Pam Tillis Ranked: #50 – #26

Pam Tillis Ranked

Introduction | #188-#151 | #151-#101 |

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

It’s one great performance after another as we get closer to the top of the list.

To avoid spoilers, a playlist of all tracks can be found at the end of this post.  You can also access it here.

 

#50

“My Town Has Moved Away” (with Blackie and The Rodeo Kings)

Kings and Queens

2012

Written by Pam Tillis and Colin Linden

Produced by Colin Linden

This is a stunning requiem for Music City USA.  Tillis gives a haunting performance of a haunted lyric, as she curses herself for staying around too long in a town that has already moved on.

“I yell at all the ghosts, ‘Come out and show your faces. I know all your hiding places. Don’t leave me here alone.”  Chilling.

This is a well-hidden gem that is very worthy of discovery by a wider audience.

 

#49

“Burning Memories”

It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis

2002

Written by Mel Tillis and Wayne Walker

Produced by Pam Tillis and Ray Benson

 The twin fiddle opening to “Burning Memories” sets the entire tone for It’s All Relative, signaling that this will be a reverent collection deeply rooted in the traditional country style of most of the original recordings from Mel’s songwriting catalog.  Like many of the best tracks, Tillis being a distinctive female singer brings a new perspective to the material, and her interpretive skills were so finely honed by this point that it was inevitable that songs like this would be knocked out of the park.  

Other Voices: Ray Price, Mel Tillis, Waylon Jennings

 

#48

“What We Believe in” (with Jim Brickman)

Destiny

1999

Written by Jim Brickman and Tom Douglas

Produced by Tim Lauer

Jim Brickman did duets with scores of female country and pop artists around this time period.  For some bewildering reason, “What We Believe In” with Pam Tillis was relegated to “Bonus Track” status on the Destiny album.  It’s far and away his best collaboration with a country singer, not just because of the comfort that Tillis feels in a piano ballad setting, but also because of the song’s subject matter.  A typical love song, this is not.  Tillis has been widowed young in this lyric, and she leans into all of the grief and false hope that comes along with that, while also clinging to the real hope of seeing him again one day in the hereafter. (“Thought I heard you call my name in a whisper on the wind. Then I remembered you were gone and never coming back again.”)

 

#47

“Land of the Living”

Greatest Hits

1997

Written by Wayland Patton and Tia Sillers

Produced by Pam Tillis and Billy Joe Walker Jr.

Helen Darling struggled with some of the same bad luck as Tillis did in the eighties, recording songs that ended up unreleased by her label that ended up big hits for someone else.  She was second in line for “The Fear of Being Alone,” which convinced Reba McEntire to keep her hold on it.  Then she cut “Land of the Living,” but the label never released the sophomore set that included it.

Still, it’s hard to imagine her recording being of the same caliber as Tillis’ hit recording, which became her thirteenth and most recent top ten hit on the Billboard chart.  It feels like it was written as a companion piece to its Greatest Hits counterpart, “All the Good Ones are Gone.”   Tillis does these conversational songs between women better than anybody else has ever done it in country music, taking the Tammy Wynette “whisper in the ear” approach but pairing it with an empowering, empathetic, and supportive message.

“Don’t go down thinking you’re the only one who ever felt heartache turn to regret,” she comforts.  “We’ve all got something we’d like to forget.”

 

 

#46

“Til All the Lonely’s Gone” (with Mel Tillis and Family)

Sweetheart’s Dance

1994

Written by Pam Tillis, Bob DiPiero, and John Scott Sherrill

Produced by Pam Tillis and Steve Fishell

Tillis debuted this gospel rave-up at the 1993 CMA Awards.  While she (sadly) didn’t keep the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” coda from that live performance, she did make the record a glorious family affair.  Mel Tillis delivers a line in each of the last two verses, and her siblings provide a beautiful chorus behind her.   Sandwiched in between Hank’s final ride and Christ’s resurrection, we get a weary Pam getting recharged at mama’s house: “Feed me biscuits and milk gravy,” she implores, “’till your baby’s feeling strong.”  If only Hank had Mama Tillis on his side.  We might’ve had him around for a few more years.

 

 

#45

“Bless Their Hearts” (with Lorrie Morgan)

Dos Divas

2013

Written by Pam Tillis, Jimmy Ritchey, and Joanna Smith

Produced by Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan

The best collaboration on record with Lorrie Morgan is also the most ruthlessly savage.

There’s a scene in Steel Magnolias where one of the main characters says, “If you can’t say anything nice, come sit by me.”   “Bless Their Hearts” takes that sentiment and runs with it, shaming such gossip in the choruses but fully indulging in it during the verses.

This particular slice of gossip slays me every time:

Joe Miller painted his house chartreuse

If you ask me, he’s got a screw loose

Fell off the roof the other day

Wife cried and cried ’cause he was okay…dang.

Then there’s Lorrie’s aside right after:  “Lay down with dogs, you’re gonna get fleas, and these days you can get all kinds of diseases, Pam….bless their hearts.”

 

#44

“Band in the Window”

Rhinestoned

2007

Written by Lisa Brokop and Kim McLean

Produced by Pam Tillis, Gary Nicholson, and Matt Spicher

The beating heart of Rhinestoned is “Band in the Window,” which celebrates the sound and spirit of those bar front bands that were still dominating downtown Nashville in the oughts.  Nowadays, it plays like a requiem for the last remaining vestige of Old Nashville, given that Music City’s crass commercialization has gotten its tentacles around Broadway.

 

  

#43

“Keep Your Eyes On Jesus” (with Johnny Cash and the Jordanaires)

Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers

2003

Written by Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin

Produced by Carl Jackson

Because Pam Tillis sings like an angel and God probably sounds like Johnny Cash, this is a celestial pairing that felt all the more poignant when Cash passed away shortly thereafter.

Other Voices: The Louvin Brothers

 

#42 

“Demolition Angel”

Looking For a Feeling

2020

Written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison

Produced by Pam Tillis, Joe Pisapia, Jimmy Ritchey, and Matt Spicher

Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters, and Kim Richey were the Holy Trinity of nineties female songwriters as far as I’m concerned, just like the Holy Trinity of female singers was Tillis, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood.   Unsurprisingly, all three women have songs in the top fifty, with Berg making two appearances.

This first appearance is a spiritual song written with Berg’s typical literary flair, as she celebrates her life being destroyed and built again from the ground up by a higher power: “I will walk from this wreckage cleansed of my sins. Sweet devastation.”

 

#41

“Down By the Water”

Rhinestoned

2007

Written by Jim Armenti

Produced by Pam Tillis, Gary Nicholson, and Matt Spicher

Even on her most straightaway country album, Tillis provided some production flourishes.  The arrangement of “Down By the Water” leans into its riverbank setting, with the fiddle sounding like a riverboat gaining steam as it chugs along.   What starts as a love song turns dark, and soon, Tillis is left all alone, with only the hum of the watercraft as the backdrop to her heartbreak and loneliness.

 

#40

“After a Kiss”

Happy Texas

1999

Written by Carolyn Dawn Johnson and Steven Dale Jones

Produced by Bob DiPiero

Pam Tillis transforms a weak and wimpy Linda Davis ballad into an upbeat celebration of a love that is bigger than whatever conflict has been brewing between its two partners.  They should play the Davis original and the Tillis cover in music schools, just to demonstrate the impact that an artist’s interpretation of a lyric can have on the finished product.

As a side note, this felt like the last time any effort was put into a Tillis record by Arista Nashville, which is a shell of its former self after Tim DuBois departed the year before.

Other Voices: Linda Davis

 

 

#39

“Not Like What it Was With You”

It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis

2002

Written by Mel Tillis and Wayne Walker

Produced by Pam Tillis

This was the great discovery produced from Tillis’ research for her Mel Tillis tribute album.  For all of the hits that Mel Tillis wrote, there was a “lost hit” that never found the right artist to make it the hit that it should have been. Here, a former lover is reassured that the happy face he sees on her face is a ruse: “Please believe me that looks are deceiving, and so often a smile hides the truth. Take a second look at me and you are bound to see that it’s not like it was with you.”

Other Voices: Bobby Vee, Red Sovine

 

#38

“Colors of the Wind”

The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney

1996

Written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz

Produced by Gary Burr

Disney covers are tricky to pull off, as they don’t always work outside the context of the films.  Just listen to great singers like Faith Hill and Olivia Newton-John cover “Part of Your World,” and you’ll understand what I mean.

What Tillis does with “Colors of the Wind” felt miraculous at the time, but in retrospect, it makes more sense.  This song is completely in line with her world view, as evidenced by “My Kind of Medicine,” a gem from her most recent album that will appear higher on the list.

She strips this ballad of its antiseptic gloss, and grounds it in a rootsy instrumentation that could fit perfectly as is within the All of This Love album as is.  Time has only benefitted the song and this performance of it.  Where lines like “Whether we are white or copper-skinned, we need to sing with all the voices of the mountains” sounded almost quaint in the nineties, they feel more like an urgent appeal to the better angels of humanity today, when so many powerful people “think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like” them.

 Other Voices: Vanessa Williams, Judy Kuhn

 

#37

“Burning Star”

Looking For a Feeling

2020

Written by Pam Tillis, Sonny Tillis, Danny Parks, and Joe Pisapia

Produced by Pam Tillis, Joe Pisapia, Jimmy Ritchey, and Matt Spicher

And what will the world look like if we don’t paint with all the colors of the wind?

Something like the apocalyptic landscape of “Burning Star,” the moody closing track from Tillis’ most recent album, which felt eerily prescient when it was released in the earliest days of our ongoing pandemic.

“Have we really come this far only to make the same mistakes?” she rues as she pleads with her lover that “the night is long and the night is dark. Hold me till the morning breaks.”

One need only turn on the news to wonder the same thing that Tillis does: “Hard to figure why things are the way we are. All that I know is we’re living on a pebble by a burning star.”

 

 

#36

“Which Five Years”

Thunder & Roses

2001

Written by Lisa Drew and Craig Wiseman

Produced by Billy Joe Walker Jr.

The best moment on Thunder & Roses is this sharp and sentimental rumination on aging.  So many folks approach their age like it’s something to be embarrassed about, and being a female artist in youth-obsessed culture makes it all to easy to want to shave a few years off your years on the earth, if only for appearance’s sake.

But you can’t “edit the shadow from the shine,” she observes. “It’s all so perfectly intertwined.”   Taking five years off your age means erasing the wisdom learned during that time:  “Which lessons would I choose to have to learn again, I wonder, just to seem a little younger.”

If Arista still knew what it was doing in 2001, this would’ve been the lead single from the album, alongside a nostalgic video reminding viewers of her illustrious body of work up until that point. Instead, we got two singles without a video, and this masterpiece wasn’t one of them.  I know which years I’d take off of her Arista contract.

  

#35

“You Put the Lonely On Me”

Every Time

1998

Written by Leslie Satcher

Produced by Pam Tillis and Billy Joe Walker Jr.

 Other than Tillis herself, you’d be hard-pressed to find three songs co-written by one writer on the same album.  But she saw the potential early in Leslie Satcher, and this should’ve been smash from Every Time is the best of Satcher’s three compositions on the album.  Tillis wonderfully delivers a rapid fire lyric:  “Baseball glove in the second grade put this little scar on my chin, and at 31 they put glasses on me when i couldn’t tell an H from an N.  I bounced back from all of that, nothing’s ever bothered me until you put the lonely on me.”

 

 

#34

“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”

Homeward Looking Angel

1992

Written by Pam Tillis, Jan Buckingham, and Bob DiPiero

Produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay

 Tillis is all warmth and empathy toward her female friends and their questionable romantic choices, but she doesn’t extend the same kindness to herself on this viscerally angry record.

“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” could’ve been a novelty record, but Tillis infuses her performance with so much pathos that her frustration jumps off of the track.   At the time, it was portrayed by many writers as a send-up of the female country “Stand By Your Man” stereotype, and there’s some substance to that viewpoint.  Tillis really did serve as a bridge between the victim queen mentality that preceded her and the “rah! rah! girl power” attitude that followed shortly thereafter.

But in the end, this is a song about one particular woman’s growing annoyance with what she’s allowed herself to put up with: “Oh, he’s probably stuck in traffic, and he’ll be here in a little while,” she sings, not believing it for a second.

 

 

#33

“Morning Has Broken”

Peace in the Valley

1997

Traditional

Produced by Pam Tillis

 Featuring exquisite vocals and musicianship from Darrell Scott, “Morning Has Broken” takes the traditional standard popularized by Cat Stevens and turns it into a bluegrass gospel moment of tranquility.   When she goes into the chorus – “mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning” – it really does feel like the sun has come up and morning has broken after a long, cold, dark night.

Play it after “Burning Star” to give that track a happy ending.

 

#32

“Looking For a Feeling”

Looking For a Feeling

2020

Written by Pam Tillis and Waylon Payne

Produced by Pam Tillis, Joe Pisapia, Jimmy Ritchey, and Matt Spicher

Once again, it’s a character study drawn with empathy and without judgment.  Every one of the characters she creates in this song has a growing hunger, and “who can point a finger? Who can say what’s wrong?” in how they go about it, given that “we all get high and low, turning over every stone, looking for a feeling.”

It’s a thoughtful and considered starting point to her stellar album of the same name.

 

#31

“Calico Plains”

Sweetheart’s Dance

1994

Written by Matraca Berg and Michael Noble

Produced by Pam Tillis and Steve Fishell

“Calico Plains” first appeared on co-writer Matraca Berg’s Lying to the Moon, an underrated album that had nearly every track covered by the end of the nineties.  Tillis tackled the best song on that album, a moving tale about two young girls – a dreamer and her supportive best friend.  I’ve always heard it as a song about two sisters, but that isn’t explicitly stated.  What is made clear is that women can dream big dreams, but life can sometimes get in the way.  As the dreamer finds herself with child, and her planned September departure from their small town life becomes her makeshift wedding instead, her friend absorbs those dreams and chases them in her stead.

Other Voices: Matraca Berg

 

#30

“Life Has Sure Changed Us Around” (with John Anderson)

Rhinestoned

2007

Written by Pam Tillis and Gary Nicholson

Produced by Pam Tillis, Gary Nicholson, and Matt Spicher

There may not be a better line about the reality of parenting than this reflection on two old friends’ rebellious youth:  “Doing all the things we don’t want our kids to do, we didn’t have clue, much less a plan.”

John Anderson is perfectly cast as the old friend Tillis meets up with, as both John and Pam were fearless rebels in their younger days, and both of them took country music in a more creative and liberating direction.   As Anderson notes, “Our sins were not original, but we gave them our own twist,” Pam responds: “Life gave us a backstage pass and how could we resist?”

 

#29

“Better Off Blue”

Sweetheart’s Dance

1994

Written by Walt Aldridge and Susan Longacre

Produced by Pam Tillis and Steve Fishell

Now this should’ve been the fourth single from Sweetheart’s Dance, if they were insistent on following up “Mi Vida Loca” with another uptempo track.  Tillis gives one of her most deliriously great vocal performances, even throwing in a Little Richard-worthy high note when she sings: “It’s the same old book with a brand new cover. I’d have to BE crazy to read it again.”

Part of the reason Sweetheart’s Dance hit with such force was the album maintained a relentless energy.  “Better Off Blue” is the ninth song of ten, and it hits like an album opener.  Indeed, she used it to open her shows quite a bit when she headlined in support of the project.   This one can hang with the best singles from that set, three of which are still to come on this list.

 

#28

“That Was a Heartache”

Rhinestoned

2007

Written by Bruce Robison and Leslie Satcher

Produced by Pam Tillis, Gary Nicholson, and Matt Spicher

Tillis only recorded one Bruce Robison song, but it’s a killer tune, co-written by Leslie Satcher.  It deftly weaves in the story of heartbroke cowboy and her own early heartbreak (“In the night I still remember that last look in his eyes”), all in an attempt to minimize the current heartbreak being felt.  It’s not really a heartache. It’s just a little mistake.  “So it don’t mean nothing if I call you up and it don’t mean this was really love.”  It was.  It really was.

 

  

#27

“Lady Music”

Looking For a Feeling

2020

Written by Pam Tillis, Dale Dodson, and Jimmy Ritchey

Produced by Pam Tillis, Joe Pisapia, Jimmy Ritchey, and Matt Spicher

Inspired by her father’s journey from the Greyhound bus to country music superstardom, “Lady Music” tells the tale of a musician with “more miles behind than ones left to travel,” who knows “time’s a game you can’t win.”  The musical muse that inspired him is always there waiting in the wings, and her embrace is warmer than the crowd of a sold-out arena.   Like her dad, she was incredibly successful, but for Pam Tillis, it’s the musical muse that drives her.  It could be her own anthem, too.

 

#26

“Unmitigated Gall”

It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis

2002

Written by Mel Tillis

Produced by Pam Tillis

Written by Mel Tillis during his “Bob Dylan phase,” Faron Young had a hit with “Unmitigated Gall.”  Pam’s version would’ve been a huge radio hit a few years earlier, as she recorded the definitive version of it.  The gender reversal of the guy pulling out his “peroxide hair” had extra impact in 2002, when every young male artist on the radio was walking around with frosted tips.

Other Voices: Faron Young

 

Pam Tillis Ranked

Introduction | #188-#151 | #151-#101 |

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

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