(Reuters) - Mel Tillis, who embraced his own speech impediment to become one of Nashville's most celebrated singer-songwriters during a six-decade career in country music, has died at age 85, his publicist said on Sunday.

Tillis died early Sunday morning in an Ocala, Florida hospital, a statement posted on Absolute Publicity's website said. Respiratory failure was the suspected cause, but the singer had suffered from intestinal issues since early 2016.

A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, Tillis recorded more than 60 albums and penned a string of hits for stars such as Kenny Rogers, George Strait and Ricky Skaggs. Under his own name, he cut six singles that topped the country charts, including "I Ain't Never," "Coca-Cola Cowboy" and "Southern Rains."

Born Lonnie Melvin Tillis in Florida, he became one of the most-sought-after Nashville songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s. All told, his catalogue contains an estimated 1,000 songs, 600 of which were recorded by other artists.


Perhaps his best-known crossover hit was "Ruby, Don't You Take Your Love to Town," narrated by a military veteran paralyzed during "a crazy Asian war." Kenny Rogers and the First Edition scored a Billboard top 10 hit with the song in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War.

Tillis, known for his rich baritone and the smooth sincerity of his vocal performances, spoke with a stutter since he was a toddler, according to online biographers.

But rather than attempting to disguise it, Tillis used the speech impediment as one of the trademarks of his act. His ability to poke fun at himself on stage assured him a loyal following among country music fans.

He even entitled his 1984 autobiography, "Stutterin' Boy," a nickname conferred on him early in his career.

Among the many honors bestowed on Tillis, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2012.

His daughter Pam Tillis, a country music singer-songwriter in her own right, is among the six children who survive him.

(Reporting By Frank McGurty in New York; editing by Grant McCool)

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