RAMBLIN' ROUND: Floyd Tillman: Influencing yet another generation

Photo | Nashville Songwriters Hall of FameFloyd Tillman

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I'd once been happily surprised by John Sebastians' unbilled stage performance at one of Willie Nelson's picnics in Texas.

Sebastian's appearance wasn't the only surprise I had at that particular picnic, though. Thanks to Willie's impeccable musical taste, I got to see a singer and songwriter who scored his first number-one record way back in 1944 perform live onstage. Wow, 1944! That's two years before Hank Williams' first recording session in December 1946.

Not only did he score his first number one hit a couple of years before Hank Williams cut his first record, he'd written what would become a classic song — the swinging "It Makes No Difference Now"  — way back in 1938.

Floyd Tillman, the other artist who surprised me that day, is hardly a household name, even though he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1884.

Probably Tillman's most well-known song is the classic "I Love You So Much it Hurts." Although Tillman recorded a hit version of the song in 1948 shortly after he wrote it, the song has been recorded since by dozens of other artists, including memorable versions by Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard and Willie himself.

Just because he wrote his first big hit decades ago doesn't mean his music is not still vibrant today.

He's now being recognized by yet another generation of performers.

I recently watched video posts of a couple of 20-something musicians singing "I Love You So Much It Hurts"  while accompanying themselves on ukelele. Before they began, both said they were singing a Floyd Tillman song.

Not a Ray Charles song. Not a Patsy Cline song. Not even a Merle Haggard song — but a Floyd Tillman song! They'd obviously done their research in crediting the song to Tillman and not to any of the more well-known artists who covered it

I'd heard of Floyd Tillman before I saw him perform at Willie's Picnic and I'm pretty sure he was on the bill — but in smaller print, way down below Willie and some of his other guests such as Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, The Charlie Daniels Band and even The Pointer Sisters. Yep, that's right! The Pointer Sisters performed in an oversized cattle pasture way out in the middle of Texas at one of Willie's fabled picnics.

But even among such a talented group, Tillman, who was lots older than the other artists booked for the picnic, came onstage that night and not only held his own, but had the crowd of an estimated 70,000 music fans clamoring for more.

Wearing a western hat, with his his graying hair reaching down below his collar, and a simple white T-shirt, jeans and boots, Tillman strode onstage and gave a master class in authenticity.

Hitting jazz-influenced chords on his big acoustic guitar, he did his enduring songs in a soulful, voice that cut to the heart of the lyrics he sang. Although his songs have been covered by some of the greatest artists to ever step inside a recording studio, I realized nobody sang a Floyd Tillman song like Floyd Tillman.

This was not an instance of a crowd of younger music fans showing their appreciation for a pioneer. This was a performance, in the moment, riveting on its own terms.

"I Love You So Much It Hurts," "It Makes No Difference," "Slippin' Around," "This Cold War With You." It had taken a writer with the poetic insight of Tillman to equate the so-called Cold War between the U.S. and Russia in the1950s and '60s with the chill that had fallen over love that's grown cold.

Yeah, we'll listen to Willie, Kris and Rita, Charlie and The Pointer Sisters later. Give us another Floyd Tillman song, now! 

Where had Tillman been? The story goes that Hank Williams' tragic demise played a huge factor in Tillman's decision to get off the grind of constantly touring, playing nearly-nonstop one-nighters in bars and honky-tonks.

When Williams died in the backseat of a car while being driven to a performance on the night of Jan. 1, 1953, Tillman decided to step off the honky-tonk merry-go-round before a similar fate befell him. He spent much of his time home in Texas, where he continued to write songs. He didn't stop performing either, but mainly did so around the Lone Star State, not wanting to get too far from home.

He'd obviously kept those skills honed to a fine edge, even if he had largely stepped out of the national spotlight before Willie convinced him to step into it again.

It's not so surprising looking back that Willie tapped Tillman to play his picnic. Although Willie and his pals such as Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser, David Allen Coe and others had been labeled as purveyors of "outlaw" music at the time, Willie called Tillman country's "original outlaw," according to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

That wasn't because of any bad behavior on Tillman's part — but rather his refusal to be fenced in by musical boundaries. His jazz-like vocal inflections and guitar chording proved a big influence on Willie's own vocal style.

An indication of the high esteem in which Tillman is held by other artists came when he recorded an album of duets called "The Influence" in 2004. Some of the singers who sang on the album included George Jones, Dolly Parton, Hank Thompson, Willie and Merle. Still, the best track on the album is his duet of "I Love You So Much," with songstress extraordinaire, Connie Smith.

One more thing. Although Tillman cut his musical teeth in Texas, we in the Sooner State can claim him for our own. He was born in Ryan Oklahoma, a small town of about 800 people in Jefferson County, a couple of miles north of the Red River and the Texas border.

The funny thing is Floyd Tillman may not even be the most famous guy to come out of Ryan. It's also the hometwon of former University of Texas basketball coach Abe Lemon as well as an actor, martial artist, screenwriter and producer of "Walker, Texas Ranger" fame, a guy named Chuck Norris.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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