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Floyd Tillman: 1914 to 2003

Floyd Tillman's death on August 22 wasn't exactly a shock. At 88, he'd already outlived his contemporaries who excelled in the fine low-high art known as honky-tonk. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Association International Hall of Fame, Tillman wrote what is widely acknowledged to be country music's first cheatin' song, "Slipping Around", a jukebox standard for Ernest Tubb & His Texas Troubadours and a million-selling pop hit for Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely in 1949. He also wrote a slew of other classics including "I Love You So Much It Hurts", "This Cold War With You", "Small Little Town", "Mr. Bottle", "I Gotta Have Something I Ain't Got" and "I'll Take What I Can Get". "It Makes No Difference Now", which Tillman reckoned was his most covered song, was a hit for Bing Crosby, Bob Wills, Gene Autry and Jimmie Davis, among others. The Motown group the Supremes, R&B singer Ray Charles, and jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald also covered Tillman's music.

Born December 8, 1914, in Ryan, Oklahoma, into a family of sharecroppers, Tillman grew up in Post on the south plains of west Texas, where he developed his love for music. At 18, he joined San Antonio western swing pioneers Adolph and Bash Hofner as an electric guitarist and moved on to Mack Clark's dance band in Houston before landing with the Blue Ridge Playboys, a hotshot swing ensemble led by fiddler Leon "Pappy" Selph that was renowned for its honky-tonk sound and featured piano pounder Moon Mullican, steel guitarists Bob Dunn and Ted Daffan, and fiddler Cliff Bruner.

Tillman was recognized as one of the first players to use electric guitar in country music. But it was his booming, braying vocal delivery, which could reach the back of a ballroom without a microphone, that became his performing signature as he began recording under his own name for Decca Records in 1939.

His greatest gift, though, may have been his ear for currency. "Slipping Around" was a timely anthem for a postwar generation giddy with prosperity, affluence, and freedom to pursue good times. After seeing an Allstate insurance commercial on television, he wrote a song titled "You're In Good Hands": "You're in good hands/When you're in my arms/You're in good hands/Protected from all harm/Let me hold you darling/You're in good hands/When you're here with me."

Over the last 40 years of his career, Tillman gracefully aged into an elder statesman of Texas country music, not only performing but talking, dispensing wisdom, hanging out, and bringing a sense of history and perspective to the outlaw movement, always eager to share his knowledge of Texas country music roots.

I experienced Tillman's wisdom firsthand in 1974 at the second Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at a racetrack near Bryan when I ducked into a recreational vehicle to escape the searing heat and found myself sitting across a card table from Floyd. We proceeded to drink beer and who knows what else while Tillman regaled me with stories too real to be fiction. Over the course of an hour or three, he opened the door to country music's past. A sage who'd been there and done that, Tillman observed that what was transpiring outside the RV was really nothing new. His generation knew a few things about the wild side of life, too, as he made demonstrably clear.

Tillman was the genuine article, revered and respected by Willie and Waylon and the boys, Johnny Bush, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and an army of true believers, always willing to sing and play wherever there was an audience, to the end.

I sat with Floyd again last year, sharing the stage with Johnny Gimble, Dick Gimble and Roger Wallace at the Bullock State History Museum in Austin. Gimble may be one of the best storytellers who's ever told a tale in a roomful of people, but when Floyd got rolling, he was clearly in a zone of his own. He may have performed the same song a couple of times, but nobody seemed to mind. Laughing all the way, his enthusiasm proved infectious.

Five years ago, Tracey Pitcox, a lifelong Tillman fan, booked him into the Mason Country Opry in the Texas Hill Country near Tillman's home in Marble Falls outside of Austin. "Floyd showed up for the Mason Country Opry driving his little pickup," Pitcox recalled. "He had his guitar in one hand and about thirty 8x10 photos in the other. His guitar strap was the rope from one of his old robes. After that show, someone offered to have a guitar strap made for him out of leather. He thanked them but said he preferred his. He never realized what an institution he had become.

"Floyd took to the stage and broke meter and swayed back and forth, emphasizing phrases and words like no one that I had ever seen," Pitcox said. "He would say, 'I wrote this song about a girl' and on the next song he would add, 'I wrote this song about a girl.' Finally about halfway through his show, he said, 'I think that all songs are about a girl.'"

The next year, Pitcox, who founded the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum in the Central Texas town of Brady, hosted Tillman's 85th birthday at the nearby Llano Country Opry. Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, Frankie "The Blackland Farmer" Miller and Johnny Gimble made guest appearances.

After the show, Pitcox told Nelson about his idea to get Tillman back into the studio for the first time in twenty years. Willie's willingness to get involved led to what could be Tillman's epitaph: The Influence, an album of Tillman singing his songs in duet with Nelson, Hank Thompson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Leona Williams, Dolly Parton, Ray Price, Mel Tillis, Johnny Bush and Connie Smith. It's scheduled for release this fall on Pitcox's Heart of Texas label.

"Floyd was in fine form and ready to tackle the project head-on," Pitcox says. "His vocals were still very strong and he insisted on playing rhythm guitar. Time and age had taken their tolls from him, but engineer Justin Trevino said he was not about to tell him that he could not play guitar on this album."

"Dolly worked so hard to make it 'personal' -- she even added the line, 'Floyd, why don't you and I slip around? Oh, we're both too old for that.' George gave a demonstration of Floyd's performing style for his wife Nancy as he threw his head back and sang some of the Tillman classic songs while trying to phrase just like Floyd.

"Every person on the project gave of their time, effort and talents at no cost to us," Pitcox added. "They did it because they loved and admired a man who just considered himself an average person.

"Floyd never realized what kind of star he actually was."

Author Joe Nick Patoski
Other tags Issue #48