Pam Tillis Starter Kit

Pam TillisThe first week of Back to the Nineties will wind down with women who have something in common. Each one is the daughter of a legendary country star that struggled to break through during the late seventies and most of the eighties, then became commercially successful throughout the nineties.

Today, our Starter Kit is for Pam Tillis. Now, those of you who are longtime readers of this site are already familiar with much of Pam’s work. Perhaps you’ve read my interview with her, or her 100 Greatest Women entry, or that edition of Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists.

But for those less familiar with her, Pam Tillis was one of the most surprising country stars during the boom years. After a pop album and several country singles with Warner Bros., she resurfaced as the flagship female artist for Arista Records. Between the time of her first single for the label going to radio in 1990 and the end of the decade, she’d amass thirteen top ten hits, three platinum albums, two gold albums, a Grammy, and two CMA Awards, including the 1994 trophy for Female Vocalist of the Year.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Don’t Tell Me What To Do”
from the 1991 album Put Yourself in My Place

Her breakthrough hit was one of two tracks from her first country album to be nominated for CMA Single of the Year. It’s also one of many Tillis hits that helped bridge the generational gap between the self-pity queens of earlier decades and the rah-rah independent women of the post-Shania age.

“Maybe It Was Memphis”
from the 1991 album Put Yourself in My Place

Nominated for both a CMA and a Grammy, this torrid record was an instant classic. She’s never sounded this raw on another record, before or since.

“Shake the Sugar Tree”
from the 1992 album Homeward Looking Angel

There’s a double meaning to this title. Once you realize it, It changes the whole experience of listening to the song. Let me just say that this woman isn’t being playfully nagging. She’s being slyly seductive.

“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”
from the 1992 album Homeward Looking Angel

The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. The bitter edge to her vocal suggests that her days in denial are numbered, and she’s more frustrated with herself for allowing such mistreatment than she is with the man who’s been delivering it.

“Do You Know Where Your Man Is”
from the 1992 album Homeward Looking Angel

A modern and far less patronizing spin on Tammy Wynette’s “Woman to Woman.”

“Spilled Perfume”
from the 1994 album Sweetheart’s Dance

A woman consoles her friend for making a poor choice out of loneliness with a curious combination of “I’m here for you, but what on earth were you thinking?”

“When You Walk in the Room”
from the 1994 album Sweetheart’s Dance

It’s not pop-country. It’s country-pop. There’s a big difference.

“In Between Dances”
from the 1994 album Sweetheart’s Dance

A gorgeous waltz about those weary moments between having your heart broken and being ready to try love again.

“The River and the Highway”
from the 1995 album All of This Love

This is as close to pure poetry as country radio would ever get during the nineties.

“All the Good Ones are Gone”
from the 1997 album Greatest Hits

The track of choice for friends looking to depress their single friends on their birthday.

Two Hidden Treasures:

“Every Time”
from the 1998 album Every Time

One of those should’ve been hits. As Tillis sings of unrequited love, Eagle Timothy B. Schmit provides the harmony.

“Keep Your Eyes on Jesus” (featuring Johnny Cash)
from the 2001 album Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: The Songs of the Louvin Brothers

The contrast between the pure tone of Pam’s voice makes Johnny’s spoken bridge sound all the more authoritative. It’s like a singing angel surrounding the voice of God.


  1. I know these lists are only meant to be a starter kit which will hopefully turn someone on to an artist and encourage them to explore more of their catalog. In that regard, excellent job. I’m sure it was difficult for you to narrow it down and you covered all of the (hit) bases. Pam Tillis is one of my favorites too. I love the happy pop numbers (“When You Walk In the Room”) and the lush, gorgeous, deep ballads (“The River and the Highway”). Other faves include:
    Let That Pony Run
    Homeward Looking Angel
    Calico Plains
    Deep Down
    It’s Lonely Out There

    So… Lorrie Morgan tomorrow? :)

  2. So…exactly how pervy is the “Shake the Sugar Tree” double meaning? I’ve had my interpretation for awhile (still took me a few listens), but I’m not sure if it’s just my young man’s brain being a young man’s brain.

  3. What? No “Betty’s Got A Bass Boat?”:)

    You’ve hit pretty much all of my favorite Tillis singles.

    While I like her nineties albums a lot, I like her two most recent albums the most…and don’t even get me started on how much I love her Christmas album.

  4. These are all my favorites too. A mighty fine list. Pam Tillis was releasing one classic song after another during the 1990s.

    Two more ‘hidden treasures’ are the singles from her Thunder and Roses album – ‘Please’ and the title track. Radio ignored the album though, and even though ‘Please’ went to #22, you never hear it anymore as a recurrent.

  5. Thanks for these great selections Kevin, your article serves as a fine springboard for further exlporation.

    My favorites are “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” and “Maybe It Was Memphis”

    Pam Tillis has a wonderful Country voice.

    I didn’t realize you had interviewed Pam, although I knew she is one of your favorites. Looking forward to reading your interview.

    And Leeann, how much do you love Pam’s Christmas album? ;)

  6. Sam (and anyone who may be confused),
    The purpose of the Starter Kits is to highlight essential tracks in order to provide a place to start for those who aren’t particularly familiar with the artist in question. The Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists (
    FSBFA) feature highlights our favorite songs of the chosen artist using whatever recorded songs happen to be our favorites. We don’t rank the Starter Kits, but we do countdown the FSBFAs.

  7. Keep Your Eyes on Jesus is a hidden gem, that entire album is full of them.
    Shame radio ignores Pam Tillis – she had/has some good songs. Its nice to look back and she the awards that she did get, she deserved them all.

  8. I am a huge fan of Pam Tillis, yet I am still suprised that she managed to pull of the CMA Female Vocalist award in 1994. Patty Loveless was going strong and Trisha Yearwood was finally wearing off her newbie persona. I dont know if it was just good timing or hard work on her label’s part. Or the voters recognized her for what she was doing. Dont get me wrong i am VERY HAPPY she won, but it just suprised me.

  9. I wasn’t too surprised. Her competition was Mary Chapin Carpenter (won the previous two years), Reba McEntire (hadn’t won since 1987, but four wins), Wynonna (won the ACM in spring of 1994, but was sidelined by pregnancy for most of the year), and Trisha Yearwood (enjoying her second nomination, but left off in 1993.)

    Loveless wasn’t nominated for Female Vocalist that year. Tillis had been the previous year, and her Sweetheart’s Dance album was very well received critically and commercially. Her long ties to Nashville were also a plus. The timing was really perfect for her that year.

    Now Alison Krauss winning in 1995? That shocked me. But who knew that this would be the woman who’d end up winning 26 Grammys?

  10. Sam B,

    I wouldn’t say go buy the Greatest Hits – I’d say get the studio albums and just download the two “new” tracks from it.

    But for those keeping track, the starter kit includes nine songs from her 1997 Greatest Hits.

    Left off the Starter Kit: “Mi Vida Loca”, “Let That Pony Run”, “Land of the Living”

    Not on Greatest Hits: “Do You Know Where Your Man Is”, plus the two hidden treasures.

  11. It went #1 in the aftermath of the CMA win. I like it enough, but I would’ve preferred “Better Off Blue” be sent to radio instead. That album was so radio friendly, it was scary. She would’ve had five top five hits off the thing instead of four, had she not requested stations stop playing “I Was Blown Away” after the Oklahoma tragedy.

  12. Ah, I didn’t realize that was after the win. Yes, Sweetheart’s Dance was such a great album. I was actually surprised when they pulled “I Was Blown Away”. I don’t want to seem insensitive but the song’s lyrics really didn’t imply anything that should be controversial. I can remember certain TV shows around that time changing storylines due to the Oklahoma City tragedy (a bombing on Melrose Place, etc.) and many things since. The only other country music singles that failed due to a controversy that come to mind are Holly Dunn’s “Maybe I Mean Yes” and Doug Supernaw’s “What’ll You Do About Me”.

  13. Kevin,

    What I was trying to say, artists like Patty Loveless I were suprised didnt get nominated and Pam won that year. I dont think Trisha could have beat her, being too new. And Pam’s ties were stronger in Nashville at the time. I dont think I expected Mary Chapin to win again. Reba was deserving that year, but then again when was she not deserving in the 90’s? Pam just never seemed like she exploded like most female vocalist winners, she just kinda slid gracefully into that spot. I was suprised. As well as in 1995, and 1998 and 2004!

  14. I’m a little late to this one, but I love Pam’s music, so what the heck:) This pretty much covers most of my favorites as well, with “The River And The Highway” and “All The Good Ones Are Gone” being my top picks at the moment. “Let That Pony Run” and “One Of Those Things” are other personal favorites of mine. My favorite cut that didn’t make it to radio is “I’ve Seen Enough To Know” from her Arista debut.

    You really can’t go wrong with any of her albums. Her Arista debut ,Put Yourself In My Place, and Sweethearts’s Dance are my favorites. All Of This Love also has good ones like “Sunset Red And Pale Moonlight” and “It’s Lonely Out There,” while Every Time includes “Hurt Myself” and “Whiskey On The Wound.” I’ll just narrow it down to those. I have way too many favorites to list:)

    I know coming up with these lists is quite a challenge, but you all are doing a fine job. It’s seems that many 90’s artists are sadly forgotten today by the much of mainstream audience. I appreciate you putting the spotlight back on them.

  15. I am glad that people have mentioned the Thunder and Roses album. Please was a song that shoulda been a bigger hit than it was. Also the title track should have been a hit for someone. Not only did Pam Tillis record it but so did Mindy Mccready on her I’m Not so Tough album.

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