100 Greatest Women, #33: Pam Tillis

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#33

Pam Tillis

2008 Edition: #35 (+2)

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 three 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. She picked up two International Bluegrass Music Association Awards for Recorded Event of the Year for her contributions to the Ralph Stanley project Clinch Mountain Sweethearts and a tribute album to the Louvin Brothers. 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 to wide critical acclaim. It featured a modern country sound steeped in tradition, and included a duet with fellow veteran John Anderson.  She also earned an IBMA nomination for her songwriting in 2012, for co-writing “Somewhere South of Crazy” with Dale Ann Bradley.  Tillis has made frequent guest appearances as herself on the television series Nashville, and appeared as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In recent years, she has worked extensively with fellow second generation star Lorrie Morgan, on the road with their Grits and Glamour tour, and in the studio as well.  The pair released Dos Divas in 2013 and Come See Me and Come Lonely in 2017.  In 2018, she kicked off another nineties tour collaboration, trekking across North America with Suzy Bogguss and Terri Clark on their Chicks With Hits tour. Tillis is currently prepping the release of her next solo project, her first since 2007.

Essential Singles

  • Don’t Tell Me What to Do, 1990
  • Maybe it Was Memphis, 1991
  • Shake the Sugar Tree, 1992
  • Let That Pony Run, 1992
  • Spilled Perfume, 1994
  • Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life), 1994
  • In Between Dances, 1995
  • Deep Down, 1995
  • 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
  • Come See Me and Come Lonely (with Lorrie Morgan), 2017

Industry Awards

  • Country Music Association Awards
    • Female Vocalist of the Year, 1994
    • Vocal Event of the Year
      • I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair (George Jones and Friends), 1993
  • Grammy Awards
    • Best Country Vocal Collaboration
      • Same Old Train, 1999
  • International Bluegrass Music Association Awards
    • Recorded Event of the Year
      • Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, 2002
      • Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: The Songs of the Louvin Brothers, 2004

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #32. Anne Murray

Previous: #34. Lorrie Morgan

3 Comments

  1. Pam Tillis is one of my dad’s favorites – he fell for her voice (which I remember him describing as “really, really beautiful”) after hearing either “Spilled Perfume” or “In Between Dances” (in ’94, I believe). Naturally, she’s one of mine, too. “Maybe it Was Memphis” blew me away the first time I heard it.

  2. Pam Tillis is one of my favorite country artists of the 90’s. She has one the best pure voices that I have ever heard. Pam’s Put Yourself In My Place, Homeward Looking Angel, Sweetheart’s Dance, It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, and RhineStoned are all excellent albums. Maybe It Was Memphis is still one of the greatest country songs of the 90’s and my favorite track from Pam.

  3. Favorite PT songs: In Between Dances, All the Good Ones Are Gone, Spilled Perfume, Let That Pony Run and Cleopatra, Queen of Denial – all from GH. Also like the duet with John Anderson Life Sure Has Changed Us Around, Band in the Window, That Was a Heartache and Something Burning Out from Rhinestoned. I should check out some of her other albums one of these days.

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