Pam Tillis was the artist that made me a fan of country music. There were songs and artists I had liked before, but hearing “Maybe it Was Memphis” was an epiphany, a sudden realization that the music of my parents could also be my own.
By the time she'd released Sweetheart's Dance in 1994, I was listening almost exclusively to country music, and she became my favorite artist with that record. Over the course of the past two decades, she has made some incredible music. The completist in me has hunted down everything from her early pop releases for Elektra and Warner Bros., to obscure guest appearances on albums by Jason Sellers and the Fairfield Four.
Needless to say, picking my favorite 25 tracks wasn't easy. I could make a list twice as long and still not cover all of the songs by hers that I love. But this is the cream of the crop. Hopefully, readers who have discovered country music more recently will seek some of these songs out, though I recommend buying most of her albums in their entirety.
“Better Off Blue” Sweetheart's Dance (1994)
This upbeat song is chock full of female empowerment, as she refuses to give a second chance to the heartbreaker who has shown up at her door, seeking a second chance. “If you're thinking I'll forgive you one more time,” she replies, “I ain't that lonely and love ain't that blind.” She'd rather be lonely for a little now, and wait for true love, rather than indulge “the same old book with a brand new cover”, that she'd have to be crazy to read again.
“Jagged Hearts” Thunder & Roses (2001)
Pam's swan song for Arista records opens with this tale of jaded lovers. She acknowledges that they've both been hurt in the past, and how difficult it is to heal old wounds, but vows that it can be done. Even the leftover pieces of jagged hearts can fit together. Also worthy of note from this set are the philosophical “Which Five Years” and the traditional weeper “It Isn't Just Raining”, which features harmony by Vince Gill.
“Mandolin Rain” All of This Love (1995)
When Bruce Hornsby & The Range had a major pop hit with “Mandolin Rain”, the mandolin itself was a no-show. Tillis stripped the song down to its core, then turned it into a rootsy ballad. Her vocal performance builds as the song progresses, and the underlying foundation of the record is the mandolin part, performed by Marty Stuart.
“Morning Has Broken” Peace in the Valley (1997)
For her contribution to the Arista Nashville gospel collection, Tillis revived the standard “Morning Has Broken”, which was popularized by Cat Stevens. While his hit version was dominated by the piano, Tillis favors the mandolin. It's one of her strongest vocal performances, breathing new life into an old classic.
“Burning Memories” It's All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis (2002)
Pam's tribute to her father, Mel Tillis, is one of her most traditional efforts to date. “Burnin' Memories” kicks off the album with irresistible twin fiddle action, and her vocal is pure honky-tonk, recalling the best of that era while still sounding contemporary.
“That Was a Heartache” Rhinestoned (2007)
It shouldn't be a surprise that Leslie Satcher and Bruce Robison wrote a killer heartbreak song together, given how well they write them independently. Here, Tillis is insisting that this broken heart can't match the intensity of the ones that came before it, particularly the love from her youth who still haunts her dreams. But by the end, she's letting on that this one might cut just as deep.
“I Said a Prayer” Every Time (1998)
She called this her counterpoint to “All the Good Ones are Gone” upon its release. “I Said a Prayer” rocked out more than any Tillis single before or since, and featured a catchy “Na na na” hook to boot.
“Colors of the Wind” The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney (1996)
It was a treacly pop song in the hands of Vanessa Williams, but Tillis transforms “Colors of the Wind” into a backporch country number, giving its celebration of nature more authenticity in the process. The message of the song works just as well as a call for greater understanding of our differences in today's society as it does for the historical situation of the original film.
“All of This Love” All of This Love (1995)
Songwriter Chapin Hartford uses images of nature as a metaphor of love very effectively. Here, the writer of “Shake the Sugar Tree” compares the lonely woman waiting for love to “a wild magnolia – sheltered, untouched and alone.” Still, there's a sense of hope and patience as she waits for the man of her dreams to arrive, because she “can't wait to see what you'll do with all of this love that I'm saving for you.”
“All the Good Ones are Gone” Greatest Hits (1997)
One of country music's great anthems for single women, Tillis captures the sadness of the lyric without spilling over to maudlin sentiment. After all, she quipped, “Have you ever heard the Tim McGraw song, 'Don't Take the Girl'? That's a sad song. Nobody dies in my song. They just need a date really bad.”
“Detroit City” It's All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis (2002)
Bobby Bare had a massive hit with this Mel Tillis composition, though his had a bit more of a beat than Pam's melancholy reading. She infuses it with the ache that comes from being separated from the ones you love, drawing on her own personal experience: first as the daughter left at home by her touring father, and then as the grown woman leaving her own son at home while she's on the road.
“Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight” All of This Love (1995)
This gorgeous song starts out ominously, almost as if a gothic tragedy is about to occur as the two lovers hit the back roads. But then the sun comes out in the chorus, and the melody soars. Co-written by Kim Richey, it's an unconventional love song that finds Tillis' lover telling her “you sure look good in sunset red and pale moonlight.”
“Shake the Sugar Tree” Homeward Looking Angel (1992)
Pam fell in love with this song after she'd already spent her recording budget for Homeward Looking Angel, but she found a way to get it on the album: she added her voice to the demo recording. The result was one of her biggest and catchiest hits, with a sly double entendre that most listeners missed, given the sweet charm that Tillis delivered it with.
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“The River and the Highway” All of This Love (1995)
Pure poetry. “The River and the Highway” tells of two lovers who can never be together, because one is a free spirit and the other does what is expected of him by others. She's a river, he's a highway. But “every now and then, he offers her a shoulder, and every now and then she overflows.” They come together for brief moments, but can never take the same path.
“Something Burning Out” Rhinestoned (2007)
Another Leslie Satcher masterpiece. This simmering track opens 2007's Rhinestoned. The woman here has quit smoking, can't light her fireplace anymore, and turns away from falling stars, because something burning out reminds her of the way that her love affair has ended.
Tillis is a brutally honest songwriter, completely willing to tell her own story in song. The title track from her second Arista album is one of a handful of songs she's written that deal with her rebellious youth. This one has her heading home, as “the girl looking back in the mirror, Lord, made such a mess of things.” There are too many powerful lines here to mention, but the best is when she imagines what's going on at home right now: “Papa's probably turning out the light and heading up the stairs. And the wayward child he never talks about still turns up in his prayers.”
“When You Walk in the Room” Sweetheart's Dance (1994)
Her cover of the Jackie de Shannon classic is a delicious confection, and it also illustrates the difference between a country record that incorporates pop elements and a pop record that's being passed off as country. The original hook of this song had two extra notes, but Tillis removed them to make the hook more compatible with the steel guitar on the record. Artists with less commitment to the genre would've just dropped the steel guitar.
“The Hard Way” Rhinestoned (2007)
The second of four autobiographical songs on this list, and the most optimistic to boot. Tillis addresses the car accident that nearly took her life as a teenager directly in the lyrics, but although she's looking back on how when “I should've thought it over, well I never did think twice”, things are turning around for the better, having found a man who loves her with all of her flaws.
“Rough and Tumble Heart” Homeward Looking Angel (1992)
As personal as this song was, Tillis wasn't the first to record it. Highway 101 included it on one of their albums, giving it a more cheerful sheen. Tillis injects the raw emotion that the lyric demands in her version of the song, as she insists that in spite of the damage that's been done to her heart, “it's still tender in the deepest part”, and “It never will give up the fight for a love that lasts forever.”
“Deep Down” All of This Love (1995)
As potent a lyric as any hit song from that era, no words are minced here. The bouncy melody goes against the cutting words in the chorus, “I've got the bleeding stopped but there's gonna be a scar”, and she later confesses, that she'll go her grave, “nursing a pain that won't go away.” It's a whirlwind of conflicting emotions, as Tillis insists she's moving on while also admitting she'll carry this flame until the day she dies.
“Maybe it Was Memphis” Put Yourself in My Place (1991)
Her signature song is most often described as “torrid.” Her ferocious vocal sears with passionate intensity. The production is big and bold, with soulful backing vocals and cutting electric guitar. But despite all that is going on, Tillis never loses control, singing with more force on this one track than she does on anything else she's cut in her three decades as a recording artist.
“It's Lonely Out There” All of This Love (1995)
This one builds slowly. At the beginning, Tillis feigns indifference to the lover that is leaving for greener pastures, warning him that “it's lonely out there.” By the second verse, she's getting indignant, and the bridge finds her warning that he's going to join the unlucky souls out there “trying to look like they're having fun.” However, the tension boils over by the end, as she realizes her fate is tied to his: if he leaves her to join the ranks of the lonely, she'll end up among them, too. So the woman who was challenging him to leave earlier in the song is now begging him to stay, pleading, “We've got such a good thing here. Don't go now, baby.”
“Someone Somewhere Tonight” Rhinestoned (2007)
Only a person who has plenty of life experience behind them can sing a song with this much wisdom. The centerpiece of her 2007 album captures how fleeting life is, and that while these two lovers cling to each other tonight, there are people all around the world at that very same moment who are tasting their first kiss, hearing their last rites, drinking to get through to the dawn, or trapped in the prisons of their own creation. As she embraces the reality that nothing in life lasts forever, she reaches out to the man beside her for a hope that she can cling to: “Tell me you love me, and you always will.”
“Melancholy Child” Put Yourself in My Place (1991)
Tillis poured her heart out into this autobiographical song from her first Arista album. The Celtic instrumentation creates the melancholy feel that the song's theme demands, as she sings candidly of the loneliness of her childhood (“My mother mourned her innocence as she bounced me on her knee”) and the reckless choices she made because “I thought I could outrun the emptiness inside of me.” The song's coda is gut-wrenching, as she sees that her own child is carrying around the same hurt that weighs her down: “Heaven help us all, another melancholy child.” When I saw Tillis perform this song live, she was in tears when she finished.
“In Between Dances” Sweetheart's Dance (1994)
This gorgeous country waltz is pretty much perfect. It talks about those in between times, when you're not falling in love or falling out of love. You've been burned and you're not quite ready to get back in the game again. Using the dance floor as a metaphor, she sings that “I'm only in between dances, and sitting it out for awhile.” She reflects back on the relationships in her past, confessing that “I've had my moments where I could get lost in the sound. But when the song ended, the one in my arms let me down.” So she tells the suitor who has offered her a dance, “I could sure use your company now, but don't be mistaking my smile.”
By the bridge, however, she's being pulled to the dance floor, but she's nervously reaching for promises she knows can be broken: “Have you been in my shoes? I search your eyes for signs. Will you remain, remember my name, after it's closing time?”
“In Between Dances” is one of those multi-layered songs that Tillis does best, as a painful past pushes up against cautious hope for the future, knowing that even if things do get better tomorrow, yesterday's heartaches will never be fully left behind.
Terrific again, Kevin. Although my list would look a little different, I can’t argue with any of these choices. A tremendously talented artist.
I think your number one choice might be one of my favorites too! My favorite Tillis song, though, is “Shake The Sugar Tree.” I also really like “Life Sure Has Changed Us Around” with John Anderson.
Your enthusiastic endorsement of her, in the past, inspired me to take a deeper look into her catalog, where I had just been a more casual listener of hers before. Great list!
Great choices. I agree that she is one of the by far most talented in country music today. I have had an appreciation for her since her debut release.
“Maybe it was Memphis” is still such a great song. I can not believe it came out 17 yrs ago! Wha’??
“The River and The Highway” is also such a wonderful song and it gets me that it was co-written by Gerry House!
(Anyone who has ever heard his radio morning show in Nashville… the guy’s a nut… of whom mornings would not be possible without!)
Including Pam Tillis on this feature seems overdue, but it was definitely worth the wait. I’m not a fan of “Betty’s Got a Bass Boat,” “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial,” or “Mi Vida Loca,” but Pam has some real depth to her catalogue, as this list makes clear.
I always thought that the double entendres of “Shake the Sugar Tree” were pretty obvious, but people always look at me like I’m a complete perv when I say so. Glad to know I’m not alone on that one.
And if there’s a gun to my head, I’d name “Maybe it Was Memphis” as the best country single of the 1990s. I mean, people often question whether or not country music can be intelligent, but here’s a song that name-checks William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and gives those references actual context (as opposed to any of the recent crop of name-checking singles). The production walks two perfect lines, between pop and country, between restrained and bombastic, and Pam just sings the hell out of it.
Great list once again … and glad to see this feature coming back again.
But where is ‘Spilled Perfume’???
Now, this is more like it!
I am glad to this list steer clear of Pam’s novelty songs. In Between Dances is a great choice for # 1.
I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about my favorite Pam Tillis songs. I like her work, although there are female vocalists (Connie Smith, Trisha Yearwood and Jean Shepard among others) whose stylings I prefer
1 “Maybe It Was Memphis”
2. “Band In The Window”
3. “When You Walk In The Room”
4. “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” (as silly as it is, Pam is really good at novelty songs)
Oh yeah, I forgot that I really like “Band In the Window” too. It’s written by Lisa Brokop, a Canadian artist that I like who tried to break into the U.S. market back in the 90s. This is the first I’ve seen her name in a long time.
I’d add “Put Yourself In My Place” and especially “It’s Just One of Those Things” – two very fine songs.
“Spilled Perfume” was great too!
Hey Leann Lisa Brokop has a new single out in canada and is supposed to put out a record later this year.
I would have put Band In The window on the list but other wise I love the remaining songs.
That’s exciting to hear.
I have three albums by her. Are there more that I don’t know about?
Kevin — Thanks for honoring this tremendous artist.
I LOVED reading this list! … and the opportunity it provides me to consider my favorite Pam Tillis songs.
Two glaring omissions:
‘Til All the Lonely’s Gone
These ones may not be classics but they just sound so good:
How Gone is Goodbye
Land of the Living
Don’t Tell Me What to Do
Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love
Do You Know Where Your Man Is
Train Without a Whistle
One of Those Things
Let That Pony Run
Even tho it would be a bit of a throwaway on any other album by any other singer, I love “They Don’t Break “Em Like They Used To” from Sweethearts’ Dance.
Oh and Lisa Brokop was on my local country a few weeks ago and the jocks had her sing Band In The Window – very cool tune :)
“They Don’t Break ‘Em Like They Used To” is awesome, and I’m not surprised to see other comments regarding “Spilled Perfume” and “Til All the lonely’s Gone.” Sweetheart’s Dance is a solid album, her best I think, other than Rhinestoned. It’s a bit underrepresented on this list, but if it was a top 50, nearly every track would be included.
Love all the songs you’ve included. It was tough narrowing it down. The last handful of songs I cut from the list were painful – “Calico Plains”, “Let that Pony Run”, “Cleopatra”, “After a Kiss.”
Regarding “Cleopatra”, I never considered it a novelty song. More of an ingenious send-up of the stereotypical weak woman in a country song. It captures that post-Reba, pre-Shania window where women were starting to shed that posture.
I have the same problem when I’m doing my lists too. With Vince, my absolute favorite, when people said “how could you leave off such and such”, I pretty much agreed. How could I leave off “Look At Us” or “Which Bridge to Cross” and so on?
I love In Between Dances, The River and the Highway, and Deep Down. Pam has a multitude of great songs as Kevin as ably shown.