May 27, 2007
All of This Love
November 7, 1995
You can learn much about an artist’s commitment to their craft by how they capitalize on their success. Pam Tillis had credibility and commercial clout to burn after Sweetheart’s Dance, her platinum-selling 1994 collection that produced four top five hits and netted her the CMA award for Female Vocalist of the Year. That album was a radio-friendly fun-fest, capturing her infectious personality and establishing her as a major star in the genre. It also gave her big success as a co-producer, prompting her to ask her label for permission to produce the follow-up on her own.
Tim DuBois, president of Arista Nashville at the time, gave her the freedom to do so, and while the press focused on her being the first woman to produce her own album, they missed the fact that most country artists, male or female, co-produce their albums at the most. An artist producing completely on their own is a rarity in itself. (They also overlooked that Gail Davies and Alison Krauss had already been solo producers, but Tillis was the first major female artist on a big label to attempt it.)
Perhaps having complete control over the project is what prompted Tillis to turn inward with All of This Love, a somber record that replaces the bright strokes of Sweetheart’s Dance with shades of melancholy. The album opens with the lead single “Deep Down”, which matches a lyric of emotional despair – “I’ve got the bleeding stopped, but there’s gonna be a scar” – with a surprisingly bouncy melody. It’s a hard country lyric, but Tillis the producer weaves together the mournful fiddle and steel with fiery licks of electric guitar. It’s a tour de force, meeting somewhere at the crossroads between Nashville Sound and British Invasion Pop.
The next cut, “Mandolin Rain”, is a literal reinvention of the Bruce Hornsby hit, with Marty Stuart playing the titular instrument to great effect. Her vocal intensity recalls the similarly nostalgic “Maybe It Was Memphis”, but while that hit matched her powerful vocal with an equally forceful backing track, a less-is-more approach is taken here. The mandolin works as an instrumental duet partner, playing off her every line and heightening the emotional effect of her performance.
Kim Richey co-wrote the third track, “Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight”, a tale of a new love blossoming against the backdrop of a melancholy production. It’s a mirror image of “Deep Down”, the opening cut that matched a mournful lyric with a bouncy production. On first listen, you could be excused for thinking that something was going to happen down by river that would only have one survivor, though the mood lifts every time the chorus comes around.
The first of two cuts co-written by Tillis herself is the fourth track, “It’s Lonely Out There”, which is one of her most underrated hit singles. It begins as a warning to a lover looking for greener pastures, coolly telling him to “go on and get your share”, but her indifferent facade begins breaking down as the song goes on. She continues to throw in some damn near vicious lines – “There’s people out there trying to look like they’re having fun. Do you really want to be one?” – but after the bridge, she drops all pretenses. Her vocal turns into a heartfelt plea as “go on and get your share” is replaced by “we’ve got such a good thing here” and “believe me baby” becomes “don’t go now, baby. It’s lonely out there.”
The album’s centerpiece is the fifth cut, “The River and the Highway.” It’s a gorgeous, poetic, string-enhanced ballad that uses a brilliant metaphor to capture how two very different people can find comfort in each other but still not be able to travel through life side by side. It’s amazing that such an unconventional song was able to break through country radio, reaching the top ten, but it simply elevated the airwaves when it did.
I’ve often said that All of This Love has my favorite “side one” of any album of that era. The first five cuts are amazingly strong, some of the best work Tillis ever produced. However, the album begins to lose a little steam after that. There’s a charming cover of “You Can’t Have a Good Time Without Me”, which was a minor hit for The Forester Sisters. Tillis simply shreds their original version, turning into a jazzy Western swing number that almost masks the fact that it’s little more than album filler.
There are also two more ballads. First, the cute “El Paso”-y “Tequila Mockingbird”, a concert staple that she wrote with her kid brother Sonny. It’s well done, but the storyline isn’t captivating enough for it to hold up to repeated listens. “No Two Ways About It” is a downer that has Tillis seeing her former beau dancing happily with another woman at the club, and grudgingly coming to terms with the fact that their love has ended. It’s a pretty song, but fairly generic, especially compared to the captivating dance hall smash “In Between Dances” from Sweetheart’s Dance, a far more interesting and emotionally captivating take on a similar theme.
The nadir of the album – and, quite possibly of Tillis’ recording career – is the redneck novelty song “Betty’s Got a Bass Boat.” I have no doubt that Tillis found the song funny and could relate to some of the content, being an outdoorsy southern girl herself. But the track feels jarringly out of place on an album that is largely serious and reflective. It’s also incredibly corny and has not dated well with time.
Thankfully, the album returns to stellar form with the closing title track, written by Chapin Hartford (“Shake the Sugar Tree”, “Meet in the Middle.”) Drenched with fiddle, mandolin and steel guitar, Tillis sings of the love she’s saving for the man she has yet to meet, comparing herself to a wild magnolia that is “sheltered, untouched and alone”, and declaring that she “can’t wait to see what you’ll do, with all of this love that I’m saving for you.”
Hartford is a very visual writer, and she captures the feeling of being alone at night but comforted by your dream of the perfect person out there for you: “Sometimes at night when I lay awake and I wonder, shadows of doubt fill the room. Then the darkness falls and I stare at the walls till you come into view, and I picture your face and the time and the place. You’re a dream waiting to come true.”
All of This Love was a gold-selling album, falling short of the platinum sales of its two predecessors, but it remains a fascinating listen. It showcases Tillis’ talents as a singer and producer to great effect, and while there are some unsatisfying moments, the album as a whole remains essential listening. I’ve rated it lower than Sweetheart’s Dance because of that, but more of my favorite all-time Tillis performances are found on All of This Love.
Track Listing: Deep Down/Mandolin Rain/Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight/It’s Lonely Out There/The River & The Highway/You Can’t Have a Good Time Without Me/Betty’s Got a Bass Boat/Tequila Mockingbird/No Two Ways About It/All of This Love
Buy Now: All of This Love