Written by Roger Murrah
Radio & Records
#1 (1 week)
February 13, 1981
#1 (1 week)
February 21, 1981
The eighties were already the fourth decade of Mel Tillis being an industry presence. His songwriting eclipsed his recording career early on, despite him releasing singles as early as 1957. But by the seventies, he was one of country music’s most popular performers, topping the charts regularly and even taking home the CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy in 1976.
We’ll see quite a bit of Mel when we cover the sixties and the seventies, but only once as an artist during this decade, as he scored the final No. 1 hit of his recording career with “Southern Rains” in 1981. Like his previous No. 1 hit, 1979’s “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” his final chart topper was part of a string of 17 consecutive top ten hits.
“Southern Rains” is a warm, nostalgic number that stands out among the radio fare of the day. An arrangement that probably seemed old-fashioned at the time has aged beautifully, with a lovely steel guitar track being the highlight. Tillis didn’t write “Southern Rains,” but his songwriting ear plays to his favor, picking up on the many layers of meaning in this simply presented song:
Homesick is a feeling that a body can’t get over
There’s no such thing as healing, and it won’t go away with time
When we’re young, we want to get away
When we’re old, we want to go back
And we spend our lives replacing all the things we leave behind
Tillis didn’t quite have the vocal range to hit the notes he was reaching for toward the end, but his delivery is so heartfelt throughout “Southern Rains” that the effort is still endearing.
His string of top ten hits would last through the end of 1981 with “One Night Fever,” and he’d revisit that region of the chart twice more through 1984. After that, his run at radio effectively ended, but his popularity as a performer endured so strongly that he was able to anchor his own Mel Tillis Theatre in Branson, Missouri. His daughter, Pam Tillis, emerged as one of the most commercially successful and critically lauded artists of the nineties, and the two collaborated on three of her albums over the years, and often performed together once her own run at radio came to an end. She inducted him into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007.
Tillis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame that same year, putting 2007 in the same league as 1976, where he won Entertainer of the Year and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2011, President Obama awarded Tillis the National Medal of Arts; he was only the tenth country artist to receive the honor. Tillis passed away in 2017 following two years of illness.
“Southern Rains” gets a B+
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Mel Tillis was an extraordinary talent whose songwriting, and comedic skills would have a successful performer even without the hit records. Like many other performers (Charlie Rich, Bobby Bare, Dolly Parton) Mel’s best recordings do not necessarily coincide with his biggest hits. For my money, Mel’s best recordings start with his first Kapp recording “Stateside” in 1966 and continue through the end of his MGM tenure in 1975.
Kapp was a minor label and while many of his Kapp recordings went twenty, only “Heart Over Mind” reached #1 (according to Record World). MGM was bigger (in NCAA basketball parlance we’d call it a mid-major) and so most of his singles were top ten records with “Sawmill reaching #1.
If you can find a CD collection of the Kapp and MGM years give it a listen – there are many dynamite songs contained within those collections
I’d love to delve into his earlier stuff. His songwriting catalog is nearly without peer.
There have been so many excellent father-child pairings in country music, but the Tillis’s may be my personal favorite. And that’s saying something.
Here’s an article I wrote some years agon on Mel
Weren’t we just discussing the best songs about rain in the thread following Eddie Rabbit’s recent number one with “I Love a Rainy Night?”
Tillis’ “Southern Rains” deserves at least an honourable mention on that list, no?
I first fell in love with Mel Tillis during his late 70’s output when his material was more heavily produced with strings and background singers, his countrypolitan era. I was enchanted by the richness of his vocals and the production. Songs like “What Did I Promise Her Last Night” and “Send Me Down to Tucson” were my favourites. The music sounded full, lush and beautiful.
I distinctly remember my sister gifting me a cassette copy of both Mel Tills’ greatest hits and Conway Twitty’s when I was seven or eight years old. I was beyond happy to receive them and played them endlessly.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned about his towering legacy as a songwriter reaching back to the late 50’s.
A Sony “Collector’s Choice Music” collection of his best hits from his years on Columbia in the 60’s was a window for me into his breadth and versatility as a songwriter.
Pam Tillis’ 2002 album “It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis” is a great place to introduce yourself to his songwriting as well.
“Southern Rains” is homey, a warm and familiar feeling song. It feels comfortable.
I am happy Mel charted his final number one in the eighties so young readers of this feature can be introduced to this Nashville titan.