Every #1 Country Single of the Nineties: Pam Tillis, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do”

“Don’t Tell Me What to Do”

Pam Tillis

Written by Max D. Barnes and Harlan Howard

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

February 22, 1991

A new era for women in country begins with this No. 1 hit.

The Road to No. 1

As the daughter of country music legend Mel Tillis, Pam Tillis grew up surrounded by the country music industry.  But her musical muse took her away from Music City, playing in experimental jazz bands and recording a pop album for Warner Bros. in 1983.

Tillis would then switch to the label’s country division and release several singles, including pre-hit version of “Maybe it Was Memphis” and “One of Those Things,” as well as Lorrie Morgan’s “Five Minutes” and the top five Trio hit, “Those Memories of You.”

She played Mary Magdalene in a Nashville production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tillis also found success as a songwriter, scoring cuts with everyone from pop and R&B stars like Gloria Gaynor and Chaka Khan, to country hitmakers like Highway 101 and Janie Fricke.

Tillis caught the attention of Tim DuBois, the president of Arista’s new Nashville division, and signed her as his flagship female artist.  In late 1990, her debut single for the label was sent to radio.

The No. 1

“Don’t Tell Me What to Do” wasn’t the first No. 1 single of the nineties by a woman, but it’s the first that embodies the modern perspective that would define the golden era for women in country music.

Here, a woman gets her heart broken, but she refuses to play the victim, taking ownership over her heartbreak and pointedly rejecting the control that her ex-lover is trying to maintain over her actions:  “Don’t tell me what to do,” she asserts, adding that “If I’m in to all honky tonkin’.  Well I’m a big girl, I can take care of myself.”

Tillis is the perfect artist to deliver this independent anthem that still pulsates with vulnerability, delivering humor and hurt in one shot as she declares, “I’ll love you forever if I want to.”    You need look no further than the pedestrian recording of this same song by Marty Stuart to understand how Tillis brought her vocal skills and femininity to the table and elevated the material.

This just wouldn’t work as well by a male artist, and Tillis being able to meld a traditional vocal with a contemporary perspective provided a roadmap for her future hits, as well as those of many of her contemporaries.

The Road From No. 1

Tillis wouldn’t top the charts again until 1994, but between now and then, she solidified her position as a leading female artist.   Two of her signature songs, “Maybe it Was Memphis” and “Shake the Sugar Tree,” reached No. 2 in Radio & Records and No. 3 in Billboard, and she reached the top ten of both charts with “One of Those Things” and “Let That Pony Run.” When we see Pam again, she’ll be riding on the success of her third country album and sporting a major trophy on her mantle.

“Don’t Tell Me What to Do” gets an A. 

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

Previous: Joe Diffie, “If You Want Me To” | Next: Alan Jackson, “I’d Love You All Over Again”

6 Comments

  1. Pam is one of my all time favorite artist. Right up there with Reba, Emmylou, and Patty! This song sounds as fresh today as it did 30 yrs ago and has aged so well! When we have 90s country on at work this chorus turns into a fun sing along song that everyone knows by heart as we’re all 90s kids! If I had a dollar each time I’ve told someone ” Don’t tell me what to do, I’ll do what I want when I want to” I’d be a millionaire right now.

  2. Wow, I know I’m not always looking at chart data, but I’m quite surprised that this was Pam’s only number one in the early 90’s. It was most definitely a well deserved one, though. As twtt said, it still sounds incredibly fresh today (always loved the production team of Paul Worley and Ed Seay, especially their work with Pam and Highway 101), and that steel guitar intro instantly tells you that you’re in for a classic. Not to mention, it’s just so relatable. There have been quite a few people in the past few years my mom and I would sure like to tell the title of this song to!

    I’ve got to say, I’ve always loved the video for this song as well, and it features one of my all time favorite early 90’s country video trends: the artist driving around in a cool vintage car.

    Speaking of Pam’s videos, my proper introduction to Pam was actually seeing her video for “Put Yourself In My Place” for the first time while I was over at my dad’s house when I was six (he had CMT, but my mom, step dad, and I didn’t). That’s also one of the songs from her I remember hearing the most from this era in her career. Also really love “One Of Those Things,” “Let That Pony Run,” “Blue Rose Is,” “Shake The Sugar Tree,” and of course “Memphis.” Her debut album, in particular, is solid gold from beginning to end. Pam is pretty much right up there for me along with Trisha, Patty, Lorrie, etc., as my favorite 90’s female country artists.

    Also trouble_with_the_truth, you’re so lucky to be working at a place that actually plays 90’s country!

  3. My first introduction to Pam Tillis was also the video for “Put Yourself in My Place.” We had CMT in our PA vacation home. Then I saw her sing “Memphis” on Hot Country Nights and eventually saw that video. I finally heard “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” when CMT did a Triple Take and played all three videos. I remember being curious because I thought she only had two videos. “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” was played last.

    I don’t think I fully appreciated the impact of this record until I did this feature and heard it in context of where country music was at the time. It’s always been in the shadow of “Memphis” for me because that was the one that I was around for.

  4. The case has been made that Pam Tillis is the quintessential 90’s country star despite not having the run of number one singles other artists enjoyed. The signature confidence and independence are certainly there from the get go with this iconic song.

    If she had a male counter-part the case could be made it was Hal Ketchum.

    This song still vibrates and hums with the same sass and energy it did in 1990. As Kevin said, it is an anthem that still pulsates with vulnerability, humour and hurt.

    Tillis’ songs stood out in a field of outstanding female country artists.

    I feel so much thought and energy could go into teasing apart what made Pam Tillis so special to country music and why her contributions still matter to country music today.

    This song is a classic A.

  5. So, funny story…for whatever reason, as a young kid, Pam Tillis’ pitch of her voice scared me. When this song or “Maybe It Was Memphis” came on and she’d hit the really high notes, I’d cover my ears and beg for the station to be changed (Again, I was very, very young).

    I say that to say…I grew up and matured, and she’s since become one of my favorite artists from that time period. Pam Tillis just had an ear for outstanding material, and while I think that’s mostly shown with her ballads..she did pretty well on the uptempo stuff as well. I agree the song has a 90’s contemporary feel in tone, but it still sounds country and fits the old time trope of trying to mend a broken heart. It’s a good example of how you can still do something a little different, and yet still incorporate historical themes in the genre and honor them.

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