She grew up the daughter of a country music icon. As a baby, she’d nap in his guitar case. But Pam Tillis resisted her musical heritage for many years before finally embracing it and producing some of the best country music of the past two decades.
Growing up in Nashville, Tillis lost interest in country music once she discovered the Beatles. She had a taste for the country-rock of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, but felt no connection to the scene of her father, Mel Tillis. Quite the wild child in her teen years, she was nearly killed in a car crash when she was still in high school, and needed multiple reconstructive surgeries on the road to recovery.
Tillis sang backup sometimes for her dad, but she was more interested in exploring other genres of music. She moved out to San Francisco and performed at jazz clubs around the city. Her talent was soon noticed by pop labels, and in 1981 she released her first single, “Every Home Should Have One.” Around the same time, her songwriting started getting noticed, and she had cuts from pop artists like Chaka Khan and Gloria Gaynor.
Tillis signed with Warner Bros. and made her play for pop stardom with her 1983 album Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey. Despite a glowing review in People magazine, the album sank quickly. Tillis moved back to Nashville and soon discovered her writing going in a country direction. She was transferred to the country division of Warner Bros., garnering a singles deal.
She released several singles for the label, but never got higher than #55 on the charts, with “Those Memories of You.” That song would end up a top ten hit for Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris During her stint with them, she recorded early versions of her future hits “Maybe it Was Memphis” and “One of Those Things”, along with “Five Minutes”, which would be a #1 hit for Lorrie Morgan. She was nominated for ACM Top New Female Vocalist in 1987, but was released from her label the following year.
Tillis focused on her songwriting, becoming a staff writer for Tree Publishing. She began to get cuts around town from artists like Conway Twitty, Janie Fricke and Judy Rodman. Highway 101 had a top fifteen hit with her song “Someone Else’s Trouble Now.” While Tim DuBois was preparing to launch a Nashville office for Arista Records, he chose to sign Pam Tillis as his flagship female artist.
After more than a decade paying her dues, she was suddenly an overnight success. Her Arista debut single “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” was an instant hit, and was nominated in 1991 for CMA Single of the Year. Her album Put Yourself in My Place produced three more hits, including what would become her signature song, “Maybe it Was Memphis.” It was also nominated for CMA Single of the Year in 1992, and earned Tillis her first Grammy nomination as well. It helped her first Arista album reach gold status.
Her next album, Homeward Looking Angel, fared even better, selling platinum on the strength of hits like “Shake the Sugar Tree”, “Let That Pony Run” and “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” Emboldened by her success, she decided to co-produce her next album. Sweetheart’s Dance was released in 1994 to rave reviews. It spawned four big hits, including the #1 single “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)”, “When You Walk in the Room”, “Spilled Perfume” and “In Between Dances.” In the fall of 1994, Tillis was named Female Vocalist of the Year by the CMA on the strength of the project, which also became her second platinum album.
Tillis produced her next album, All of this Love, on her own. The gold-selling 1995 collection produced another signature hit in “The River and the Highway.” Tillis toured the following year with fellow second-generation country stars Lorrie Morgan and Carlene Carter, the first major all-female tour in country history. She received a slew of ACM, CMA and Grammy nominations in 1997 for “All the Good Ones are Gone”, a tender ballad that previewed her platinum-selling Greatest Hits set. The other new track, “Land of the Living”, would become her final top five hit in the fall of the same year.
Label changes made things tough for Tillis at radio over the next few years. Her 1998 album Every Time produced the top twenty hit “I Said a Prayer”, while her 2001 swan song for Arista, Thunder & Roses, produced the top thirty hit “Please.” During this period, Tillis maintained a high profile by appearing on Broadway in Smokey Joe’s Cafe and joining the cast of the Grand Ole Opry.
In 2002, Sony released a self-financed and produced tribute album that Tillis had recorded in honor of her father, Mel Tillis. It’s All Relative received excellent reviews as a showcase for both generations of Tillis talent. After another label shakeup left her without a contract, she took her time preparing her next studio album. She released a live set and a Christmas record through her fan club before launching her own label, Stellar Cat.
In 2007, she released RhineStoned on the label, which featured the cheeky subtitle “High on Country Music”, to wide critical acclaim. It featured a modern country sound steeped in tradition, and included a duet with fellow veteran John Anderson. Tillis has spent the past two years touring internationally in support of the project. She is expected to return to the studio soon to prepare her next album.
- “Don’t Tell Me What to Do”, 1990
- “Maybe it Was Memphis”, 1991
- “Shake the Sugar Tree”, 1992
- “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)”, 1994
- “The River and the Highway”, 1995
- “All the Good Ones are Gone”, 1997
- Put Yourself in My Place, 1991
- Homeward Looking Angel, 1993
- Sweetheart’s Dance, 1994
- All of This Love, 1995
- It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002
- RhineStoned, 2007
- CMA Vocal Event (“I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”), 1993
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1994
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Collaboration (“Same Old Train”), 1999