Homeward Looking Angel
September 29, 1992
Pam Tillis followed up her gold-selling Arista debut Put Yourself In My Place with an album that was better by just about any standard. She co-wrote five of the ten tracks this time out, down from seven the last time. While the trend of writing less of her own material would continue, it’s worth noting that the five originals here are collectively stronger than the seven that populated her debut. The intensely personal nature of two of the best self-written tracks form the foundation for this very strong album.
“Rough and Tumble Heart”, which had originally been recorded by Highway 101, is the tale of a woman who refuses to be jaded by the bad choices she’s made in the past, and Tillis sings the fire out of the searing lines from her own pen: “It would beat so lonely in the still of the night, and it craved someone just to hold it tight, and it never will give up the fight for a love that lasts forever.”
Even more intense is the sweeping title track that closes the album, which like “Melancholy Child” before it, alludes to the reckless youth that nearly cost Pam her life, and the humbling journey back home to the world she had left behind. As “that girl looking back in the mirror” who “sure made such a mess of things” wrestles with the bad decisions she’s made, she imagines the scene back home: “Now papa’s probably turning out the light, and heading up the stairs. And the wayward child he never talks about still turns up in his prayers.” That the papa is country legend Mel Tillis is irrelevant; the song speaks to the universal truth of parents who set their children free but never stop worrying about how they’re using that freedom.
Tillis pens the opening cut, “How Gone is Goodbye”, which refreshingly casts the woman as the one who has done her man wrong, and worries that she’s pushed it too far. Pondering the title question, she admits, “I’m afraid that I already know the answer. Oh, just this once I’d sure love to be wrong.” She co-wrote the stunning ballad “We’ve Tried Everything Else” with her husband at the time, Bob DiPiero; it would later be covered by labelmate Michelle Wright, who did a decent job but didn’t have the vocal chops to match Pam’s original performance.
She also contributes a song that would end up one of her signature hits, despite peaking just outside the top ten: “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” It’s a raucous, ballsy send-up of the classic country female stereotype, and the forceful arrangement and her growling vocal indicate that her days in denial are numbered.
Much like the album before it, Homeward Looking Angel finds Pam just as well suited at interpreting other writer’s material, and she uses outside sources to supply songs that expand the musical landscape, making this album much more musically diverse than its predecessor. “Do You Know Where Your Man Is”, which Tammy Wynette herself called one of the only real country songs on the radio in those days, is a classic “Woman to Woman” whisper in the Wynette tradition. “Let That Pony Run”, a big hit from the project, was one of the first big hits that Gretchen Peters (“Independence Day”) had as a writer, and the wronged woman in the songs responds to her husband’s infidelity by moving on with dignity. The chorus teaches a life lesson that applies beyond the song’s subject matter: “You do what you gotta do, and you know what you know. You hang on till you can’t hang on, then you learn to let go. And you get what you need sometimes, when it’s all said and done.”
Amazingly enough, the biggest hit of the album was recorded so late in the album’s gestation that their was no budget left to record it. Pam heard “Shake the Sugar Tree” and said that it had to be on the album, no matter what. So with a little help from publisher Sony Tree, she put her voice on the demo recording. As she said a few years later, “Sometimes you can’t beat a good demo.” The back-porch, organic sound of the record, complete with mandolin and fiddle, belied the Jazzy sexual undertones of the lyric, and it ended up a major hit for her.
There’s a bit of filler on Homeward Looking Angel. “Fine, Fine Very Fine Love” sounds ordinary among its surroundings, and the duet with Marty Roe of Diamond Rio on “Love is Only Human” doesn’t quite reach the heights that the two talents singing it would suggest. Overall, though, it is a huge leap forward from her solid country debut, and as her first platinum album, set the groundwork for the musical ambition that was continuing to grow.
Track Listing: How Gone is Goodbye/Shake the Sugar Tree/Do You Know Where Your Man Is/Cleopatra, Queen of Denial/Love is Only Human (duet with Marty Roe)/Rough and Tumble Heart/Let That Pony Run/Fine, Fine Very Fine Love/We’ve Tried Everything Else/Homeward Looking Angel
Buy Now: Homeward Looking Angel