Country Universe had the opportunity to talk with Pam Tillis about her new album, Looking For a Feeling. This interview took place on March 23, shortly after tornadoes ravaged East Nashville and two days after Kenny Rogers passed away. We spoke at length about the new release, her legacy as an artist, and the state of country music in 2020.
Country Universe: How are you?
Pam Tillis: I’m doing by best to figure out how to live in a new world right now, just like everybody else.
CU: Are you bouncing back between “My Kind of Medicine” and “Burning Star?”
PT: Yes, exactly! (Laughs)
CU: Preparing for this interview, there’s so much melancholy infused into it all. I want to talk about how the move to East Nashville inspired the album, and then I think about what happened in East Nashville.
PT: There’s a whole lot of stuff going on right now. The other day it was becoming increasingly clear you needed to stay in, right? So I thought, I at least need to get out and walk around, get some sunshine. Then I go walking around my neighborhood, and I’m walking through the rubble of the tornado. It was a moment that was pretty psychically trying. I heard somebody make a comment a couple of days ago that all of this is giving people in the first world a glimpse into the kind of stress that people in the third world deal with all the time. That’s really something to think about.
CU: So it’s a very profound and important time for music. Listening to Looking For a Feeling affected me in a way that an album hadn’t done in a while, and I couldn’t isolate exactly what It was. I went back and listened to your studio albums in sequence, and what I realized is that this album is really a reintroduction to you as a songwriter in a way that we haven’t heard in a really long time. This is the first time since Put Yourself in My Place that you’ve had so many writing credits on an album. How did Pam Tillis, the songwriter, become so prevalent on this record?
PT: Pam Tillis, the singer and entertainer, kept on rocking. Pam Tillis, the songwriter, two things happened. I kind of lost my way because one of the big jobs of writing is to shut up your inner critic. And being a very private person, maybe even a shy person, is not the best thing for a songwriter to be a private person. I just got terribly self-conscious again about my own writing, and also the pressures of the industry. For a long time, I’m like, “Oh, my songs aren’t good enough.” Growing up and living in a songwriter’s town where there’s those guns for hire like Josh Osborne, or go down the list, even guys like Don Schlitz. Those guys are journeyman songwriters. They go to the office and eight hours a day, they bang it out. I thought, “How can my song stack up to that?”
Then when I got ready to make this record, and I’ve got the songs. Some of them have been in the can for quite a while. And I’m like, “Well, maybe they’re not as clever as a Guy Clark, or Rodney Crowell crafted thing.” But they’re out of my heart. They’re the words out of my heart. I have an instinct for this. I grew up in it. (Laughs) You know, let it go. Let it go. Get out of your way. Let somebody else decide if it’s good or not.
What’s so crazy about my hangups on that kind of perfection is songwriting has changed so much now. If not in the country world, as much in the word of pop and the big wide world of music. Everything’s become so conversational. It’s not about artifice. It’s not about something perfectly crafted. I’m thinking about the craftsman in his wood shop. You know, everything doesn’t have to have a mitered corner. It’s much more organic now. This record was kind of like therapy for me as a writer.
CU: The title track, “Looking For a Feeling.” There is such an empathy to this song, and such an ability to see different experiences and different people without judgment.
PT: That’s exactly what it is. One of the reasons that there’s no judgment is you can see yourself in each of those people. People kind of feel spiritually adrift. Gosh, everybody knows that feeling, and searching is like part of the human condition, you know?
CU: From my perspective, um, it goes to the core of your music as a whole, but particularly the songs that you wrote over the years. There were often these intensely personal songs. On the later albums, if there was going to be one song written by you, it was going to be a really intensely personal song that also tapped into some sort of universal feeling. It was “The Hard Way” on the last album. So when I heard that last couplet of “Looking For a Feeling” – “seventeen when I joined my first band, twenty-one when I gave a heartache my hand” – it took me back to hearing “Melancholy Child” for the first time. That song’s been like the keystone of your career for me. I think your ability to tap into those emotions and put them into a song…
I remember meeting my friend Sarah in college, and saying to her that Pam Tillis was like my gateway drug into country music. And she immediately said, “She went gunning for glory and her bullets all misfired.” That line from “Homeward Looking Angel.”
You know, mainstream country is in kind of a strange place and women are kind of marginalized, maybe more than they’ve ever been. As you’re thinking about your legacy, do you know that your work had a major impact on an entire generation of people who fell in love with the genre?
PT: Can I just tell you, in light of everything going on? One of the things you might not know about me is I’m a cancer survivor. I’ve really almost died like three times in my life. I’ve come so close and now with this crazy thing going on… I’m healthy now, I’m ten years out, but still, I’m over the age of where I’m in one of those vulnerable age groups. Just how I’m not out there working and doing what I’m doing. I’m thinking life can just turn on a dime. It’s just like, “destiny turns on a dime.”
So when I made this record, I thought to myself, what if I never make another record? You know, what if I don’t? And I wanted it to say some things that were banging around in my head. But to hear that your work meant something in the world, to hear that, it’s just so important.
CU: Your one song changed the course of my entire life and I would not have ended up in college in Nashville without it. I wouldn’t have discovered this just rich tapestry of music that I didn’t know was out there. There was an embarrassment of riches back then. But for me, I was always waiting with most for you new album to come out because I knew there was going to be something where I related to whatever your point of view was, whatever your experience had been. I had been a “Melancholy Child” when I was younger, and when my own son went through his teenage years, I went back to the line of, “In my own babe’s eyes I see the signs of another melancholy child.” It helped me remember what it was like to be on the other side of those choppy waters and help him find the bridge to cross them.
I think another thing about Looking For a Feeling that reminds me of the older albums is that musical restlessness. It’s such a cool sounding record, different than anything you’ve done. How did you end up with that? How did you end up in East Nashville?
PT: My husband started a restaurant about six years ago, and then he started a bar, a very cool bar with some partners and that brought us over to this side of town. And it’s very urban and it’s kind of gritty and it’s a totally different experience in my life. I grew up in the ‘burbs. Not as fancy as people might think, but the ‘burbs. So to be in a real urban environment too, I think it can kind of open you up in a way. Well, to different sensitivities anyway.
And then there’s musicians over here. I just became more and more and more aware of people outside the mainstream of country, other artists that have this whole other world of music and this whole other code of integrity. I’ve often said one of the reasons that bluegrass people are so good is there’s no money in it. It’s just a complete labor of love. And you could say that about a lot of indie artists. There’s some of them are just so good and there’s no money at it.
CU: It’s where all the good stuff is right now.
PT: So much of it is so inspiring. And what’s really, really funny is that some of these younger artists make me hear the country music that I grew up in. They of make me listen to it from a different vantage point. It’s just like I have a trio and the girls that I’m working with, they’re so young and they make me rediscover a lot of things through their eyes.
Then I just completely stumbled on to Joe Pisapia in the most random way. He had produced a k.d. lang record that had such a fantastic sound to it. It was reflective of some of the music that I’d been listening to. That indie sound that’s organic and not too muscular, but still has an emotional impact. I just acted instinctively. On a whim, actually. I got in touch with Joe and I said, “Hello, it’s me!”
We started having meetings. I think he picked up on what I was trying to do and he was really helpful. We had some previous tracks recorded, but he helped me weed through those. He also added some overdubs to some of the previous tracks, and we cut new tracks. He helped unify the whole thing and put his stamp on it. It’s a really wonderful stamp.
CU: It’s a very clean and organic record. Even though it goes in many different directions in terms of style, there is an almost living room immediacy to it. It does. There really aren’t a lot of flourishes on it, so nothing gets in the way of the song.
PT: Well, we were trying not to. You know, I still think I could dial it back even more, but that’s me. I can kind of be a “more is more” girl, but I really tried to not overdo it. I tried to keep the production pretty honest.
CU: I have to talk to you about “Dolly 1969.” I have to tell you, when I got to the chorus of the song, I played it back four times and I actually asked my son to come in and I played it for him. I said, “I think I’m hearing what I think I’m hearing…” [The line goes, “try on that coat of many colors, slap that little bitch, Jolene.”]
PT: You know, here I am in a new world where music can be downright pornographic. I still have this Southern sensibility, where I don’t do a show that you couldn’t bring your granny to. I don’t work blue!
So I really thought about it. In fact, at one point, I resang all the choruses as “slap that little witch.”
CU: Well you’ve got a good connection there, because Tammy Wynette did that with “Another Lonely Song.” She did it with the damn, and without the damn.
PT: Then I started thinking, that is not the way the writer wrote it. I’m sorry, I’m not gonna do that. And in this world, you know, if that’s the worst thing a kid hears in your household, you’re doing good. But I thought hard about it!
CU: It’s a moment of levity after some heavy tracks. Dolly Parton seems to have finally gotten the revered status she deserves, even with the younger kids, sort of like Johnny Cash did in the nineties.
PT: Where you’ve been around long enough that…not that Dolly ever went out, but all careers have peaks and valleys and you hang around long enough, you get legend status.
CU: “Last Summer’s Wine” really hits that same nostalgic vein as “Maybe it Was Memphis” and “Mandolin Rain.” How did that song come about?
PT: I think with my better songs, it’s like an idea floats to the surface, but you realize it’s been in your subconscious. Sometimes thins are working on like a subterranean level.
I had never really done any big scale farming or anything like that, but somewhere along the line my brother got it in his head to start a vineyard, and he just hauled off and he did it. And he did it all by himself. And there was not a weed in it. He put a rosebush at the end of every row and it just looks so beautiful. He just manifested it and it was moving. It was beautiful. It’s such a passion. And he got all into telling us about the soil and the humidity and the amount of sun and just all the things. It’s like nursing, coaxing this fruit from the earth and then making wine.
And I just got really taken with it. Then somehow, the song just floated up. Remember that Jim Croce song, “Time in a Bottle?”
CU: That was one of my dad’s favorite songs.
PT: This is like the country version of “Time in a Bottle,” because she’s thinking about how they made this wine together and then they put this wine up. And really it was like savoring a moment in time, like the lyric says: “Tonight I’m craving last summer’s wine.”
CU: “Lady Music” has that line, “when there’s more miles behind than the miles left to travel, and you know time’s a game you can’t win.” I know you’re singing about a guy plucked from the plow field. It could be Charley Pride, it could be anybody, but I couldn’t help but hear your own story in it.
PT: Absolutely. You know, I was thinking about my dad. Both my parents were from central Florida, and at some point everybody down there picked something. Mom and Dad both picked strawberries. Daddy shelled peas in a factory. There’s a lot of Dad in that song. The guy in that song is actually a composite character, but there’s a lot of dad in that song. Like I was thinking about the fact that dad met Roger Miller the very first day he came to town.
CU: That’s unbelievable.
PT: I know. How weird is that?
CU: You know, even with the passing of Kenny Rogers. Your Dad was in that. He was central to the Kenny Rogers story and “Ruby” was such an important record for him. So many artists have been talking about how influential Rogers was since he passed this weekend. Have younger artists been making you aware lately of how your music has impacted them? I’ve heard Ashley McBryde talk about asking for Homeward Looking Angel for Christmas.
PT: Oh my God. You know, sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not. I mean, I’ve definitely had some artists like that. Miranda Lambert has just been so kind to me, and the Pistol Annies. Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde,. I mean different ones have told me, that [my music was part of] their formative years.
CU: I think that’s the biggest disconnect right now. What’s kind of missing on the mainstream radio is that connective tissue. Because when you were, when you were breaking out – I don’t know that they’ll ever be a more talented collection artists hitting at one time, male or female, but the women in particular were incredible during your era. So if your generation was the gateway in to country music for a new fan, you could find that connective thread in the music to Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton. Even of those artists weren’t still making music that was played on the radio, their legacy was there in the music of the younger generation.
It seems like your generation is always being asked about why women aren’t on the radio anymore, but what’s your take on how all of the different ways that these new artists can get their music out there now? Does radio even matter like it did when you were breaking through?
PT: It still does matter, but it isn’t the only game in town. And I don’t know how all the metrics of all that breakdown, but, um, there, there’s still a lot of people that listen to the radio. It’s like cable television. There’s still NBC, CBS and ABC, but now you’ve got this whole other world.
The younger audience is consuming music a lot more. They’re way savvy to streaming. The problem with mainstream radio or terrestrial radio is that the playlist sare so small. It’s a ten or fifteen song playlist. So you’re hearing the same songs and advertising over and over and over and over and over again. I don’t know how much less terrestrial radio is important, but I know the digital world is important. I don’t know how that scale is tipping, but the digital world is hugely important.
CU: It seems to give a lot of exposure. I mean, I’ve, I’m such an old fuddy duddy that I can’t get my head around a music collection being dependent on a monthly fee and an internet connection.
PT: There’s an album that I’ve been planning to listen to top to bottom, that last John Prine record. It occurred to me that there’s not really any record stores. They’ve taken the CD player out of my truck. Part of me goes, “Oh yeah, wait, but I can get it on Spotify. I can listen to that record any time I want.” I feel bad about it though, because I’ve seen how much the downloading and streaming has impacted this community. So it’s weird. It’s really weird.
CU: It’s been such a seismic shift. I think that might have a lot to do with why vinyl has come back so big with the younger kids because of that tactile feeling of holding the album and physically owning it.
PT: This album is going to be on vinyl. I haven’t had vinyl for a long, long time, except for 45’s. When I first started out with Arista, they were still making 45’s, but never anything on LP.
CU: This album really gestated for a long time. How do you feel now about people getting a chance to hear it?
PT: I get so close to it. I really don’t know what people are gonna think. And I thought it just had enough left turns that I’m either going to take people along on this ride with me or I’m going to lose them, but I have to go the way I’m going.
I also think there’s enough variety on the record that I tell people this album is like the weather. If you don’t like a song, hang on, it’ll change. It’s a little bit of a patchwork quilt. There’s real stone cold country like you don’t even hear anymore. At least, my kind of country. There’s a little bit of seventies rock influences, there’s some soul influences, like the Staple Singers. There’s pop, Todd Rundgren, it’s all over the map. But that’s all the stuff that’s in my psyche from my years of growing up in Nashville, Tennessee and the time I grew up in. So there’s a text and then there’s a subtext and both are both are equally curated. Does that make sense?
CU: It does. You’re from an era where every artist was unique, and one of the things that you were able to do because you have those roots in country music, no matter what kind of styles you bring in, your vocal is going to keep it connected to country music somehow anyway.
PT: That’s why I ended up coming back to country. It’s just like, that’s how I sing. You know, there’s people that tell me, “Oh, you sing this, you sing that you can sing anything.” But I just feel like first and foremost, I sound like a country vocalist. I think it’s a good thing that there’s a common thread through all of it.
CU: And I think at this stage now, when artists are, um, established like you are, it’s the longtime fans that are the first to go get that new record. You’ve been “taking corners on two wheels” for a very long time . So in not sounding like your other albums, it fits in with your other albums.
I think something that was understated about the women in the nineties was that you were older. Most of you were in your thirties and you had more life perspective. And now it’s important to know what Pam Tillis has to say and what her view of the world is thirty years down the road. The voice is as important as ever. It’s just getting it out there for people to hear it. So I’m glad you’re back.
PT: I’m glad. It doesn’t seem to be the best time in the world put out an album. So it’s going to be interesting to see what comes of it. But you know, it is what it is. Music does matter but there’s a lot of other things going on too, so it’s kind of crazy.
CU: Maybe music doesn’t seem like such a big deal with what’s going on right now, but maybe we need it now more than we ever did. Thank you for taking the time to talk to Country Universe.
PT: It been a real pleasure. And, and stay strong and stay healthy and be safe.