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Country music legend Mel Tillis dead at 85: publicist

© GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP | Country music star Mel Tillis, pictured performing in 2015, received the National Medal of Arts in 2012 from then-president Barack Obama

WASHINGTON (AFP) - 

Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis, known for songs such as "I Ain't Never" and "Coca-Cola Cowboy," died early Sunday aged 85, his publicist confirmed.

The country legend died of suspected respiratory failure at the Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Florida, publicist Don Murry Grubbs said in a statement.

"Tillis battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered," he said.

Tillis, a father of six who endeared fans with his stammer and self-deprecating charm, recorded more than 60 albums, scored 35 top 10 singles, and saw 600 of his songs recorded by major artists during a career spanning six decades.

The former Air Force baker -- who had his heyday in the 1970s -- also dipped into film and television, appearing on shows such as "Hee Haw" and movies including "Smokey and the Bandit II" (1980) and "Every Which Way but Loose" (1978), alongside Clint Eastwood.

He was also active in business ventures which included radio stations and publishing companies, as well as his own theater in Branson, Missouri, where he performed thousands of shows, according to The Tennessean newspaper.

In 2012, then-President Barack Obama awarded Tillis the National Medal of Arts. He was also a member of the Grand Ole Opry and a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee.

A representative for Tillis' daughter Pam Tillis, also a country singer-songwriter, wrote on her Facebook page that his death was "sudden and unexpected."

Tributes from fellow country music stars poured in on social media, with musician and "The Voice" judge Blake Shelton describing Tillis' death as "a truly devastating loss."

© 2017 AFP