Thanks for the Stuttering Mel Tillis

On November 17, 2017 we lost a great singer song writer. He also taught some of us to be more open about our stuttering. This post was first published on Did I Stutter and was updated for this publication.

Sometime last year I went on a stuttering pilgrimage to Laughlin, Nevada to a smoke-filled casino to eat cheap buffets and see stuttering idol/country singer Mel Tillis. When picking up my tickets, I saw a sign reading, “Mel Tillis press conference at 2:30.” Having met other important people who were integral in my development as a comedian (Dick Gregory, Dave Chapelle, and Lilly Tomlin), I knew I had to meet the man who introduced stuttering to the masses in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Beyond stuttering, he is an amazing singer-songwriter who received the 2012 medal of honor from President Obama. He’s a legend and meant so many things to me. So I attended the press conference. Also, knowing that he was a country singer, I figured he would be warm and accessible—plus, hey! We both stutter!

At the press conference, I noticed Mr. Tillis halting on a sound at the beginning of a sentence and he hit the table. Of course, it was in the context of what he was saying, but I knew it was a secondary (a trick many of us use to get out a word—you should see me make a phone call. I am practically punching out the coffee tables to facilitate my fluency). I practically cried when I saw my own speech patterns reflected in someone I held in such high regard! I got to see Mel Tillis do a secondary, and it was within the first minute of his press conference! Throughout the press conference as well as the show, he stated how his speech has improved and that he found techniques to facilitate fluency. He also talked about Minnie Pearl encouraging him to use his voice (see video: http://tinyurl.com/gpg48ks). When he spoke, I could tell when he was using these tricks. I, of course, didn’t hear fluency; I heard stuttering and I felt like I was home. At the end of the show, I had him sign a T-shirt I bought and reminded him that I was the comedian he met earlier. Again, he was gracious. As I walked away he asked, “Did you notice I didn’t stutter much?” I, of course, longed for the stutter and looked for it the entire time. I replied, “You stuttered enough to show you were legit.”

I was pretty gleeful to have gone to the show and had this experience. I even noticed that I started having feelings for Mr. Tillis. That’s right, they were those kinds of feelings. For an older guy he is good looking: he kind of has an Alan Alda thing going on (which Mr. Tillis would probably hate to hear, but in my book, it is a compliment). I don’t usually go for older men, and money and power aren't turn ons for me. (You should see some of the guys I have gone out with to get the full impact of that statement.)

So why was I feeling all tingly? Then I remembered how I have felt for the hundreds of stutterers I have met in my life. I was experiencing yet another stuttering crush. A stuttering crush is the loving feeling and admiration/attraction one feels for a fellow Stutterer. It is the feeling of coming home. It is feeling free of isolation in finding people who are like you. Author bell hooks (she doesn’t capitalize her name) talks about this feeling in her book Teaching to Transgress. She introduced me to the Southern saying, “My tongue is in my friend’s mouth,” which works so well on so many levels for this example! For those of us who stutter, we don’t see ourselves reflected in our everyday lives. Our experiences, our dysfluencies, and everything we think and feel is often experienced in isolation. For me, seeing Mr. Tillis talk about his experiences and having these be received by a fluent audience kinda made me cry. He was talking about my experience, and it was being well received. Of course, his coping mechanism about his speech is to have people laugh with him instead of at him. This contrasts my own attitude of laughing at and mocking the people who laugh at me. Perhaps it is a generational thing! Nonetheless, he was speaking part of my experience, which made me love him and gave me tingly stuttering butterflies in my tummy. I was able to identify this feeling because I had already experienced these.

I remember crushing on Billy Bibbit in the movie One Flew of the Cuckoos Nest (sadly not the best image for a young person who stutters). I remember crushing on Stuttering John from the Howard Stern show. I remember any given number of crushes on any given number of Stutterers, some who might be reading this now. I know that the next person who stutters that I meet, I might be crushing on them as well. Most of us who stutter are all seventh grade girls when it comes to meeting people who reflect our experiences. Instead of “boy crazy” we are “stutter crazy.” It is the expression of love and community we have for one another. Sometimes it escalates into romance or marriages (we have seen plenty of that at stuttering conferences). Sometimes it simply manifests in the love we have for each other and the need for fellowship. Mel Tillis opened himself up to be a reflection of how I speak and my experiences.   

So of course I totally crushed on an 83 year old man. He’s Mel frickin’ Tillis!

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