Classic Country Singles: Pam Tillis, “Maybe It Was Memphis”

“Maybe It Was Memphis”

Pam Tillis

Written by Michael James Anderson

While being the child of a country music icon presents itself, on the surface, with ample opportunities for exposure, as history will show, it’s often just a hurdle in establishing a unique artistic identity.

Perhaps that’s why, then, Pam Tillis had a love-hate relationship with father Mel Tillis’ music career, She felt drawn to music in her youth, surely … but not quite the country music her father played. She was drawn to the country-rock stylings of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, yearning for her own music career, but also resentful of her father’s absences that his tour schedule demanded.

A trained classical pianist and self-taught guitarist, Tillis eventually enrolled in the University of Tennessee and formed her first band, presenting jug band tunes with the same country-rock edge she loved from before. Country music always seemed to call her back, though. In 1976, she returned to Nashville to write songs and work in her father’s publishing company. A move to San Francisco, however, had her performing in jazz clubs around the city with her Freelight band, all while selling Avon cosmetics to supplement her income.

Tillis would find brief success in pop music, with 1983’s Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey drawing critical acclaim, but little in the way of commercial success; that is, not counting her songwriting royalties from pop cuts by Chaka Khan and Gloria Gaynor. Upon returning to Nashville shortly after, she noticed her songwriting taking a more country direction, and was soon transferred to the country division of Warner Bros., earning a singles deal.

Beyond offering more exposure for her talents, her stint with Warner Bros. provided little in the way of actual chart success, and it wouldn’t be until her 1989 move to Arista Records that she’d become an overnight success.

One of the singles from Tillis’ smash debut, “Maybe It Was Memphis,” from 1991’s Put Yourself in My Place, had actually been recorded while she was with Warner Bros. But it never took off there the way it would with Arista. She’d eventually become known for writing and producing the bulk of her material, but the background story for “Maybe It Was Memphis” focuses on its writer, Michael Anderson, who was inspired to write the hit after several visits to a friend’s house in Nashville.

Anderson moved to Nashville to be a songwriter, and, having grown up in both Michigan and Los Angeles, wasn’t used to the hot, humid nights there. The inspiration came in the little details he’d notice on his frequent visits, like the loud cicadas he’d hear while enjoying sweet tea and key lime pie on the porch with his friend.

Originally titled “Maybe It Was Nashville,” Anderson changed the focus to Memphis upon realizing that, for starters, the unwritten in Nashville was to not write songs about Nashville, but also because, simply put, it sounded better. Anderson likely had more in common with Tillis’ rock side, given that he played in a lot of rock and roll bands early on in his career. But his simple focus here was to create a country love song.

There are a few different accounts of how exactly Tillis caught wind of the song. One story says that she just heard it in a pitch session one day; another says that a secretary at Criterion, the publishing company where Anderson worked, fell in love with the song and made a cassette that she gave to Tillis. Another story says that publisher Michael Puryear heard the song and pitched it to Paul Worley. There’s even a separate story that says Tanya Tucker passed on the opportunity to record this song. Neither Anderson nor Tillis know the exact version.

What’s become most notable about the song over time is its romanticizing of southern culture and how it makes the characters in it sound literate and sophisticated, instead of just a bunch of hicks. It’s a philosophy loosely related to country music’s general dominance in the ‘90s, where its commercial appeal skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, and proved it always had more to offer than its critics would ever care to admit. The imagery is simple, but detailed in capturing the human experience, and though both Tillis and Anderson were technically outsiders, the beauty of its timing and release is that those outsiders were welcomed; encouraged, even, if only because the ultimate goal was to elevate the bar for country music classics.

4 Comments

  1. One of the ironic things about Pam vis-a-vis her relationship with her illustrious father is that Linda, who she pegged as one of her biggest influences, actually covered her father’s 1967 song “Mental Revenge” for her only made-in-Nashville album, 1970’s Silk Purse. As with so many of her fellow female singers from the 1990’s female country boom, there is that influence of Linda’s, but it’s never slavishly imitative (and besides, trying to be another Linda is a fool’s errand [IMHO]).

    It certainly couldn’t have been easy to live under her own father’s shadow, anymore than it was for Rosanne Cash to live under hers, but with songs like “Maybe It Was Memphis”, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”, and the bluegrass-tinged “Put Yourself In My Place”, she did quite all right for herself.

  2. Pam’s Put Yourself In My Place album is one of my all time favorite albums from that golden early 90’s era. It’s one I can still listen to and enjoy from front to back without skipping a track.

    I always enjoy reading backstories on “Memphis” and what led up to the now classic recording on Arista. I also like how you mentioned how sophisticated this song is today, especially when compared to most modern songs that romanticize the southern lifestyle. I feel like this is one of the songs that a lot of modern country songs try to be, but fail miserably. It’s also one of those few songs about summertime that actually sounds great all year round.

    I absolutely love the rest of the singles from this album as well, especially “One Of Those Things,” and “Put Yourself In My Place.” Favorite non singles are “Melancholy Child,” “I’ve Seen Enough To Know,” and “Ancient History.” Always thought “I’ve Seen Enough To Know” would’ve made a great single, too.

  3. Jamie,

    Apologies for how spotty I’ve been with my replies lately. You always have such thoughtful comments! Anyway, I agree – Pam was on the roll from the beginning and should have had way more success. I know women rightfully ruled the ’90s, but it always felt like artists such as her, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless should have been so much bigger than they were.

  4. Oh, it’s okay! Anyway, thanks for the kind words, Zackery. :) I agree with you on Pam deserving more success than she ended up getting, along with the other ladies you mentioned. One of the many things I always hated about country radio during the 00’s was how quickly they seemed to forget many of the great female artists from the 90’s and 80’s. Unfortunately, I think Pam, MCC, Kathy, and Patty were already falling out of favor by the late 90’s, as more pop influenced artists like Shania and Faith were having success, and the labels were looking for more female artists in that vein. Lorrie Morgan is another that falls in that category for me, and I wish she had a longer hit run, as well. She had a good sized hit with “Go Away” in 1997, but after that, she couldn’t get back into the top ten.

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