Pam Tillis Ranked
Today, we kick off a new feature at Country Universe: Ranked.
Inspired by the running Vulture lists ranking all the songs by artists such as Taylor Swift and The Beatles, our Ranked series will focus on the recordings of one artist and be updated over time as new music is released.
When holding internal discussion on which artist to feature first, we considered several Country Universe favorites, such as Jason Isbell, The Chicks, Shelby Lynne, and Kane Brown. We ultimately decided to launch the feature with a critical review of Pam Tillis.
Why Pam Tillis?
For the same reason she was the first artist that we ever interviewed and the only major artist who has been interviewed a second time: Her music is compelling and as interesting as the artist herself.
Pam Tillis is a second generation country star who was also a perennial underdog, having to hustle harder than most for success. She was born and raised in Nashville, but her path to greatness involved West Coast detours and explorations of pop, rock, R&B, jazz, and musical theater. She’s a brilliant songwriter and producer who has still made great records written and produced by others.
She’s also a great fit for a ranking in this format, which allows for her music to be discussed beyond just the hits and the studio albums. A quick look at her solo discography would suggest she hasn’t been active in recent years, with only two solo studio albums released since 2002. But she’s done a lot of collaborations and contributions to individual projects, some of which have been just as good as what she included on her albums.
In short, Pam Tillis has a deep and rewarding catalog that has many gems just waiting for discovery and rediscovery.
How Does This Work?
Country Universe has identified 188 individual Pam Tillis records to include in this ranking, with release dates ranging from 1981 to 2021.
- All of the tracks included on her studio albums and compilations
- All standalone singles and contributions to soundtracks, various artist compilations, etc.
- Collaborations where Pam has at least one line as a lead vocalist, even if shared with other vocalists
- Live tracks released commercially for which a studio recording does not exist
- Other Voices: Original or cover recordings of the song by other artists
Not included are:
- Pure harmony vocals that don’t include any lead vocalist lines
- i.e. Kenny Chesney’s “I Lost It,” Marty Stuart’s “High On a Mountain Top,” Trisha Yearwood’s “Jackie’s House”
- Alternate versions of songs featured on studio albums
- i.e. Warner Bros. versions of “Maybe it Was Memphis” and “One of Those Things”
- live recordings of songs eventually recorded on studio albums, like “That Was a Heartache” and “Demolition Angel”
- single versions such as “Mi Vida Loca” and “In Between Dances” with new vocal overdubs
- dance/pop radio remixes of singles such as “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” and “I Said a Prayer”
- re-recordings of earlier hits found on Recollection
There are also a handful of recordings that I simply could not locate, so they aren’t included. But they are all from the Warner Bros. years, so it’s safe to assume that they would’ve been in the lower half of the list:
- “I’ve Cried,” BBC Radioplay Music, 1982
- “Whispers,” BBC Radioplay Music, 1984
- “Thin Ice,” Police Academy 2 Soundtrack, 1985
- “One Way Ticket,” B-side of WB “One of Those Things,” 1985
- “Drawn to the Fire,” B-side of several WB singles, 1986-1987
Finally, personal taste is impossible to keep from surfacing in an endeavor like this, but I did try to use some basic guiding principles in putting this list together.
First and foremost: This is a list of the best Pam Tillis records, not the best records by Pam Tillis. So while “Maybe it Was Memphis” easily topped our 400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties List, it is not the top-ranked entry because it isn’t the best Pam Tillis record. There are other releases that better capture her as an artist.
Second, there are no hot takes here. “Shake the Sugar Tree” isn’t in the bottom twenty and none of her eighties Warner Bros. recordings are in the top half of the list. She recorded some good songs during that time period, but it is with her 1991 Arista debut that she comes into her own as a recording artist, and the vast majority of her best recordings have been released from 1991 on.
Third, I have a limited threshold of appreciation when it comes to Christmas music, and I had to wade through a lot of it. For another assessment of her holiday release, check out our resident Christmas music expert Leeann Ward, who counted down her 25 favorite country Christmas albums. Pam’s Just in Time For Christmas came in at No. 1.
Finally, a low ranking doesn’t necessarily mean a recording isn’t worth checking out or isn’t objectively good in its own right. She’s held herself to a high standard, so there is a wealth of excellent music that goes well beyond the top 100. Some of her collaborations with multiple artists are also excellent, but they aren’t ranked as highly because of the relatively low “Pam” content on those tracks. So when you run into Dolly Parton and George Jones before Billy Gilman and Clay Cooper, remember that it’s a ranking of Pam Tillis records, not records featuring Pam Tillis.
On a personal note, this has been a labor of love and putting it together has given me some full circle moments that reminded me how long Pam Tillis has been contributing to the soundtrack of my life. Just last week, I realized that even though I’m now a father and a grandfather instead of a high school student, and that I work in NYC instead of going to school there, I almost certainly have listened to All of This Love and Sweetheart’s Dance traveling on the same A train, nearly two decades apart.
Back in my junior high school and high school days, Pam was still a hot new artist burning up the charts. I thought she was one of the best at the time, but I had no way of knowing if her music would stand the test of time. 31 years and countless listens later, I can say with certainty that it has. She’s one of the all-time greats, and I hope this feature allows even her most dedicated listeners to discover some gems that they’ve missed, and to be reminded again of some gems they’ve forgotten about.
The list will be posted in six parts, and we’re kicking things off with the bottom quarter of the list: #188-#151.