“Don’t Tell Me What to Do”
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.