100 Greatest Women, #35: Pam Tillis

100 Greatest Women

#35

Pam Tillis

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.

Pam Tillis

Essential Singles

  • “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

Essential Albums

  • 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

Industry Awards

  • CMA Vocal Event (“I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”), 1993
  • CMA Female Vocalist, 1994
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Collaboration (“Same Old Train”), 1999

==> #34. Jean Shepard

<– #36. Donna Fargo

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14 Comments

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14 Responses to 100 Greatest Women, #35: Pam Tillis

  1. LeeannNo Gravatar

    I absolutely love her last two studio albums! Her Christmas album is among my favorites as well. What a great singer and songwriter. I love that when she finally came back to country music, she solidly committed to it, which is reflected in her music.

  2. Kevin, I think you have Pam rated too low. She has had more lasting impact on Country Music then some of the artists who I believe you will rate ahead of her. However, this is your list not mine.

    I loved Pam’s 90’s stuff. “The River and the Highway”, “Deep Down”, and “In Between Dances” are some of my many favorites.

    I am surprised you did not talk about Pam’s excellent videos. I believe modern day country artists can and have used music videos to enhance their music, and expand its appeal. Pam was excellent at that. I believe she received two CMA nominations for video of year.

    Pam was one of the first, if not the first, female artist to solo produce her own album – “All This Love”. I remember Arista Nashville made a huge deal of that at the time of the album’s release. I wish that album had sold better, but that was not to be.

    Watching Pam in concert, I always felt she was so happy just to be there to perform for her fans. That kind of enthusiasm just rubs off on you.

    Here’s hoping for a few more years of good Pam Tillis music.

  3. LynnNo Gravatar

    Thanks to this article, I just had a huge iTunes session. I forgot about some of Pam’s songs, which I love. She’s always been a favorite of mine. Is it just me or did the writing in country music used to be better, even for the silly ditties? Oh well…

  4. LeeannNo Gravatar

    Lynn, Kevin’s articles have been the cause of many digital download sessions for me too.:)

  5. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    Okay – placed about right – She’s a good artist who has shown imagination and creativity

    It’s tough to follow a legend, but she has succeeded and on her own terms

  6. Doug in MadisonNo Gravatar

    Given Pam’s trifecta of talent — singer, songwriter, producer — I think you’ve placed her too low.

    “All the Good Ones are Gone” is classic. “RhineStoned” is one of my Top 10 favorite country albums.

    Pam’s career illustrates how tenuous a hold many female country singers have on radio airplay. One misstep and it can all be over. In Pam’s case, I think “I Said a Prayer” was her misstep. It’s an inferior single — too popish, with an irritating “Na, na, na, na” chorus. Although it made it to No. 12 on the country airplay charts, I think that was mostly due to residual goodwill from her previous singles, not because of its worth. Regardless, it seemed to sour country radio on her singles.

  7. B. JonathanNo Gravatar

    I’m in agreement with Doug. Not only her immense talents, but her continued care for the tradition of the music warrant a higher spot. However, this list is doing an excellent job of illustrating these women and I expect more of the same as we move forward.

  8. TomNo Gravatar

    being an avid reader of fishin’ magazines, keen watcher of tv fishin’ shows and proud owner of a new, not even nearly paid suv, i’d like to add “betty’s got a bass boat” onto that list of essential singles, right next to “the river and the highway”. can’t rate that gal high enough.

  9. JarheadDadNo Gravatar

    You know where those songs come from don’t you Tom? Her dad is from Pahokee, FL. On Lake Okeechobee and she grew up with fishermen all around her. Some of it had to rub off on her! ;-)

    I used to fish the old NBA circuit and Junior Samples would show up all the time with the Hee-Haw girls like Barbi Benton et al. Wuff! Bobby Bare and all those guys were bigtime into fishin’.

    Glad to see Brad Paisley carrying on the tradition! :-o

  10. Hearing that this post made some of you go out and download Pam Tillis music is about the best news I could hear. If it wasn’t for Pam, I wouldn’t be a country music fan today. If the list was based solely on personal taste, she’d be top five at minimum.

  11. AllanLCampbellNo Gravatar

    Pam Tillis is another of my favorites. My intro to her was the Greatest Hits album. I have always liked the Every Time album. She sings great songs on these 2 albums.

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  13. TomNo Gravatar

    …as long as it’s only shrinkage of vision….

  14. KennyNo Gravatar

    She is my favorite, I just love her voice!

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