Photo courtesy of Mel Tillis
Singer/songwriter Mel Tillis tells stories about his career and how performing helped him cope with his stutter. [29:43]
Mel Tillis—Podcast Transcript
Excerpt from "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town"
You've painted up your lips
And rolled and curled your tinted hair
Ruby are you contemplating
Going out somewhere
The shadow on the wall
Tells me the sun is going down
Don't take your love to town
Mel Tillis: One day I left the office there in Nashville. I lived in Donelson, Tennessee, and I was stuck in the traffic. And they had a wreck or something and I was stuck there. And I had my radio on and Johnny Cash was singing, <sings> "Don't take your guns to town son, leave your guns at home." And I said, <sings> "Ruby, don't take your love to town." It was about the Korean War. And it was about a man that I knew and he had some problems and they lived near us, him and his wife lived near us in Pahokee, Florida. And I just remembered all that and I put it all together. And Johnny Cash said, "You wrote a good song, son."
Jo Reed: That is music legend, Mel Tillis, talking about the most famous of his many hits, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" which we heard performed by Kenny Rodgers.
Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works.
I'm your host Josephine Reed.
The word "legend" is thrown around a lot but most everyone agrees that describes country singer/songwriter, Mel Tillis. Mel's recorded more than 60 albums, and written over 1,000 songs including some thirty-six Top Ten singles with nine of them going to Number One. Mel also overcame a profound stutter and grew into one of the all-time great performers of any genre. Mel's music is both poetic and down-to-earth--a unique blend of warmth and humor that's matched perfectly by his onstage presence. The list of Mel's awards go on and on, but here's the highlight reel. In 1976, Mel Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame, and named Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year. In 1999, BMI named Mel Tillis the Songwriter of the Decade. 2007, The Grand Ole Opry inducted Mel as its newest member and he was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame. To that list of honors, Mel Tillis can now add one more. Earlier this year, he received the highest award given to artists by the United States Government--The National Medal of Arts. And in a happy coincidence, Mel Tillis received the news from an old acquaintance -- the chairman of the NEA Rocco Landesman.
Mel Tillis: I was at my home, at my ranch in Florida. I got a call that said, "Mel, this is Rocco." I hadn't seen Rocco since my daughter Pam did a play off Broadway and he was there. I don't know if he produced it or what. But I remembered him. I said, "What's happening, Rocco?" He said, "Man, you've been asked to be-- you've won a medal." I said, "What kind of medal? I didn't know there's any more I could win," because I've won just about everything that there is out there, and I'm so thankful and honored. He told me, he said, "The National Medal of the Arts." I said, "Lord have mercy."
Jo Reed: Was your family musical?
Mel Tillis: Yes, on my mother's side. She had seven sisters and most of those could play piano or fiddles or guitars and stuff. And we would have our little family reunions back in early days, in the late '30s, as I remember, the early '40s or mid-'40s. And then all of them break out the fiddles and guitars, pianos, stuff. We'd all sing, just have a big time. On the Tillis side, they're all stick in the mud. They was strictly business.
Jo Reed: Well, you have a real business sense too, so you've managed to put them both together very nicely.
Jo Reed: Now, when did you start playing the guitar?
Mel Tillis: I was about, I guess, 13 or 14. And my brother ordered a guitar from one of the catalogs. I think it was a Silvertone. And he would not let me touch it.
And he tried to play it and he tried, oh, about six weeks, and finally he said, <laughs> he came to me one day, he said, "You want to buy my guitar?"He says, "I can't figure nothing out on it." So I said, "How much you want for it?" And he paid $15, but he wanted $25.
Jo Reed: Whoo.
Mel Tillis: So I went to work. I mowed lawns. I baby-sat. I sold earthworms. I would dig them up and I would sell them to the fishmen. And I swept out the drugstore, Chandlers [ph?] drugstore there in Pahokee, Florida, where I grew up. And I did all kind of things to make that money and I finally made it. And he had a book in the case that showed you the chords. But he still had the chords. He still couldn't play it. So oh, about a month after that, I was singing and playing the guitar real slow. And I'd change chords. I'd do old Gene Autry songs, I'm "Ridin' Down the Canyon." <sings> "Ridin' down the canyon." I'd change chords and I'd, <sings> "Ridin' down the canyon, canyon, canyon."
Mel Tillis: And finally, I learned how to put them all together and I became very, very sociable in school.
Jo Reed: That's what I was going to ask you.
Mel Tillis: Oh, I was asked to all the parties to come and play and sing.
Jo Reed: Who were some of your early musical influences?
Mel Tillis: Oh, boy. In the early years, I guess some of the first ones that I heard was Bob Wills. He was a big Western swing band leader, and I liked his music. And then we got a radio, an old Majestic radio and Philco battery, and we would tune in Saturday nights and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. And I'd hear Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, and all those great acts. "Man," I said, "that's the greatest thing in the world." And I'd sing some of those songs, I'd learned their songs and I would sing them to my family mostly. And they'd sit and listen in the afternoon. We'd get out on the front porch and I'd sing to them. And I stuttered so bad and I couldn't hardly talk at all in those days. But I could sing, and they let me sing all I wanted.
Jo Reed: And you never stuttered when you sang?
Mel Tillis: No. And I've heard that most stutterers can sing. And your singing and your creative ability comes from one side of your brain and your speech from another side.
Jo Reed: That's interesting. I heard Frank Sinatra was one of your idols.
Mel Tillis: Well, when I got older and I got in high school in the '40s, Frank Sinatra was I guess one of my favorites and I imitated, I entered a talent show. <laughs> And I won. I did some imitations of Frank Sinatra. I did Vaughn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. And I won all the talent shows that they put on at the old Prince Theatre in Pahokee, Florida. And I won most of those, I think, three or four years in a row. And later on I got to meet Frank Sinatra. I did an album. I recorded an album with his daughter, Nancy. And I filled in for him at Lake Tahoe at Harrah's. He had to do something and he asked me to come in and fill in for him and I did. I was there for two weeks. And I got to meet him there. And I got so much television exposure. I did 28 Johnny Carson shows. I did ever talk show that <laughs> I think that there was. And I would work in Vegas at the Frontier Hotel. I was there one time for 18 weeks in a row. And up the street from it, at Caesars Palace, was Frank Sinatra. And he called me up one time and, "Hey, Mel." He said, "You wanna belt a few?"
Mel Tillis: That's New Jersey talk. That ain't redneck talk.
Mel Tillis: I said, "Yeah, I'll come on." He said, "Come on down." And I did that about, oh, about two, three times a week while I was out there. And we became pretty good buddies. And he was just a great guy. I really loved that man.
Jo Reed: And a beautiful singer.
Mel Tillis: Oh, my gosh. Nobody can ever touch him.
Jo Reed: Do you remember your first performance, the first talent show when you were in front of an audience that wasn't your family and your friends?
Mel Tillis: Oh. Yes. My first performance, let me tell you this. I started to school and I stuttered so bad. And I didn't know I stuttered, because my daddy, he stuttered a little bit, and my brother stuttered a little bit and I thought, "Well, that's the way we talk." I started to school at Woodrow Elementary in Plant City, Florida, and I came home that afternoon, I said, "Mamma, do I stutter?" And she said, "Yes, you do, son." And I said, "Mamma, they laughed at me in school." And she said, "Well, if they laugh at you, give them something to laugh about." And I went back to school the next day and that was my first day in show biz.
Mel Tillis: My teacher realized that I could sing and she took me and I'd sing old Gene Autry songs. "I want to drink my coffee from an old tin can, while the moon goes rising high." I'd do that and "Ridin' Down the Canyon." And she took me to all the other classes from one through six and let me sing to those folks. It just amazed her that I could sing and I couldn't talk. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Hmm.
Mel Tillis: So anyway, that was my first day. But yes. I finished high school and I attended University of Florida for a while and I was going to get drafted. And I quit and joined the Air Force. And they sent me to Okinawa, and I was a baker in the Air Force. I served my country as a baker. You're on 24 hours and off 48. So I had a lot of time off, and I joined a little band over there called <inaudible> The Westerners. And there wasn't a one of us from the West. But I learned to work with the band in those days and learned some more chords on the guitar and I learned how to front a band. And that's where it all, I guess it all-- oh, and we worked all the NCO clubs, the Officers' Club, the Airmen's Club, and the Marines' Club. All over the island of Okinawa. And those were my first paying audience.
Jo Reed: Did you like being on the stage?
Mel Tillis: I loved it. I loved it. It gave me a chance to do what I love, to sing and to entertain. And make people laugh. Humor has been a big, big part of my life. When I went to Nashville, Miss Minnie Pearl was putting together a little band to go out and do some fair dates in the Midwest and she hired me to play rhythm guitar and sing. And she said she needed a fiddle player. And I said, "Well, I met one today." And he came to town about the same time that I did and got a job at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. And I met him at a little coffee shop where everybody hung around in 1957. And she said, "You know where he…" I said, "Yeah, I think I could find him." So I went down to the coffee shop and there he was, in the little monkey outfit he had on. In those days, everybody kind of dressed up as bellhops. And I said, "You said you could play a fiddle." He said, "I can." I said, "Are you any good?" He said, "Yeah, pretty good." I said, "You want a job?" And he said, "With who?" I said, "Minnie Pearl." He said, "How much does it pay?" I said, "Thirty-six dollars a show. If we do two shows, they pay us a double." I said, "Where you going?" He said, "I'm going to give them my two-minute notice."
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Mel Tillis: And his name was Roger Miller.
Jo Reed: <laughs> Roger Miller, King of the Road? <laughs>
Mel Tillis: Yes. And we went out with Minnie for four months on the road, all through the Midwest and all kind of fair dates and stuff like that. And I stuttered in those days really, really bad. And Roger would introduce my song when it was my turn to sing. He'd introdu-- "Well, here's Melvin Tillis." He called me Melvin in those days. "Here's Melvin Tillis with his new record." And I'd sing the song and after I'd finished, Roger would step in and say, "Melvin thanks you." <laughs> Miss Minnie, she noticed that and she called me to one side one day and she said, <laughs> she said, "Melvin," she said, "if you're going to be in our business you need to introduce your own songs. And you need to thank them after you finish your song and then you need to sign autographs." And I said, "Miss Minnie, I can't do that." I said, "They'll laugh at me." It took me a little while to get all that out. And then she said, "No, they won't, Melvin." She said, "They'll laugh with you." And from that day on, I started talking a little bit on stage. And before too long, I was on "The Johnny Carson Show."
Mel Tillis: So it just all went from there, exploded. I did all the shows. I did …13 movies.
Jo Reed: Yeah, you were in a lot of movies.
Mel Tillis: So when I started talking, people said, "Just give him a chance." And they did.
Jo Reed: Now, okay. So it was 1957 when you went to Nashville. About.
Mel Tillis: The first time I went there in '56 and looked around and I moved up there. I wrote a song called "Honky Tonk Song." Well, the first one was, "I'm Tired," "Oh, Lord, I'm Tired." And it went I think number three for Webb Pierce and the Billboard charts.
"I'm Tired" up and hot
And the next one was "Honky Tonk Song," which I recorded. I got on Columbia Records and I recorded it. Well, Webb Pierce covered me on "Honky Tonk Song" and he had the big hit and he just killed my record, which is okay. But I still made some money out of it. And I moved to Nashville in 1957.
Jo Reed: And Webb signed you to his company, Cedarwood Publishing.
Mel Tillis: Yes. I was mainly a writer there for, oh, about first 10 years. I had some songs in the charts. "Violet and a Rose" was a pretty good record for me. It went I think up to about 17. And I began to have a few hits there, but I was mainly a writer in the beginning. Wrote a lot of hit songs. And I was blessed with that talent that I didn't even know I had. I wrote, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," "Detroit City." A big, big hit for Bobby Bare. Tom Jones recorded and Dean Martin. Everybody recorded it, so I was mainly known for my first 10 years as a songwriter.
Jo Reed: Now, when did you start writing songs, Mel?
Mel Tillis: When I went to Nashville the first time. I got out of the Air Force and I went back to Florida. I went home to Florida, and got a job with the railroad as a fireman. A fireman for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. And I was on the extra board and I would get rolled a lot by someone that had more seniority. So I had a lot of time off and I would use my pass, railroad pass, to go from Tampa to Jacksonville on the ACL. And I'd transfer over to the L&N, which is Louisville and Nashville. And I would go to Nashville free of charge. And in those days there was only three publishing companies in town, Acuff-Rose, the largest, been in the business for 14 years. And Acuff-Rose, Wesley Rose, he said, <changes voice> "Man, we don't need any stuttering singers." <laughs> He said, "They don't make a record that big." And I said, "Well, what do you need?" He said, "We need copyrights." And I said, "You need what?" He said, "Songs." So I started writing songs. And turns out that I had that talent or that whatever it is to come up with some good songs. And I quit the railroad and moved to Nashville in 1957.
Jo Reed: I tried to find out about how many songs you've written and I gave up. Do you know?
Mel Tillis: No. I still find a few in my sock drawer every now and then.
Jo Reed: Did you find that you write better when you were on the road or did you write better when you were at home or it just didn't matter, songs just came to you?
Mel Tillis: It just didn't matter. They just, you know, they were gifts. I'm sure they were gifts, because I'm not that smart and I've been told that too.
Jo Reed: Patsy Cline recorded some of your songs too. And you traveled with her. That must've been some experience.
Mel Tillis: Well, right. In the early years, they had package shows in those days, and there would be four or five different acts on one venue. And in this particular venue, I drove the car. And they let me sing a couple of songs on the show. And I drove for Patsy Cline and for Brenda Lee and her mother. And, oh, there was a lot of other acts on the show. Faron Young, one time Hank Lachlan. But I got to know Patsy real well and little Brenda Lee. I wrote one of her big hits called, "Emotions." It was a pop hit for little Brenda. But I knew all those guys and gals and they're just wonderful folks, and I still can't get over Patsy.
Jo Reed: Mel, you were in Nashville, you arrived there. You were really there in the Golden Age, I guess one would think of, of Nashville. What was it? It just strikes me that it would just be so much fun for all of you guys to be there together.
Mel Tillis: Oh, it was just a wonderful time. In the early years, it was a whole lot different. It was more regale and stately, the Grand Ole Opry in those days. Everybody was dressed to the nines. Some folks like Webb Pierce and Hank Snow was into rhinestone suits and others like Roy Acuff was just in regular suits in his band. And Bill Monroe. It was just a wonderful wonderful. If you come up to the back door of the Grand Ole Opry and you had holes in your jeans you wasn't getting in. <laughs> A whole lot more class back in those days. I'm not knocking the new folks these days. It's their time. I had my time.
Jo Reed: Um-hm.
Mel Tillis: But in those times, it was just absolutely wonderful. And to dress up and look nice, it just made you want to look good for the folks out there, at least look as good as they are, or better.
Jo Reed: Mmm. Nineteen sixty-five comes along and you really begin to get hits. You had six number one hits on Billboard?
Mel Tillis: I don't know if I did or not. I wasn't counting them. But I know I had some. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You had a lot. I was counting. <laughs>
Mel Tillis: Because I was so busy. I was really busy. I had to buy me a King Air airplane to go and honor my commitments that I had. Back and forth to L.A. on the TV shows, the movies and I got so busy, every now and then I'd come in and do an album. I had 36 top 10s. I think about eight or nine number ones over the years.
Jo Reed: Including the great "Coca-Cola Cowboy."
Mel Tillis: "Coca-Cola Cowboy." Yeah. Clint Eastwood gave me that song. I did a movie with him called, "Every Which Way But Loose," and he wanted me to sing two songs in the soundtrack album. And I heard them both. I said, "I don't like either one of them." He said, "Well, you can't be in the movie and I'll beat you up." I said, "Ho, ho." So I recorded them and both of them went number one. "Coca-Cola Cowboy" and "Send Me Down To Tucson."
Jo Reed: How did you start with movies? What was your first movie and how did that happen?
Mel Tillis: I did a movie one time, my first one, and it never made the hard tops. It was strictly drive-ins. It was called "Cotton Pickin' Chicken Pickers," and they made it down in Florida. And then Burt Reynolds, he came to Nashville and I did about four or five movies that Burt produced, or he made, and he wanted me. He's from West Palm Beach, from Palm Beach County where I'm from. I'm from Pahokee, and he's over on the beach there in Jupiter. He always called me Pahokee trash. But he must have felt sorry for me, because he put me in about five or six of his movies.
Jo Reed: Now you also started doing comedy. You cut a comedy record. What's the story behind "You Ain't Gonna Believe This?"
Mel Tillis: Well, you know, I do my show. I told you earlier, I do a little humor. People want to hear me talk. Not too long ago, I was in the autograph line, I think somewhere up in Minnesota and a man come by. He said, "I come to hear you stutter. You didn't stutter a damn bit." I said, "I'm trying to quit." But I tell them stories, you know. My stories are 85 percent true. Yeah, I help them out a little bit if they need it. But I tell little anecdotes and they're funny. I got people laughing and that's the best medicine in the world for them, and the best feeling in the world for me, get them laughing. It's just a wonderful thing, you know. Make them laugh and make them cry. Send them home and give them something to think about.
Jo Reed: We have to give a shout out to your band, the State Siders
Mel Tillis: The State Siders band has been with me all these years and I love them to death. I wouldn't be what I do on stage without them, because they're just the best.
Jo Reed: You built a theater in Branson, Missouri. Why Branson, and why a theater?
Mel Tillis: Well, back about 20 years ago, maybe a little bit longer, your fans begin to change in Nashville. The new acts were coming in. It was changing. It was time for a change, and we'd been around so long and our music was getting a little stale. The new kids were coming in and their music was a little bit different from ours. Their syntax was different. Anyway, I said, "Well, I'm going to do something. I'm going to get out of town for a while." So I went to Branson and I don't know, I was about the third or fourth one out there to build a theater. It was very, very profitable. I sold my theater about eight years ago. I bought me a ranch in Florida, so I'm back in Florida. I still go out there and do shows. I still do about 80 shows a year and I do all kind of things these days. I'm doing some speaking engagements. As a matter of fact, I have a speech engagement coming up, I think, in April, Leesburg, Florida. And I did one in Dolton, Alabama at the peanut festival. I'd never done it before, and I got a call from them, the peanut festival folks, the first one that I did. No, the second one I did. And I said, "Well, I don't know about this." I said, "You know, I'm not a speaker, as you know." I said, "How long do I have to talk?" They said, "About 20 minutes." I said, "Hell, I can't say hello in 20." And they said, "Well, you can do anything you want to, as long as you want." I said, "How much does it pay?" and they told me, and I said, "When do you want me to be there?" and they told me. I had my sound man and my band leader to put together a nine minute video of my career, from the start up to current. I had two big screens on the side of the podium and they played nine minutes of the video and they said, "And now here's Mel Tillis." I walked out there and did 59 minutes, and they liked it so well, they asked me to stay over for another day, and I did. But I did, and I really enjoyed that. And I did one at the University of Florida. I did about an hour and a half with their speech students, that was going to be a speech therapist. I'm really enjoying that. It gives me another platform, another stage. And I'm doing art. If you get on my website, you can see some of my art. I really love that. and I'm selling my paintings. I just finished my first novel. It's called "Acting Sheriff." It takes place in Palm Beach County in 1947 and it's a funny, funny thing. The real sheriff has to go in the hospital for a hemorrhoid operation, and he appoints one of his sergeants as acting sheriff and all hell breaks loose. I've got about 300 pages of it, and I'm real proud. And I write that under another name. Pilgrim Williams is my new name.
Jo Reed: Pilgrim Williams.
Mel Tillis: Pilgrim Williams. I thought that had a pretty good ring to it. You know, someone asked Mark Twain one time, they said, "Mr. Twain, how do you do it? What's your schedule?" He said, "Well, I get up in the morning some time about 4 o'clock, 4:30, put on some comfy, light a cigar and I just start lying." I said, "Well, hell, I can do that." So that's what I've done with this one. "Acting Sheriff." You'll be looking for it.
Jo Reed: I will be looking for it.
Mel Tillis: It's a laugh a minute.
Jo Reed: In 1998, you were the honorary chairman, as well as the spokesperson for the National Stuttering Foundation. You've really devoted a lot of time to this.
Mel Tillis: Oh yes, you know, and had my picture in the magazines on all the airlines and everything. They're good people. One time I was in Minnesota and it was called Midday Minnesota. I was at a They had about 50 kids from this school for stutterers. I didn't know that. I was being interviewed and I got to stuttering. I got to telling stories, and they'd laugh. I said, "What are they laughing about?" No, no, no, no, it wasn't. They couldn't hear. They had a lady there doing them fingers, you know. Every time I'd stutter, boy, them fingers would go flying. They were just laughing. I thought that was the grandest thing in the world that I entertained those kids and they couldn't hear, but they knew I couldn't talk either, so I was part of them.
Jo Reed: Now you were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and into the Country Hall of Fame in the same year.
Mel Tillis: Yeah. Boy, wasn't that something?
Jo Reed: Pretty good year.
Mel Tillis: Yeah. You know, I could have been in the Grand Ole Opry years ago, but I was so busy, I didn't have the time to commit, you had to be on there so many times a year, and I couldn't do it. When I slowed down a little bit, they asked me to be on and I was so proud. My daughter was already on there. Pam was already on the show. She introduced me for the first time.
Jo Reed: That must have been a very special thrill.
Mel Tillis: Oh my god, yes.
Jo Reed: Is it still a thrill when you get out on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry?
Mel Tillis: Oh yes. Yes, especially the old Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium. You know, the Ryman is the mother church, we call it. The other one, the Opry Land Hotel Motel, I don't even know what they call it. But anyway, it's a new one and it's nice. But anyway, I love to do the Opry. It's just a good feeling when you step out on that old stage for Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe and play their music. And cousin, Minnie Pearl.
Jo Reed: You've accomplished so very much, Mel. Is there any one thing you're particularly proud of?
Mel Tillis: Well, I'm proud of the opportunity to be able to compete and open the door. I guess stuttering opened the door for me. I remember when I started writing songs. Mr. Denny at Webb Pierce owned the company Cedarwood Publishing Company, and Jim Denny was also head of the Grand Ole Opry. So he would give me a pass to go backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and I stuttered real bad in those days. Somebody found out that I did, and I was invited to come into their dressing room. They wanted to hear me talk and I suppose for a laugh. Well hell, I did, I gave them something to laugh about, and I became well-liked. I'd sing them a song without stuttering. "Who wrote that song?" I said, "I did." I got a lot of songs recorded like that. But I didn't use that stutter. The stutter didn't help me write songs. Anyway, here I am.
Jo Reed: You found out about receiving the National Medal of Arts from NEA Chair Rocco Landesman?
Mel Tillis: But boy, let me tell you, that was out of clear, blue sky. I had no idea. And I was at my home in Florida. I live in Florida. And I got a call and they said that I was going to be in a National Medal of the Arts. And my gosh, I said, "Are you kidding me?" I said, "Who all's in it?" and he told me. He said, "Come on up. We're going to have a black tie dinner the night before." I got to meet what's his name, the "Godfather" guy.
Jo Reed: Al Pacino.
Mel Tillis: Al Pacino. I hung around with him. He's real Brooklyn, you know, and I'm redneck. He just laughed at the way I talk. But we had a good time together.
But anyway, I'm so thrilled and I'm honored to be in such a great company as Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold and Minnie Pearl and Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Ray Charles. Boy, you can go on and on.
Jo Reed: Well, Mel, let me again add my congratulations. It's an honor that is so well deserved, and thank you for taking the time to come into the studio and talk to me.
Mel Tillis: Well, Jo, I thank you so much for inviting us.
Brooklyn Bridge up and hot
Excerpts from “I'm Tired” and “Brooklyn Bridge” from the album The Best of Mel Tillis performed by Mel Tillis and used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.
Excerpt from “Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town” performed by Kenny Rogers from the album Kenny Rogers: 49 All Time Greats,/em>, used courtesy of Cleopatra Records.
All songs written by Mel Tillis and used by permission of Universal Music Publishing Group.
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