March 18, 2007
Put Yourself in My Place
January 22, 1991
When Pam Tillis signed with Arista records in 1990, she was already close to being damaged goods, an artist that had made several attempts at stardom in the previous decade but never quite managed to get there. However, Arista was a startup label that had just opened up its Nashville offices, and it needed a female flagship artist to complement their token hat act, a young Mr. Alan Jackson. With great confidence in her songwriting skills and unique voice, label president Tim DuBois made a decision that would make the difference between Pam’s earlier unsuccessful work and the music she would release for Arista: he gave her complete artistic freedom.
And boy, did she use it. Put Yourself in My Place is an ambitious album, steeped in country music tradition but thoroughly modern for the time. The project launched with “Don’t Tell Me What to Do”, co-written by Max T. Barnes and songwriting legend Harlan Howard. Originally recorded by Marty Stuart, Pam’s version was an instant hit, reaching the top five of the country singles chart. It was a feminist anthem with a twist; the girl still loves the man who left her behind, but won’t allow him to tell her to move on. “I’ll love you forever if I want to”, she defiantly sings. Even before it went to radio, Howard knew it was something special, and remarked at the time: “It’s the most exciting record I’ve had.”
Producers Paul Worley & Ed Seay had cut their teeth on Highway 101 and would go on to helm fantastic projects by Martina McBride and the Dixie Chicks. They brought a tremendous energy to the record. While Pam’s Warner Brothers work had sounded like unfinished demos, Put Yourself in My Place was full of stellar musicianship, perfected vocals and well-chosen material. While it produced five hits, there were another handful that could’ve done just as well on the charts.
But first, the hits. After “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” helped the project start off strong, “One of Those Things” followed it into the top ten. Pam had cut the song herself and released it as a single in 1986 for WB, but it failed to chart. Janie Fricke used it as album filler, but didn’t send it to radio. Tillis’ album version for Place was stronger than her original cut in every way. She changes up the melody in the chorus and finds a killer hook in the process. Throw in a more confident vocal, and a pity-me song becomes a dignified send-off to a relationship that clearly isn’t working.
The title cut went to radio next, and peaked at #11. Pam performed the song on the 1991 CMA Awards, where she was nominated for the Horizon Award and Single of the Year (“Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”) She gave a fiery performance of a witty song that features dueling guitars at a breakneck pace during the instrumental bridge.
By this point, album sales had cooled off, but Arista still had an ace up their sleeve. “Maybe It Was Memphis” was sent to radio right before Christmas in 1991, and it became a massive hit, pushing the album into the top ten and earning it a gold certification. “Memphis” became her signature hit, earning her a Grammy nomination and another shot at the Horizon Award and Single of the Year at the 1992 CMA Awards. Her fiery performance and the aggressive production still sound fresh today, though it would make all those supposed “attitude” songs that the pretty young things have out sound timid and waifish in comparison.
Pam’s love affair with awkward puns and songs about roses began with the fifth and final single, “Blue Rose Is”, a honky-tonk number about a woman looking for love at the local pub and hiding her pain and loneliness with bathing in the neon lights. She writes a sympathetic, believable character rather than a caricature like the woman in Reba McEntire’s #1 hit “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”
The singles were great, but the real masterpiece on the album is slipped in between them. The deeply personal “Melancholy Child” weaves Pam’s life story into a Celtic-flavored song that subtly alludes to her troubled youth, where she rebelled to the point of self-destruction: “I thought I could outrun the emptiness inside of me. So I went a little crazy, I went a little wild, trying to outdistance my melancholy child.” The song ends with a haunting reference to seeing the same sense of sadness in her young son: “In my own babe’s eyes, I see the signs…Heaven help us all, another melancholy child.” The emotions written into the song are so raw that Pam moved herself to tears performing it at a concert of hers I attended in 1995.
The remainder of the album has a fair bit of filler, with the trio of cleverly written but fairly interchangeable up-tempo tracks “Ancient History”, “Draggin’ My Chains” and “Already Fallen,” the last of which manages to rhyme “care” with both “Frigidaire” and “silverware.” But another gem sneaks in, the gorgeous “I’ve Seen Enough to Know”, which Tillis co-wrote with Radney Foster. It’s a wholesale rejection of cynicism as a response to failed loves in the past, and Tillis is charmingly persistent in wooing a jaded man into trying love again. It joins “Child” and “Memphis” as one of Pam’s strongest vocals on the album.
It’s easy to overlook Put Yourself in My Place when discussing Pam’s body of work because of the much stronger albums that would follow – of her seven essential albums, this is the weakest. However, that’s more of a tribute to the quality of the music to come than any deficiency of the album itself. Sixteen years later, Place remains the definitive starting point of who she would become as an artist, and showcases more of her songwriting talent than any of her future country albums would.
Track Listing: Put Yourself in My Place/Melancholy Child/Maybe it Was Memphis/Blue Rose Is/Don’t Tell Me What To Do/One of Those Things/Draggin’ My Chains/Ancient History/I’ve Seen Enough to Know/Already Fallen
Buy Now: Put Yourself in My Place