Forgotten Artists: Pam Tillis
Being related to a famous country entertainer can be a mixed blessing. Although the family ties can open doors for the aspiring singer, they can also serve to set unrealistic expectations. Just ask Roy Acuff Jr., Ronnie Robbins (billed as Marty Robbins, Jr.), The Lynns (daughters of Loretta Lynn), Riley Coyle (daughter of Jeannie C. Riley), Pake McEntire (Reba’s brother), Jay Lee Webb (Loretta Lynn’s brother), Peggy Sue (Loretta Lynn’s sister), and Hillman Hall (Tom T. Hall’s brother), each of whom issued an album or two and then disappeared. John Carter Cash has avoided the problem entirely by working behind the scenes.
Then there are those who achieve modest success and carve out respectable careers but never achieve top-drawer status, such as Shelley West (daughter of Dottie West), David Frizzell (brother of Lefty Frizzell), Tommy Cash (brother of Johnny Cash), Carlene Carter (daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter) and Thom Bresh (son of Merle Travis). Jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, son of country stars Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody might have fit into this category had he not died young.
True superstar success for those with famous kinfolk is indeed rare. The three biggest that come to mind are Crystal Gayle (Loretta Lynn’s sister), Lynn Anderson (the daughter of songwriter Casey & singer-songwriter Liz Anderson) and Hank Williams Jr. Pulling up behind these three are George Morgan’s daughter Lorrie, Roseanne Cash and the subject of this article, Pam Tillis.
Pamela Yvonne Tillis was born on July 24, 1957 in Plant City, Florida, the daughter of our last spotlighted Forgotten Artist, singer-songwriter-actor-comedian Mel Tillis.
As the daughter of one of the best-known songwriters around, and living in Nashville, Tillis was exposed to the elite of the country music industry even before her father had achieved recording star status. She made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the age of eight in an appearance with her father singing “Tom Dooley.” She grew up wanting to be a performer and tried her hand at songwriting at an early age and also found some work as a background singer. The results of an automobile accident at age 16 derailed her career for a while as several years of reconstructive facial surgery were needed to restore her appearance. Following her surgeries, Tillis enrolled at the University of Tennessee and then later at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, forming her first band. Since her only real interest was music, she eventually dropped out of college to pursue her own musical career.
Wanting to make it “on her own,” Tillis went to San Francisco where she joined a jazz-rock band Freelight.
After tiring of the San Francisco scene, she returned to Nashville and found work as a demo singer. She signed with Warner Bros. in 1982, where she took a shot at pop success. Her sole album for WB was Above and Beyond The Doll of Cutey. During the period between 1983 and ’87, WB would issue at least eight singles on Tillis, five of which charted on Billboard’s Country chart, although none made the Top 50–not surprising since they were not being marketed as country singles. Unreleased by WB were early versions of several of her later hits, which were released after she achieved success.
During this period, Tillis signed on as a staff songwriter with Tree Publishing in Nashville, where she shifted her focus to contemporary country music and achieved much success as a songwriter, with artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, Martina McBride, Gloria Gaynor, Conway Twitty, Holly Dunn, Juice Newton, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Dan Seals, and Highway 101 recording her songs. One of the songs she wrote during her WB years was “Five Minutes,” a #1 record for Lorrie Morgan in 1990.
Her visibility was greatly improved when she started making regular appearances on shows aired on the late lamented Nashville Network, especially on Nashville Now, a nightly variety show hosted by Ralph Emery. By 1991 she had signed with Arista Records, where her career took off. For part of this period (until 1998) she was married to fellow songwriter Bob DiPiero.
The Arista years saw Tillis emerge as a steady and reliable hit-maker as the following list demonstrates:
- “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” / “Melancholy Child” – #5 (1990)
- “One Of Those Things” / “Already Fallen – #6 (1991)
- “Put Yourself In My Place” / “I’ve Seen Enough To Know” – #11 (1991)
- “Maybe It Was Memphis” / “Draggin’ My Chains” – #3 (1991)
- “Blue Rose Is” / “Ancient History” – #21 (1992)
- “Shake The Sugar Tree” / “Maybe It Was Memphis” #3 (1992)
- “Let That Pony Run” / “Fine Fine Very Fine Love” – #4 (1992)
- “Cleopatra Queen Of Denial” / “Homeward Looking Angel” – #11 (1993)
- “Do You Know Where Your Man Is” / “We’ve Tried Everything Else” – #16 (1993)
- “Spilled Perfume” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #5 (1994)
- “When You Walk In The Room” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #2 (1994)
- “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)” / “Ancient History” – #1 (1994)
- “I Was Blown Away” / “Calico Plains” – #16 (1995)
- “In Between Dances” / “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” – #3 (1995)
- “Deep Down” / “Tequila Mockingbird” – #6 (1995)
- “River And The Highway” / “All Of This Love” – #8 (1996)
- “It’s Lonely Out There” / “You Can’t Have A Good Time Without Me” – #14 (1996)
- “All The Good Ones Are Gone” / “Land Of The Living” – #4 (1997)
- “I Said A Prayer” / “Lay The Heartache Down” – #12 (1998)
- “Every Time” / “You Put The Lonely On Me” – #38 (1998)
After 1998, the hits started drying up as the next wave of young performers arrived.
Tillis’ Arista albums were generally quite successful, starting with 1991’s Put Yourself In My Place which had three Top 10 hits in lead single, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” “One of Those Things” and “Maybe It Was Memphis.” The album ultimately reached gold status.
Her 1992 follow-up Homeward Looking Angel was equally successful, with “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Let That Pony Run” reaching the Top 5. Homeward Looking Angel reached platinum status. In 1993, she won her first major award: the CMA Awards’ Vocal Event of the Year with George Jones and Friends for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”
In 1994, her third Arista album, Sweetheart’s Dance, was released, reaching #6 on the Billboard’s Country Album chart (her highest placement). Singles “Spilled Perfume” and “When You Walk in the Room” both became Top 5 hits and she had her only #1, “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life),” helping push the album to platinum status.
Issued in late 1996, All of This Love, became Tillis’ last gold non-compilation album. The only single to reach Top 10 status was “The River and The Highway.” It was the first album she produced on her own.
In 1997, Arista released her first (actually only) Greatest Hits album. The compilation featured two new tracks, both released as singles: “All the Good Ones Are Gone” and “The Land of the Living,” both of which reached the Top 5 in 1997. This collection also went platinum.
After 1997, the country music market shifted, becoming more youth-oriented and less country, with a resultant drop in both chart and sales success for Tillis. Her 1998 album Every Time featured “I Said A Prayer,” which just missed the Top 10 and was her last Top 20 single. Her last Arista album, issued in 2001, Thunder & Roses performed reasonably well on the album chart (both it and Every Time reached #24) but generated no real hit singles.
Since 1998 Pam Tillis has remained active, both in live appearances, occasionally performing with her father Mel, and occasionally recording. She became a Grand Ole Opry member in 2000, which was several years before her father, and had the honor of inducting him into Opry membership. She has tried her hand at acting, both on stage and on television, with considerable success.
She still records occasionally. In 2002 she fulfilled a lifetime dream of recording an album of songs written by or associated with her father. Rather than following the Mel Tillis template, she gave her own interpretation of her father’s material, most notably on “Heart Over Mind.”
She started her own record label, Stellar Cat, and issued her album Rhinestoned under that imprint in 2007. One of the singles from the album, “Band In The Window,” earned considerable acclaim, although the album ultimately yielded no hits.
All told, Pam Tillis had over 30 chart records including 13 Top 10s. In 1994 she was named the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year. In 1999, she earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. When CMT did their countdown of the 40 Greatest Women of Country Music in 2002, Tillis ranked at #30. Kevin Coyne of Country Universe ranked her at #35 in his 100 Greatest Women of Country Music countdown in 2008.
With the exception of the WB album, which was issued on vinyl and audio cassette, all of Tillis’ subsequent recordings have been released on CD. Some of the titles remain in print, others can be located used with a little bit of effort. Unlike country singers from generations before, the Pam Tillis catalog is fairly shallow with a total of a dozen original studio albums, plus some anthologies (Greatest Hits, Super Hits, Best Of, etc.) and whatever unreleased tracks may be lying around in somebody’s vault. Accordingly, collecting a fairly complete Pam Tillis collection isn’t that difficult, especially since her WB debut recently was reissued on CD by Wounded Bird. All of her post-WB albums are worthwhile and even the WB debut (which I originally purchased on vinyl) has its moments.
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has five of her albums available as well as several anthologies.
There is a need for a decent two-disc set containing about 40 of her songs. Lately, the German label Bear Family has been issuing some less-than-exhaustive sets. Maybe they will step up to the plate–she’s worth a decent anthology.
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