Rhinestoned, the first album of new material from Pam Tillis in nearly six years, once carried the subtitle High on Country Music. The title may have been shortened, but its spirit remains. Rhinestoned is more than just a stunningly well-crafted album from one the genre’s most consistent talents. It is a timely and much-needed reminder that country music is an art form, not just a radio format.
Tillis has always made fantastic albums, but good as they were, they often lacked a full cohesion. Tillis was interested in and good at so many eclectic styles that she tried to squeeze in as many as she could, resulting in very entertaining albums that showed her versatility, but lacked a unifying theme.
With Rhinestoned, she has accomplished what has eluded her in the past: a focused, cohesive album that is deliberately paced, and explores one specific style of country music in depth. This is country music that finds its roots in the seventies folk-country of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, with a streak of Glen Campbell’s polished California sound for added flavor. But rather than mimic the sounds of the artists who came before her, she applies the lessons that they taught her instead.
The album opens with the simmering “Something Burning Out”, which is one of two songs here written by Leslie Satcher. It is a slow burn start to the album, with a classic country melody and a lyric that I’m amazed nobody thought of before, with the narrator avoiding falling stars and not lighting the fireplace because “something burning out reminds me of us.” Satcher’s other cut was co-written with Bruce Robison, and “Heartache” is a mid-tempo ballad that has Tillis claiming her pain over the current breakup pales in comparison to those in the past, but the lyric and her weary delivery betray the confidence she’s trying to project – “It don’t mean nothing if I call you up, and it don’t mean this was really love.”
Pam records some of the most traditional country songs of her career on Rhinestoned. Train imagery is a staple of the genre, but “Train Without a Whistle” still sounds fresh. It’s a woman-to-woman song that finds Tillis warning her friend about the roving man who left her: “This may be your only warning, cause girl, I’ve been down that track. He’s a train without a whistle, and he ain’t coming back.” The mournful steel guitar subtly evokes the metaphor the song is built around.
Lead single “Band in the Window” is a joyous celebration of those who live for the music, the ones who play in bar bands in downtown Nashville, “where the streets are paved with hopeful expectations,” and it’s the song that lays the foundation for the album’s musical approach. “Down By the Water” is a mysterious story song about two lovers who find a deep connection on the riverside, but the man ends up leaving the woman alone. The narrator is so unreliable that it’s hard to tell if their love affair is closer to “Banks of the Ohio” than it is to “Blanket On the Ground.” The listener is left to guess just how much of the romance was a fantasy from the start.
The album also markes the much-needed return of Pam Tillis, writer. While she wrote the bulk of her material early on, she’s only recorded one of her own songs since 1996. While she doesn’t spoil us, we do get two original songs, and they’re among the album’s best. “Life Sure Has Changed Us Around” matches Tillis with one of the most distinctive and effective male singers ever, John Anderson. The two aging rebels run into each other and reflect on how in their wild days, they were “doing all the things we don’t want our kids to do”, and they thought life would be a breeze, but now feel “lucky to be sitting here at all.” The wisdom of a life well-traveled is revealed, as they are both amused and amazed by the things they got away with, and how their youthful feelings of invincibility have faded with time: “Our sins were not original, but we gave them our own twist. Life flashed us a backstage pass and how could we resist?”
Even better is “The Hard Way.” Tillis has hinted at her rebellious youth in song before, singing of the demons that haunted her in “Melancholy Child” and her humbled return back home in “Homeward Looking Angel.” But she’s never directly spoke about the car crash that nearly killed her during her teenage years in song, until now: “Sad seventeen, I fell hard. Mama said she saw it coming as we drove off in his jacked-up car, ” she recalls as she ruminates on the price she’s had to pay because she “never liked the sound of sound advice.”
It’s an unflinchingly honest song, but with an optimistic ending, as she seems to find the love she’s been looking for, though she’s still not sure of her own judgement because of the past mistakes she’s made: “So why aren’t you leaving, or already gone? Each time I believed before, that’s right where everything went wrong. But you swear you love me. And, oh God, I think you mean it.”
Tillis sings a lot about love, but this album is deeper than that. It’s about the mistakes you make along the way while living your life, and trying to find “some truth, some beauty, some meaning, in spite of it all.” Those words are passionately sung at the end of “Someone Somewhere Tonight”, which powerfully captures the inevitable cycle of life, and that while we’re all sharing the same moment around the world, where we are in our life during that moment is anything but similar.
In the first verse, she sings, “Someone, somewhere tonight is taking their first steps, letting go of the hands that held them, and trusting themselves…While someone, somewhere tonight is hearing their Last Rites, and hoping with all their might that there’s something else.” I watched my father go from being the strongest man I’d ever known to hearing his own Last Rites in the last six months, and this song has helped me find a greater connection to the human experience that we all must go through, stage by stage, and in doing so, helped me make peace with a tragedy that has felt arbitrary and unfair.
That’s what music is supposed to do, and country music has always claimed to do it best. By telling the simple truths, you reveal the greater ones. It logically follows that a collection of songs that finds hope triumphing over despair and even reason, would end with a celebration of faith. The album closer “Over My Head” implores us all to put our faith in God, and to remember that we’re never alone, for “there’s a light from heaven shining down above us all, a chance for all of us to rise and heed the call.”
What a fitting conclusion to an album that restores my wavering faith in country music. Pam Tillis ennobles music-making, building on the traditions from the past to make music that is as timeless as her inspirations for this project. This is the best country album I’ve heard in years, and the strongest album of her storied career.
Track Listing: Something Burning Out/Band in the Window/Train Without a Whistle/Life Has Sure Changed Us Around (with John Anderson)/Someone Somewhere Tonight/Down By the Water/Crazy By Myself/Bettin’ Money on Love/That Was a Heartache/The Hard Way/Over My Head
Preview & Buy: Rhinestoned