Pam Tillis, Rhinestoned

Pam Tillis
Rhinestoned

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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

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10 Comments

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10 Responses to Pam Tillis, Rhinestoned

  1. CF

    Alright, you’ve totally convinced me. I’m going to purchase it online right now. I was going to wait awhile, but I wanted my purchase to count towards the first week sells. I’m just looking at different sites to see if there’s any bonus stuff or something, otherwise, I’ll probably get it from Best Buy or MusiCountry if they have it.

  2. CF

    OK…just got it from Best-Buy for about $18, including s & h. Should be here next week. Thanks again!

  3. Greg FanoeNo Gravatar

    Haven’t heard the album, but will definitely check it out based on this review.

    Re: country as an “art” format vs “radio” format, as a fledgling country fan myself (only been a fan since about 2005, the stigma had kept me away to that point) one thing I’ve noticed in support of this point is that frequently I find the radio singles off of country albums to be among my least favorite tracks on the albums (oh, “Watching You” or “Lucky Man” or “Anyways”). Compred to pop, where I generally find the radio singles are the best tracks. Country is a more lyrics based genre anyways, which makes it tough for some of the best stuff to succeed, since radio seems to care mostly about the radio friendly sound. Not disparaging the radio friendly sound. I love the radio friendly sound.

  4. JonathanNo Gravatar

    Kevin,

    One of the reasons that online criticism still lacks the same credibility as “print” criticism is that there’s so much “fanboy” writing that gets posted, and sometimes it’s hard to know exactly where any given source falls on the spectrum between legit and, well, Ain’tItCoolNews. What makes this review such a fantastic piece of real critical writing is that, knowing what a big fan you are of Pam Tillis’, your bias actually leads you to engage the album in the kind of fine detail (you’ve drawn my attention back to several of the album’s standout lyrics, and I plan to revisit some of the self-written songs on her previous albums) that material and performances this strong deserve. Even better, the candid, personal sections of the review speak to the reasons why people feel compelled to write about the music that’s important to them, and it’s more than the cliche about “dancing about architecture” and, contrary to the fanboys’ beliefs, it’s far more than an impulse to tear down something they don’t like out of sport. This piece was written with the same kind of authority and conviction that Pam Tillis brought to her album, and that’s how it should be done.

  5. Pingback: American Idol Country Night Plagued By Mediocrity And Critics Love New Pam Tillis Album -- The 9513

  6. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I haven’t had an opportunity to listen to the entire album yet but from the eight songs I’ve heard thus far, this is one of her better efforts, close to a five star effort

  7. CF

    Alright, I received the album today!

    I’m listening to it right now, after just importing into my iTunes: it sounds really good. It’s on random and I just done listening to “Train…” and man…gotta love that moanful steel and swaying fiddle….just hits you deep in the soul. I have an appointment with a professor soon, but I’ll have to listen to the rest later!

  8. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I’ve finally gotten around to giving the complete album two listens – the material on her tribute to her dad was better, but she feels more comfortable with these songs – her best album yet – a solid 4.5 stars

  9. Just listening to the album on iTunes I must say wow! She truly is the artist that revives hope in country music and is also the perfect counter part to Shania Twain if I do say so myself.

  10. One of my favorite Of Pam Tillis’s albums. This is what can occur when an artist abandons country radio’s limitations and makes music from a deeper place. It took me a while to get into it because it can be so slow, but the song selection and vocals are nothing short of brilliant.

    I love “Something Burning Out” and “Train Without a Whistle,” but my favorite song on the whole album is “Someone Somewhere Tonight.” It adds a whole new dimension to her legacy, and a new power to her vocal ability.

    This album is nothing short of outstanding

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