Sign up for newsletter
From the Country Standard Time Archives

Mel Tellis: a little less talk and a lot more singing is in order

Lancaster Performing Arts Center, Lancaster, Cal., Aug. 15, 2004

By Dan MacIntosh

LANCASTER, CA - No doubt about it, Mel Tillis is a talented performer. He just turned 72 this month, in fact. Yet, he's trim and still has a strong voice. But in concert, Tillis wavers uncomfortably between being a singer and acting the silly, stuttering comedian.

And while many of Tillis' seemingly endless stories about his formative years growing up in Florida were good fun, a more musically centered show would have been far more satisfying.

In addition to his rich singing voice, Tillis is also an underrated songwriter. But since he focused so much attention on telling this audience about his various boyhood friends and one particularly lewd Baptist church experience, he never got around to singing standouts like "Detroit City" or "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town."

He did, however, treat the crowd to "I Ain't Never" and "Heart Over Mind." But by leaving out so many lyrical treasures, the joke was squarely on us.

Musically, Tillis was able to work in a little swing here and a touch of bluegrass there, with the help of his talented Statesiders band. At 13 members strong, this touring unit includes double fiddles, three backing singers and two keyboardists at various points. Tillis played for just over two hours, sometimes accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, but also took 'let's feature members of the band' breaks after every five songs or so. One wonders if Tillis stayed just a little too long (around 13 years) at his Branson, Mo. dinner theater, but not nearly long enough time traversing the meatier stages of America's honky-tonks over the years. This crowd, comprised of mainly senior citizens, seemed to be there solely because of Tillis' celebrity marquee value, rather than out of appreciation for his musical talent. He put on an entertaining show, it's true, but it was a night that left one hungering far something more substantial.