Singing and songwriting has been Mel Tillis' bread and butter for nearly six decades. So it was no surprise when the country legend started to croon during a phone interview.
"Green turtle sittin' by hole in the wall, hole in the wall, hole in the wall," he softly sang. "Green turtle sittin' by hole in the wall, looking at the deep blue sea."
The 81-year-old was reminiscing about "Green Turtle," a song he wrote for Burl Ives, an actor and singer who became a great friend after Tillis towed Ives' boat behind his old Cadillac from Nashville to Florida years ago. They spent six weeks together in Florida, where Tillis wrote 18 songs for him. Ives recorded 17 of them.
Tillis will perform with his band the Statesiders at the Pikes Peak Center on Friday. His son, Mel Tillis Jr., will join him for a bit of comedy, a few stories and music.
Online sources estimate Tillis has written 1,000 songs. Tillis thinks it's more than that, but he can't be sure.
"I find a few songs every now and then in my song drawer," he says in his famous stutter. He even named his autobiography "Stutterin' Boy."
Tillis has never had a magic formula or a checklist of perfect conditions for writing, he says.
"When an idea comes, you sit down and write and forget about conditions.
"I'm not that smart," he says, "but I was put on the Earth to do exactly what I'm doing - singing songs, entertaining people and making them laugh."
He's gained fame as both a singer and writer in his 57-year career, hitting his stride in 1969 when the singles "These Lonely Hands of Mine" and "She'll Be Hanging Round Somewhere" made it into the country Top 10. The hits kept coming through the '70s, including "Detroit City," "Good Woman Blues," "Arms of a Fool," "I Ain't Never" and "Coca-Cola Cowboy."
He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
"Tillis doesn't have an especially unique singing voice," wrote Dave Heaton on the website Popmatters.com in 2008, "but when he sings in a straightforward way, he can shine."
The performer seems to have an infinite number of stories about Hollywood and its inhabitants, which he mentions in the duration of a conversation and in numerous interviews with reporters. He's palled around with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, and dueted with Nancy Sinatra. And it seems he's written a song for all the big stars, including the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis. Nearly everyone else has covered at least one of his tunes. Take, for instance, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," a song first recorded by Johnny Darrell in 1967, and then made famous by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition in 1969.
"Those songs have been cut over and over by different acts," Tillis says. "'Ruby's' been recorded about 57 times, and in different languages."
In 2007, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss covered "Stick With Me Baby," which Tillis wrote for the Everly Brothers in the late 1950s. He says it's sold more than 5 million albums now.
"It's the simplest little song you've ever heard in this life," he says.
Is there anything he wishes he'd done differently?
"Oh, yes, a whole bunch of things that I don't want to tell you," he says with such charm, all you can do is laugh.
"I haven't put any new albums out," Tillis says. "The radio is a whole new ballgame out there. They won't play my records anymore. They make so much damn money playing rock 'n' roll these days. The times have changed, and I understand that. I've had a wonderful career, and can't complain at all. More power to these young kids, they're doing great."
Favorite songs by other artists: "Wind Beneath My Wings," "Mama Knows," "Cattle Call"
What current star would you love to write a song for?: Toby Keith
Favorite duet partner: Sherry Bryce
Who do you want to duet with: "Nobody, unless it's my son, Mel Tillis Jr."
Shortest time writing a song: 15 minutes on "Stick With Me Baby"
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 16
Where: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Tickets: $35.50-$48.50; 520-7469, ticketswest.com
Jennifer Mulson can be reached at 636-0270.