Remembering Mel Tillis — Country Crossover With Some Surprising Influence

The country music world lost one of its greats recently.  In the world of popular song, Mel Tillis might best be remembered as one of the “country crossover” artists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys, and of course Dolly Parton leading the charge.  Still others may recall his minor comedy roles as one of Burt Reynolds’ pals, or as Pam Tillis’ father.

While each of these are correct, the fact is that Mel Tillis was an accomplished songwriter who penned a pair of classics for the genre of American pop, and probably would’ve written many more if he hadn’t propelled to fame as a performer in the late 1960s.

Believe it or not, one of his compositions unexpectedly and unintentionally contributed to changing the course of American history.

Tillis had been part of the music scene since the 1950s with a few minor hits, when friend and fellow country artist Bobby Bare decided to record one of Mel’s songs in the early 1960s.  “Detroit City” was a bluesy/folk ballad instantly recognizable by the refrain, “I wanna go home…I wanna go home….oh how I want to go home.”  Bare’s homespun sound not only cracked the country charts, but went on to hit #16 on Billboard pop.  This prompted a cover by Dean Martin, which scored on the Adult Contemporary charts.  Dean’s version prompted a cover by Tom Jones of all people, who put it in the 20s on both charts, as well as top ten internationally.

Meanwhile, Tillis’ star as a performer was rising.  He landed a regular role on the syndicated Porter Wagoner TV show, which exposed him to a much larger audience.  Coincidentally, this was the same program that launched Dolly Parton to the national stage.

It was at this time that a Tillis-penned song influenced mainstream America in a way that he never could’ve possibly expected.  “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” was a country heartache song with a twist:  It spoke quietly but directly to the previously unspoken, lasting influence of the Vietnam War on the homefront — even though Mel wrote it about a World War II veteran!

“Ruby” reached #6 on the pop charts for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition — the same Kenny Rogers who would later break ground with Mel as a country crossover artist.  More significantly, it was one of the subtle influences that shifted opinion within the “silent majority” about the war.   Faced with a man “whose legs are bent and paralyzed” from “that crazy Asian war,” conservative rural Americans were forced to come to grips with the subject’s hopeless situation.  In doing so, they also came to grips with the hopelessness of the war.  The specific war is never mentioned, nor is any sort of war protest implied.  But it spoke to a majority of Americans in a way that protesters and politicians never could.

The point was hammered home when the venerable Huntley- Brinkley Report used the song at the conclusion of one of its programs in 1969, showing footage of a disabled veteran confined to his room.  Public opinion shifted; Nixon began to look for a way out of Vietnam.

As for Mel’s part, this was never planned — far from it. Tillis explained that the song was based on a wounded soldier who returned from Japan, and his pretty bride named Ruby.  Tillis says they lived in Florida circa 1947, and eventually divorced.  Hardly the stuff that would be expected to have such massive global impact in an era of upheaval and turbulence.

And it nearly never happened — the song had been recorded and made a dent on the country charts in 1967, then forgotten — except by Los Angeles area record producer Jimmy Bowen, who was a friend of Tillis.  Bowen was producing a session for Kenny Rogers & company, and legend has it there were a few minutes of contracted studio time left with no songs in mind.  Bowen, as you may be aware, is the same Jimmy Bowen who produced a number of Frank Sinatra’s late career hits, including “Strangers In the Night.”  Incidentally, Bowen later introduced Mel to another Sinatra, which gave rise to the Mel & Nancy duet recordings in the early 1980s.

Regardless of Mel’s intent, this haunting tune has had lasting impact.  It’s been covered countless times, and in June 2001, Tillis received a Special Citation of Achievement from BMI.  It continues to be relevant today, and in doing so assures Mel Tillis’ legacy in American Popular Song.