The history of “Mental Revenge” is a little more like mental gymnastics.
The song has gone through a less than linear progression to reach success, but the list of high-profile country music names associated with the song speak for themselves.
The song is exactly what it sounds like – a revenge track after the main character’s lady runs off with a new lover. And it covers all the revenge basics, wishing everything from a hard road to death by a train accident on the new happy couple. It’s the epitome of an outlaw song written by the farthest man from an outlaw… Mel Tillis.
Mel was the picture of a down-home country boy. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War, worked blue collar jobs, won talent contests and was a hell of a… baker.
The songwriter even struggled with a stutter that he developed from a bout with childhood malaria. He was the epitome of personable and the kind of guy people cheered for in his successes, but he wasn’t an outlaw.
To put it bluntly, “Mental Revenge” was not the kind of content Mel Tillis put out.
But contrary to his golden-boy persona, Mel Tillis released the song as a recording in 1966 with minimal success.
But a few years later as both Mel and the popular Waylon Jennings began to take off in their music careers, luck would have them cross paths, which resulted in the Waylon-rendition of the song, and with his take-no-shit, outlaw background, the song soared to number 12 on the charts.
Here’s Waylon performing the song before he ever officially released a cover, complete with clean face and slicked back hair-do.
And with the Waylon-version gaining ground, a decade past his original release, Mel Tillis released his own version again in 1976, a staunch reminder of the man behind the song.
It was also recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Hank Williams Jr., and more.
But the break-up hit doesn’t end there…
Over 30 years later, rising star Jamey Johnson also released “Mental Revenge” on his album The Guitar Song. In an interview with Billboard, Johnson spoke on his decision to add the Tillis’ track:
“It can be just all the guys hanging out in the control room… maybe playin’ a couple of songs I wrote and not really catching the vibe or whatever, then turn around and play an old song that seems to fit better with what we just got through playing.
Sometimes our sessions are nothing more than us kicking back and listening to our favorite music that day. If there’s something that doesn’t jive with the rest of what we’re playing on that session that day, we get those things out of the way and we come in with the ones that do work.
That’s where you get songs like ‘For The Good Times’ or ‘Mental Revenge.’ It’s usually gonna be some vibe we’re looking for, or some feeling we’re looking to expand on a little better.”
And “Mental Revenge” does seem to fit the Jamey Johnson vibe, making this song one of the most-sung by headliner names in country music history.