While the cool teens were grooving to the Beatles, Stones, Bob Dylan and the Doors, I watched "The Porter Waggoner Show" on Saturday afternoons.
In 1968, as the country was flying apart, Mel Tills and Dolly Parton made Porter's low-budget syndicated show worth seeing. Beyond his sad comic bits making fun of his stuttering, Tillis' performances were mesmerizing. His songs reflected a new Nashville sophistication, an awareness of urban dislocation and alienation matched by the music's artistry.
Then a bashful young woman who had not yet overcome her primitive mountain upbringing, Parton's immense talent burst forth when she sang a number or two. In those days, before heading to Hollywood and a glamorous transfusion, Dolly wore homespun calico dresses and a 1950s hairdo with a small-town ribbon. But even the primitive TV sound didn't dilute the power of the shy mountain girl's voice.
More old Nashville with his Nudie suits, pompadour and yokel humor, Porter was a fine singer with a strong band. A generous man, he seemed to realize the greater talents of Parton and Tillis, giving them ample time in the spotlight.
Mel's death this week took me back to those long ago Saturdays. With the nation again flying apart with political chicanery, sex abuse revelations and disturbing global crises, Tillis' career shone with its old-fashioned American honesty and achievement.
Along with his long singing and recording career, Tillis was one of Nashville's best songwriters. He produced two classics, "Detroit City," co-written with Dave Dilly, and "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town."
Bobby Bare's rendition of "Detroit City," with its twangy guitar intro and plaintive "I want to go home" chorus gave artistic expression to powerful economic forces that transformed American society after World War II, the move from rural farm communities to big industrial cities. That industrialization crashed in time, leaving the ruins of cities like Detroit.
Like a great short story, "Ruby" also gave voice to a wrenching historical era, when the United States coped with the human costs of the Vietnam War. Kenny Rogers' recording of the song remains disturbing and tragic after years of American involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
A modest man also successful in business ventures, Tillis was a Nashville giant who discovered new artistic depth in country music.