Pam Tillis Ranked: #25 – #1

Pam Tillis Ranked

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

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

Our inaugural edition of Ranked concludes with the top 25 records to date from the legendary Pam Tillis.

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

 

#25

“Rough and Tumble Heart”

Homeward Looking Angel

1992

Written by Pam Tillis, Bob DiPiero, and Sam Hogin

Produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay

Highway 101 recorded this song when Tillis was still pulling double duty as an aspiring recording artist and a successful staff songwriter.  Paulette Carlson acquits herself nicely on the original version, but it truly came alive when Tillis herself recorded it for Homeward Looking Angel, an album that expanded on the personal themes first explored on her Arista debut.  In many ways, “Rough and Tumble Heart” is a statement of purpose for Tillis and her music: tough but vulnerable, wounded but resilient:  “It took a few falls ’til it got smart, but it’s still tender in the deepest part, this rough and tumble heart.”

Other Voices: Highway 101

 

#24

“Someone Somewhere Tonight”

Rhinestoned

2007

Written by Davis Raines and Walt Wilkins

Produced by Pam Tillis, Gary Nicholson, and Matt Spicher

Upon first listen, “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is the most immediately impactful track on Rhinestoned.  Its stark presentation allows for Tillis to apply her masterful phrasing, a talent that comes into sharp relief when her version is stacked up against other covers of the song.

She saves her powerhouse vocals for the emotional highlights found in the verses, keeping the chorus understated and intimate, which reinforces the lyric, where our narrator is looking for a promise of eternity in one fleeting moment, fully aware that such a thing isn’t possible to hold on to.  We’re only guaranteed that one moment, and not a single one after that, but it’s the lie that sustains us: “Tell me you love me and you always will.”

Other Voices: Walt Wilkins, Kenny Rogers, Kellie Pickler

  

#23

“Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight”

All of This Love

1995

Written by Angelo Petraglia and Kim Richey

Produced by Pam Tillis

Country music isn’t really designed for headphone listening.  It’s usually cleanly and simply produced, singer out in front of the band, and the car radio is enough to give listeners the full experience.

All of This Love is a headphones album.  The production is intricate and layered, with little details that reveal themselves over repeated close listens.  It’s Pam Tillis’ magnus opus as a producer, a full showcase of her musical vision, without artistic compromise but with the backing of nineties country session musicians who were at the peak of their own talents.

“Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight” is one of several cinematic masterpieces from this album that appear in the top 25, and serves as something of a counterpoint to lead single “Deep Down.” Where that hit camouflages a dark lyric with a bouncy melody, “Sunset Red” is a song about a newly blossoming love that has an almost foreboding production.  One would be forgiven for thinking that this trip to the riverbank was going to end in tragedy.

Tillis has a fantastic Kim Richey composition to work with here, and she plays with unexpected contrasts written into it.  It’s the sun going down and the night sky emerging that serves as the backdrop for this love affair, and it is the darkness that illuminates, matching up perfectly with Tillis’ production:  “Now the stars came out like diamonds on a deep blue satin sky. He said from where he stood, ‘Honey, you sure look good in sunset red and pale moonlight.'”

 

 

#22

“My Kind of Medicine”

Looking For a Feeling

2020

Written by Pam Tillis, Don Poythress, and Jimmy Ritchey

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

An underrated but essential element of the female dominance in nineties country is that the women were older than cohorts that came along before and have come along since.  Tillis was 31 when “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” was released, and in her thirties during her most successful years at radio.  This brought a wiser perspective to the material that she recorded, with the complexities of a woman’s life being more fully explored.  The woman in her songs had done some living.

“My Kind of Medicine,” from her most recent album, is a reminder of what is lost when the genre marginalizes its older artists, and that marginalization is particularly brutal for female artists.  On its surface, it’s about finding pleasure in the quiet moments of life: throwing a stick to your dog, floating on a lake, watching an old comedy film again that you’ve already seen a hundred times.

But it engages with some deeper themes from the perspective of a woman who has been around long enough to pick up on the changes in a society that is overmedicated to the point of numbness.  She subtly calls out the charlatans that prey on all of us, but most especially on the older among us.  We’re surrounded by “people out there peddling all kinds of counterfeit hope,” looking to sell us something or get us to follow them down some dark roads that appeal to the worst of humanity’s instincts.

Her prescription to remedy this is simple: double down on what’s real, make some human connections, and tune out the harmful noise.  Sometimes poison comes in a pretty bottle, but it can never be the cure for what ails us.

 

  

#21

“All of This Love”

All of This Love

1995

Written by John Paul Daniel, Chapin Hartford, and Jule Medders

Produced by Pam Tillis

Three years before the Chicks took Nashville and the rest of the world by storm, a unique blend of bluegrass instrumentation and mainstream country arrangements could be found on several tracks on Pam Tillis’ All of This Love, most especially on the rootsy title track that closes the set.  Co-written by “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Meet in the Middle” songstress Chapin Hartford,  “All of This Love”  features a smörgåsbord of musical elements that work surprisingly well together.  Fiddle and steel and mandolin rub elbows with electric and acoustic guitar, with even a casiotone embedded in the mix.

Tillis gives a wistful performance as she fantasizes about the love she’s saving herself for, and again, the dreamlike lyrics are mirrored by a fantastical arrangement as she pines for “a dream waiting to come true.”  A situation that could have easily descended into desperate loneliness is blissfully optimistic instead: “I can’t wait to see what you do with all of this love that I’m saving for you.”

The second chorus is followed by the best instrumental breakdown of her entire catalog, and she emerges on the other side with some stunning high notes supported by the kind of bluegrass harmonies that took Natalie Maines to the top of the charts a few years later.  The song fades away with another outstanding instrumental breakdown, and the feelings the track evokes still linger once the song has come to an end.

 

#20

“Detroit City”

It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis

2002

Written by Mel Tillis and Danny Dill

Produced by Pam Tillis

There are many great versions of this Mel Tillis classic, which resonates with singers who are so often separated from their families as they work gigs on the road.  All of the significant versions that came before Pam Tillis’ recording were entranced by the singalong melody, and that’s understandable, as it’s an earworm for the ages.

But it took Pam Tillis to fully embrace the deep loneliness of the lyric by slowing everything down and opting for a sad, emotive reading of the song.  You can’t sing along with it, but you can feel the aching pain of separation created by the futile chase of a dream that remains stubbornly out of reach. There is so much pathos in her delivery of “If only they could read between the lines” that it practically vibrates off of the record.

The entire It’s All Relative project was a reverent showcase of Mel Tillis as an all-time great songwriter.  More than any other track, “Detroit City” showcases that he’s also the father of an all-time great singer.

Other Voices: Billy Grammer, Bobby Bare, Tom Jones, Dean Martin, Solomon Burke, Dolly Parton

 

#19

“Do You Know Where Your Man Is”

Homeward Looking Angel

1992

Written by Carol Chase, Dave Gibson, and Russell Smith

Produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay

There’s an entire history lesson of women in country music that could be taught just by playing all three versions of “Do You Know Where Your Man Is.”

Melba Montgomery’s version is pure seventies victim queen, her voice trembling at the idea of a man not coming home because he’s not getting enough love there.

Barbara Mandell’s take is cold and judgmental, an eighties suburban spin that implies it’s the woman’s fault that she doesn’t know where her man is tonight, perhaps because she kicked him out of bed for eating crackers.

Tillis takes the same lyric and presents it as sympathetic advice, leaning into the truth that modern love, with all its demands on both partners, can put a relationship on the back burner. “Sometimes lovers just get too busy living their lives day by day,” she emphasizes, before reminding that “a good hearted love is so hard to find, and so easy to let slip away.”

It’s a gentle encouragement to show more affection in a loving relationship, rather than an admonishment to tend to your man’s needs to keep him from straying.  Her performance assumes good faith on the part of both partners who are struggling to do all that is expected of both of them at work and at home.

Other Voices: Barbara Mandrell, Melba Montgomery

 

#18

“Mandolin Rain”

All of This Love

1995

Written by Bruce Hornsby and John Hornsby

Produced by Pam Tillis

Pam Tillis’ exquisite cover of “Mandolin Rain” features Marty Stuart playing the titular instrument, transforming a power pop ballad into a gentle country one.  All of This Love is an album that repeatedly subverts expectations, and Tillis abandons all of the pop elements that surface across the album in service of the one actual pop song on the collection.

I won’t write a treatise on the label malpractice that left this unreleased as a single, but it’s a worthy successor to the warm nostalgia of “Maybe it Was Memphis” and serves as an effective bridge in her trilogy of lost summer loves that was completed by “Last Summer’s Wine” on her most recent album.

I must also note that Stuart’s instrumental work is so impressive that it’s nearly indistinguishable from the mandolin playing by legend Sam Bush on this album’s title track, which is no small feat.

Other Voices: Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Josh Kelley

 

#17

“All the Good Ones are Gone”

Greatest Hits

1997

Written by Dean Dillon and Bob McDill

Produced by Pam Tillis and Billy Joe Walker Jr.

This was a career record for Tillis, earning her a third Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and a third CMA nomination for Single of the Year.  Even Tillis was amazed that two men wrote it, quipping that “I think they channeled it. I think they took a couple of Midols and just winged it.”   Sammy Kershaw was originally slated to record it, and as good a singer as he is, it’s hard to imagine anyone else delivering the song as well as Tillis did.

Perhaps that’s because as a working woman of her generation, she was well aware of the conflicting pressures impacting the woman in the song.  It’s quite possible that she’s a spectacular success at work, but her failure to have a family of her own is a black mark against her.  She feels loneliness when she sees her friends rushing home after work, but is also steadfast in her determination not to settle for less than she deserves.

What makes this such a heartbreaking record is the phone call from her mother, who is concerned for her daughter but offers her no encouragement or support at all.  Most of the song is delivered with the distance of a third person narrator, but her vocal becomes intense and pleading when she delivers the daughter’s response. “Mom, it’s not that easy. You make it sound so simple,” she sings with pain and frustration, before gathering herself and insisting that “you can’t take the first man that comes along.”

Never for a moment does Tillis direct pity at this woman who has a pretty full life already with a good job and a close circle of friends, but she fully empathizes with her having to navigate a world where those things aren’t enough to silence her overly concerned critics.

 

#16

“Something Burning Out”

Rhinestoned

2007

Written by Leslie Satcher

Produced by Pam Tillis, Gary Nicholson, and Matt Spicher

How appropriate that “Something Burning Out” is the most slow burning record in Tillis’ entire catalog.   The best of the several compositions she’s recorded by Leslie Satcher, “Something Burning Out” stays in first gear for its entire duration, simmering like an ember that won’t go out.

It sets the stage perfectly for the thoughtful approach of Rhinestoned, which uses traditional country as the backdrop for telling complex and nuanced stories of heartbreak and resilience.   The woman of “Something Burning Out” is a survivor, for sure, but she doesn’t need to be reminded of the relationship that’s now in the past:  “I don’t light the fireplace anymore, where we laid a blanket on the floor.  I threw out the candles like old jars, and I turn away from falling stars.”

Like so many of the best country heartbreak songs, it’s about working through grief, and it can just as easily be about a love ended by death as one ended by divorce or break-up.

This song can’t be included in a playlist, but can be listened to directly here.

   

#15

“Last Summer’s Wine”

Looking For a Feeling

2020

Written by Pam Tillis and Bobby Tomberlin

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

One of God’s blessings is that with time, painful memories fade away and only the happiest ones remain.  “Last Summer’s Wine” uses the metaphor of aging wine getting “sweeter with time” as a vehicle for exploring that idea as it applies to relationships.

“Last Summer’s Wine” explores the same feelings of longing for the past that are there in “Maybe it Was Memphis” and “Mandolin Rain,” but whereas she’s still feeling intense passion on the first record and deep hurt on the second, what most prominently remains on “Last Summer’s Wine” are warm memories of a special summer, as she navigates “January’s heartless cold and the loneliness of missing” her companion from days gone by.

Because this is the only song of the three that she wrote, it has the added benefit of her poetic point of view, and she ends the song with its most memorable and powerful line: “I can still taste your lips in last summer’s wine.”

 

#14

“When You Walk in the Room”

Sweetheart’s Dance

1994

Written by Jackie DeShannon

Produced by Pam Tillis and Steve Fishell

Like “Detroit City,” multiple great singers and bands have recorded “When You Walk in the Room,” but none of them fully leaned in to the power of the lyric like Tillis did, choosing instead to emphasize the song’s deliriously catchy pop hook.   Tillis dropped two notes from song’s classic riff to make it more compatible with the fiddle and steel of her countrified version, but that’s not the most notable distinction of Tillis’ recording when compared to the rest.

Tillis sounds truly, hopelessly, and desperately in love, completely paralyzed by her feelings.  The musical background serves as the cool, calm, and collected image she’s projecting to her crush, while her vocal reveals the deep feelings that are dying to get out.

Somehow, all of the great singers who recorded it before (and after) her never realized that the money line was “Wish I could show you how much I care, but I only have the nerve to stare.”  Tillis uses that line to release all of the pent up emotions that she’s been restraining since the song began, and it’s an explosion.

“When You Walk in the Room” is further evidence that as a song interpreter, she is simply without peer.

Other Voices: Jackie DeShannon, The Searchers, Karla Bonoff, Bruce Springsteen, Agnetha Fältskog, Susanna Hoffs

 

#13

“Don’t Tell Me What to Do”

Put Yourself in My Place

1991

Written by Max D. Barnes and Harlan Howard

Produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay

Speaking of explosions, that’s how Tillis’ tenure at Arista Nashville kicked off.  “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” was a massive out of the gate hit, one that was eventually overshadowed by an even bigger single from her debut country album, Put Yourself in My Place. Tillis first heard “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” when Marty Stuart was performing it at a club.  His version remained unreleased until his own breakthrough on MCA Nashville.  It’s not often a valid point to make that a song is a “woman’s song” or a ‘man’s song,” but in this case, the potency of “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” is exponentially magnified by having a woman sing it.

This Pam Tillis record is what truly kicked off the golden era of the nineties for women in country music, as she repositioned her gender in the genre with this song’s potent mix of defiance and vulnerability.  This was a new attitude for women in Nashville, who experienced heartbreak but weren’t broken by it, and could lose a man without also losing their agency.

“Don’t tell me what to do.  I’ll love you forever if I want to.”

Other Voices: Marty Stuart

 

 

#12

“Homeward Looking Angel”

Homeward Looking Angel

1992

Written by Pam Tillis and Bob DiPiero

Produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay

Pam Tillis is not a prodigal daughter.

I feel that needs to be said because of songs like “Homeward Looking Angel,” a full-fledged Americana epic with a heroine who is heading back home after her dreams failed to take flight.  It’s a powerful story, with vivid lyrical imagery (“Papa’s probably turning off the light and heading up the stairs, and the wayward child he never talks about still turns up in his prayers.”) I have no doubt it is at least semi-autobiographical.

That being said, Tillis did not come back to Nashville with her tail between her legs after her time doing jazz, pop, and R&B on the West Coast.  She came back with a major label record deal that was transferred to the Nashville division and with songwriting cuts under her belt from major stars like Gloria Gaynor and Conway Twitty, and she would continue to have her songs recorded by artists like Chaka Khan and Juice Newton while pursuing a career as a country music artist.

The prodigal daughter nonsense stems from the mistaken idea that there is something pure and true about Nashville and country music and that Tillis somehow betrayed her roots by taking her artistry elsewhere.  The truth is that Pam Tillis doesn’t become one of the most significant country artists of her generation without taking that journey first.  By broadening her horizons, she was then able to craft a unique brand of country music that hadn’t existed before, fully informed by her artistic development during her West Coast years.

So please, enjoy the very essential “Homeward Looking Angel.” It’s a masterful piece of storytelling.  Just do so knowing that it’s a story by Pam Tillis, not the Pam Tillis story.

 

#11

“The River and the Highway”

All of This Love

1995

Written by Gerry House and Don Schlitz

Produced by Pam Tillis

The sheer audacity of Tillis recording this song, releasing it as a single, and then actually scoring a major hit with it might be the single most impressive achievement during her entire run at country radio.

This is a deep and challenging work that has more in common with poetry than conventional country music songwriting.  It uses the metaphor of a river and a highway to tell the story of two lovers that can cross paths but never truly travel together, as one of them drifts aimlessly and the other follows a path that has been determined for him.

This builds to the stunning bridge that captures those moments where they can come together: “Every now and then he offers her a shoulder, and every now and then she overflows, and every now and then a bridge crosses over, and it’s a moment that every lover knows.”

This is as close to art as country music gets.

 

#10

“Let That Pony Run”

Homeward Looking Angel

1992

Written by Gretchen Peters

Produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay

The power of “Let That Pony Run” is twofold: the specificity of the storyline revealed in the verses, and the universality of the message in the chorus, the latter of which can be applied to a wide variety of life’s challenges.

A story like Mary’s had never been told before on country radio.  Sure, women got cheated on and left by their husbands for another woman.  But Mary’s story isn’t defined by what happens to her.  It’s defined by what she does in response: “Mary moved to West Virginia after the shock wore off.  She got a divorce and a chestnut horse and a barn with an old hayloft.”

Her ex-husband is the one who sought freedom, but Mary is the one who finds it.  He still needs a woman by his side to feel “reckless and young,” but she can discover that feeling all by herself, and she doesn’t need to abandon her children to do it.

Mary’s story could have been a tragedy, the way so many country songs about women being left by their husbands have been presented over the years. Instead, it’s an inspirational message of hope, and another key turning point in the way women’s stories were told on country radio.

Now let’s talk about that universally applicable chorus.  It works for Mary’s story, but it also works for all of us who have stayed too long where we don’t belong and have quieted our inner voice telling us it’s time to move on:  “You do what you gotta do, and you know what you know. You hang on till you can’t hang on and then you learn to let go.”

The song urges us to hear that voice and promises better days ahead if we do because “you get what you need sometimes when it’s all said and done.”

   

#9

“Melancholy Child”

Put Yourself in My Place

1991

Written by Pam Tillis and Bob DiPiero

Produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay

That Pam Tillis wasn’t going to be your typical country artist was revealed with “Melancholy Child,” the second track from her debut country album, Put Yourself in My Place. Sonically, the Celtic-flavored arrangement was like nothing else that was coming out of Nashville, but the greater revelation was the confessional songwriting.

“Melancholy Child” truly is autobiographical, and it flips the script completely on any assumptions that onlookers may have made about a second generation country artist having a pampered upbringing devoid of conflict.  Tillis dealt with serious personal challenges in her youth, including a devastating car accident that nearly claimed her life.  In this song, she doesn’t tell that story explicitly, but she is insightful about the whirlwind of emotions that surrounded her at the time, and how her vagabond ways and search for salvation in her music is carrying on a family tradition.

“Now a restless blood runs in our family. I thought I could outrun the emptiness inside of me.  So I went a little crazy, I went a little wild, trying to outdistance my melancholy child.”

Instead of ending on a hopeful note, the coda of the song suggests this cycle might continue for another generation: “In my own babe’s eyes, I see the signs of a melancholy child. Heaven help us all, another melancholy child.”

For longtime listeners of Pam Tillis, this is the song that reached through the speakers and put our hearts and souls into a vise.  All these years later, listening to is still a visceral experience.

 

#8

“It’s Lonely Out There”

All of This Love

1995

Written by Pam Tillis and Bob DiPiero

Produced by Pam Tillis

This is the most underrated hit of her entire Arista run, largely forgotten to time as it didn’t receive a music video, wasn’t included on Greatest Hits, and has rarely shown up in her live sets.  Brilliantly written, it takes an approach that runs counter to the rest of the Pam Tillis catalog by featuring an unreliable narrator.

As her partner threatens to leave, she responds with cool bravado, pretending to be completely unfazed: “Go on, walk away,” she whispers. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  The chorus is presented at first as a reminder to the departing lover that “it’s lonely out there,” as she encourages him to “go on and get your share.”  But as the song progresses, she uses her vocal to slowly betray her surface-level confidence and reveal the quiet desperation that is lurking beneath.

By the final chorus, she’s no longer telling him to “go on and get your share,” but is instead insisting that “we’ve got such a good thing here.”  Her warning to him that “it’s lonely out there” has really been her own fear talking all along, culminating in a final plea that abandons the earlier detachment and is sung with whole-hearted heartbreak: “Don’t go now, baby,” she begs, “It’s lonely out there.”

 

#7

“The Scheme of Things”

Looking For a Feeling

2020

Written by Mark Selby and Tia Sillers

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

Looking For a Feeling features the prominent return of Pam Tillis, the songwriter, and she penned most of the album’s strongest moments.  The best track, however, is a reminder that she remains one of the finest interpretive singers to ever grace the genre.

Go on and listen to co-writer Mark Selby’s original version, which is presented simply but effectively.  Then spin Pam’s cover, and realize that her unique gift for phrasing is stronger than ever, as she delivers one of the best vocal performances of her career, finding nuances and emotional shades in the lyric that eluded the songwriter himself.

Her reading of the line “Kiss me once like it ain’t over, turn the light out as you leave” might be the best line reading of her entire recording career to date. It still produces chills after repeated listenings.

Other Voices: Mark Selby

 

#6

“The Hard Way”

Rhinestoned

2007

Written by Pam Tillis and Mel Tillis Jr.

Produced by Pam Tillis, Gary Nicholson, and Matt Spicher

The other autobiographical song in the top ten, the best track from Rhinestoned is also one of her best self-penned recordings.  Released 16 years after “Melancholy Child,” “The Hard Way” revisits her wayward youth with the added wisdom of an older woman who has now achieved greater success than she ever dreamed of, casting the journey in a more charitable light as she looks back at herself with clear eyes and even some slight amusement:  “I love to play with matches though I’ve had to walk through fire. I learn the hard way.”

It isn’t the gold and platinum albums or the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy that have brought her redemption, though.  She’s finally found true love, and she’s genuinely startled by it: “Each time I believed before, that’s right where it all went wrong.  But you swear you love me, and Oh God I think you mean it.”   She issues a warning to her beau that “It’s good you plan to stick around forever and a day.  I learn the hard way.”  But her delivery makes clear she’s already learned this lesson.  She knows he means it, and she’s all in.

It’s a love song that could make any cynic believe in “happily ever after” again.

A live version of the song is included in the playlist. The studio version can be listened to directly here.

 

#5

“Maybe it Was Memphis”

Put Yourself in My Place

1991

Written by Michael Anderson

Produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay

Pam Tillis’ signature hit powered her to country music stardom, earning her a gold album and a Grammy nomination, as well as an easy first place finish in our 400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties countdown many years ago.  It’s been thirty years since it broke through at country radio, yet it still sounds as fresh and unique as it did back then.

It’s a distinction lost to history, but the album and video version that we’re all familiar with actually wasn’t played on country radio in its original form.  The record was simply too intense for some programmers, so it was slightly remixed to include more traditional country instrumentation, and the record’s memorable electric guitar solo was removed completely.  Arista had waited until Tillis was established at country radio to release it at all, worried that it was too pop and rock flavored for a new country artist to get away with.

All that handwringing seems silly in retrospect, but it cannot be understated what a giant leap forward this record was at the time.  Country was absorbing the baby boomer audience that grew up on rock and roll but wasn’t fully integrating those arena-rattling sounds into their records yet.  Even artists who were selling out those arenas, including Garth Brooks, hadn’t yet dared to put such sounds on studio album, let alone on a radio single.

Because she didn’t revisit this sound again, following her muse down various other winding paths instead, Tillis never got the full credit she deserved for breaking sonic barriers with “Maybe it Was Memphis.” Perhaps people were too busy being in awe of the record itself, a torrid affair of relentless emotional intensity.  Her vocal performance is as powerful when she’s whispering the bridge as it is when she’s belting out the chorus.  It’s the first full showcase of the astonishing breadth of her skill as a singer.

And yes, it is the best single of the nineties.  But as I noted in the introduction, being the best record of the decade doesn’t make it the best Pam Tillis record.  We still have four more to go that are more fully representative of her artistry than “Memphis” is.

But golly gee God damn, this is one hell of a record.

Other Voices: Phil Seymour, Michael Anderson, Lauren Alaina, Danielle Bradbery

 

#4

“Shake the Sugar Tree”

Homeward Looking Angel

1992

Written by Chapin Hartford

Produced by Anthony Martin, Paul Worley and Ed Seay

“Shake the Sugar Tree” Is the keystone that unlocks the full potential of Pam Tillis as a recording artist.

She was out time and out of money.  Nothing left in the budget for what would become Homeward Looking Angel.  She’d mostly completed an album that expanded on the scope and themes of Put Yourself in My Place, working again with Paul Worley and Ed Seay, but she hadn’t deviated too far from the template that her debut had established for her.

Then she got a hold of the demo of “Shake the Sugar Tree,” sung by future recording artist Stephanie Bentley.  Without the ability to go back in the studio and record it from scratch, she got creative, getting permission from both the publishing company and her label to put her voice on the demo recording.

It is in working within the limitations of this demo that Tillis revealed that she was free of limitations.  The simple arrangement required a gentler, subtler vocal performance than her previous work allowed.  Worley and Seay loved working with big-voiced vocalists and crafted big-scale productions in support of them. “Sugar Tree” proved that Tillis could be just as successful with a lighter touch, tapping into her jazz roots as she delivered a lyric that was ever so slightly suggestive, and her playful performance teases at the double entendre without embracing it.

It’s a virtuoso performance of a song that’s actually quite difficult to sing, but it sounds completely effortless as delivered by Tillis.   It sets the stage for everything that comes next.

Other Voices: Danielle Bradbery

  

#3

“In Between Dances”

Sweetheart’s Dance

1994

Written by Barry Alfonso and Craig Bickhardt

Produced by Pam Tillis and Steve Fishell

A gorgeous little miracle of a record.

“In Between Dances” has a timeless melody to go along with its timeless theme, even as it explores an idea that it isn’t utilized nearly enough in song.   There are so many songs about falling in love and falling out of love, but very few about those in between times.  The woman of this song hasn’t given up on love completely, but she’s exhausted from her most recent encounter with it, and she isn’t ready to try again just yet.

The metaphor of sitting out a dance works perfectly here, and also creates the perfect setting for a conversation.  The waltz arrangement serves as a constant reminder of the dance that she’s opting out of, and the way her vocal floats above the arrangement keeps her near the action without actually taking part in it.

It’s one of Tillis’ earliest great achievements as a producer, and it’s impossible to imagine the record sounding anything like this if it had been on Put Yourself in My Place or Homeward Looking Angel.   That it isn’t even the best single from Sweetheart’s Dance is a reminder of just how exceptional that album is.

 

#2

“Deep Down”

All of This Love

1995

Written by Walt Aldridge and John Jarrard

Produced by Pam Tillis

The opening track of Pam Tillis’ self-produced All of This Love set is an astonishing showcase for her prowess behind the console.

“Deep Down” is a song that at first appears as a set of contradictions.  The melody is relentlessly upbeat, bouncing along like a summer love song.  But the lyric is stark and despondent, as the narrator confesses that “I’ve got the bleeding stopped, but there’s gonna be a scar,” and compares the wound of this faded love to the lifelong injury of a veteran of war (“Just like me he’ll go to his grave nursing a pain that won’t go away.”

Tillis resolves this contradiction with her brilliant production of the track.  She takes a Wall of Sound approach, embedding her voice in the mix instead of placing it out in front or pushing it behind. This creates the impression that she’s keeping her head above water and not drowning in her emotions, but she’s not rising above them either.  She’s swimming in them, and putting work in to keep up the momentum so she isn’t fully engulfed by her pain.

She also borrows from her jazz roots by using call and response in the verses, where each line she sings serves as the call, and the response is provided by the electric guitar in the first verse and the fiddle in the second verse.  Her feelings are echoed and reinforced by the instrumentation, giving comfort and support to the emotions that would otherwise be sent into the void without acknowledgement.

It’s a flawless opening to an album that was way ahead of its time.  27 years later, I’m not sure the world has caught up to it yet.

 

#1

“Spilled Perfume”

Sweetheart’s Dance

1994

Written by Pam Tillis and Dean Dillon

Produced by Pam Tillis and Steve Fishell

The most important record in Pam Tillis’ career is also her best.

“Spilled Perfume” is where all of her talents and all of her values meet.  Her skills as a singer, songwriter, and producer intersect perfectly, as she gives a fully realized vocal performance that is complemented by a production that incorporates pure country elements into a power pop ballad framework.  She uses Paul Franklin’s mesmerizing falling steel guitar work as a pop hook, utilizing the most distinctively country instrument in an entirely novel way that previewed what Shania Twain would do in the years that followed.  Her vocal performance is flawless, proving again that she is the only songwriter who fully understands the limitless possibilities of her vocal skills.

All of that is enough to already make it an excellent record, but it’s the song that brings it all together.  As she comforts a friend after a one night stand, she does so with deep empathy but not even a hint of judgment.  It’s the conversational, woman-to-woman structure of a Tammy Wynette classic but with the man quickly disposed of and deemed irrelevant.

When she sings, “Did you really think last night would last forever?” she isn’t being sarcastic or critical.  She’s reminding her friend that this was just a one night stand, and she knew that going in, and catching feelings of guilt afterward isn’t worth it because the guy isn’t worth it.

This was Tillis bypassing all of the male gatekeepers and speaking directly to her audience while placing herself on their level: “Let me tell you, friend to friend, about a block I’ve been around.”

The presentation is simple and intimate, but the message being sent is revolutionary, upending decades-long narratives of shame and victimization and changing the narrative completely:  You got lonely and hooked up with a guy last night. Big deal. I’ve been there and done that, and here’s what I’ve learned: “There’s no use crying over spilled perfume.”

The impact was immediate.  Sweetheart’s Dance debuted in the top ten, went gold and then platinum in under a year, and Tillis took home the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award shortly after the song completed its run at radio.  Tillis went from a steady B-list performer to an A-list star, and earned the strongest critical marks of her celebrated career.  It was the song that finally made listeners fully “get” Pam Tillis, because it holistically represented all of her strengths, after a long string of hits that had been revealing them in a piecemeal way up until that point.

With “Spilled Perfume,” Tillis took her artistry to the highest level, and as this list has demonstrated, she’s spent most of her time at that level ever since.

Pam Tillis Ranked

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

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

 

 

 

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