2016

Near as I can tell, Cole is just singing over a karaoke version of the George Strait version of this song but improvising his own lyrics, which are mostly about how he can’t plagiarize George Strait. Pure outsider art.


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