For Pam Tillis, being the daughter of a famous country star has been a mixed blessing. Tillis’s success as a singer-songwriter came after years of avoiding the sort of traditional country music popularized by her father, the stuttering Grand Ole Opry favorite Mel Tillis. The attractive young country star actually cut her teeth on pop, rock and roll, jazz, and even punk rock before settling into more mainstream country fare. As Jack Hurst noted in the Chicago Tribune, however, Pam, “a fixture on Nashville’s progressive end for more than a decade, suddenly appears to have found her father’s ladder to stardom.”
The breakthrough for Tillis was Put Yourself in My Place, her first release for Arista Records. She wrote or co-wrote seven of ten songs on the album and earned her first Top Ten country hit with the winsome “Don’t Tell Me What To Do.” Both the album and the single reveal a new commitment to country music by an artist who all but shunned the genre in her earlier years. Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Dan DeLuca lauded Tillis for her move to the country mainstream, concluding: “Add Pam Tillis to the growing list of savvy young country-music women who write ‘em and sing ‘em their own way.”
Like many children of entertainers, Pam Tillis had an erratic childhood. The oldest of the Tillis children, she was born in Plant City, Florida, shortly before her father began to pursue a singing career. She was very young when the family moved to Nashville with little more than the clothes on their backs, but her father slowly made his way in the country music field and then hit super-stardom in the late 1960s. Pam began studying piano at age eight and received her first guitar at eleven. Though she liked country music, she was also influenced by many other styles. “I like it all,” she told a Chicago Tribune reporter, “rockabilly, honky-tonk, Celtic folk—and you can’t go any further back than that.”
What she did not like—and still remembers painfully— were the occasions when her father would drag her onto the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. “I hated it,” she recalled in People. “It was an ego-bruiser. I just couldn’t stand getting up there and having all that [creativity] in me and having to go through his material. And I felt I was, like, on display: ‘Here, he’s got offspring!’”
Tillis was 15 when her parents divorced. Her personal rebellion took the form of an interest in hard rock and punk music. A brief stay at the University of Tennessee ended when she joined a rock band and began to perform. The band was not terribly successful, however, and by 1976 she found herself back in Nashville,
For the Record…
Born July 24, 1957, in Plant City, FL; daughter of Mel Tillis (a country singer-songwriter); married Rick Mason (a painter), c. 1978 (divorced); married Bob DiPiero (a songwriter), February 14, 1991; children: (first marriage) Ben.
Singer and songwriter, 1975—. Made first stage appearance with father, Mel Tillis, at age 8; wrote songs for father’s music publishing company, 1976–77; member of a jazz band in San Francisco, 1977–78; signed with Warner Bros., Nashville, c. 1982; moved to Arista Records, Nashville, 1990; had first Number One song, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do,” 1991; staff writer for Tree Publishing.
Awards: Nominated for a Horizon Award, Country Music Association (CMA), 1991.
Addresses: Record company —Arista Records, 1 Music Circle, Nashville, TN 37203. Other— P.O. Box 25304, Nashville, TN 37202.
writing songs for her father’s music publishing company. The following year she moved to San Francisco, where she worked in a jazz band.
Tillis related in People that throughout her youth her father pressed her to record country music, promising to find her a producer and an agent. She could not accept his help on his terms, though. “My daddy doesn’t necessarily understand the kind of music I do,” she said. “He always had me singing little-girl songs, and I’d be crushed, and then he’d get mad at me.” Becoming part of the punk scene of San Francisco, Tillis married a painter and had a son. The marriage soon ended, and she drifted back to Nashville, determined to make music in her own style.
In 1983 Tillis signed a contract with Warner Bros, and released her first album, Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutie. The work was a departure from standard Nashville fare, to say the least. One critic compared it to the recordings of Pat Benatar and other hard-rocking female vocalists. Tillis noted in People that her career choices were strongly influenced by her father’s fame. “I think I subconsciously chose pop and rock and R & B, everything but country, because I didn’t like competing on turf,” she said. For his part, Mel Tillis reacted to his daughter’s choice of material with equal parts of indifference and mild criticism.
Warner Bros, released Tillis after her first album sold moderately but did not yield any hits. She continued to write songs, this time for Tree Publishing, and she was pleasantly surprised when the executives from Arista Records offered her another opportunity to record. Her 1990 contract with Arista was tendered after producer Tim Dubois heard her sing at the famed Bluebird Cafe.
Late in 1990 Tillis released Put Yourself in My Place, a more traditional work that features a number of songs she wrote herself; the LP’s first Number One hit was “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” a song Country Music’s Rich Kienzle described as having “a strong lyric, one that Pam more than does justice.” Tillis remarked in the Chicago Tribune that she switched to so-called “pure country” in reaction to audience demand. “Being a musician, my personal taste is to the… left,” she said. “But getting out there and playing for people—I’ve been doing shows even without a record, playing all over—you just get a feel for what people want to hear. I don’t think it’s a thing of the album pandering or catering. People are calling it ‘new traditional’ or ‘solid country,’ but there are things I’m bringing to the table vocally that I picked up from other styles. I just think it’s an honest arrival at a point.”
Put Yourself in My Place was well received by critics and country audiences alike. Songs such as the autobiographical “Melancholy Child,” the hit “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” and “I’ve Already Fallen”—a ballad Tillis co-wrote with her husband, Bob DiPiero—demonstrate the versatility the singer achieved after years of experimenting with various musical styles. Kienzle called the album “a quirky but likable effort with a distinctive edge that… tips its hat to contemporary, country-rock and traditional sounds, combining the best of them all.” Praising the album in Entertainment Weekly, Alanna Nash found that “Tillis shows here how well she can craft smart and sassy country material—everything from bluegrass to Celtic to country-pop—and also sell it with a commanding, big-voiced presence.”
Needless to say, Tillis’s father is happy that she has returned to the country fold. Pam expresses little regret for the route she has taken to stardom—she still maintains that she has learned from all of her experiences, good and bad, and that she is ready to embrace success on her own terms. Hurst contended that the multi-talented Tillis “is following in [her father’s] footsteps by becoming one of Nashville’s finer songwriters…. [Her work] also makes clear that she is one of the town’s more adept singers.” The critic concluded: “Having grown up in the midst of ‘traditional’ Nashville, [Pam] now shows not only that she has the talent to perform her father’s style of music but also that she can do it with stunning emotional authenticity.”
Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutie, Warner Bros., 1983.
Put Yourself in My Place (includes “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” “Melancholy Child,” and “Maybe It Was Memphis”), Arista, 1991.
Homeward Looking Angel, Arista, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1990; January 24, 1991.
Country America, June 1991; June 1992.
Country Music, May/June 1991; May/June 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, March 15, 1991.
People, November 14, 1983; May 27, 1991.
Pulse!, February 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Arista Records press material, 1991.
—Anne Janette Johnson
No female performer of the 1990s did more to revitalize country music than Pam Tillis. She pushed the boundaries of the genre by incorporating the pop, jazz, blues, and folk influences of her early career and adding honky-tonk, comedy, torch and ethnic flavor to the mix. From her 1991 breakthrough Put Yourself in My Place to her 1998 release, Every Time, Tillis has remained one of the most versatile artists on the scene.
“I just get bored easily,” Tillis explained to Kimmy Wix of Country.com, “so I like to keep it new. I never like to repeat myself and I always want to be breaking new ground. Yeah, my antennas are always up, and I guess I’m just a musical sponge. I’m just always kinda tuned into the different sounds of life.”
The daughter of country legend Mel Tillis, Pam tuned in to those sounds early. As a baby, her father’s demo tapes were her lullabies as she napped in a guitar case. She began making up songs to sing for her kindergarten teacher at age four. And she first joined her father on the Grand Ole Opry stage at eight. “Singing and clowning was my way of gaining the acceptance I longed for,” Tillis said. “Not much has changed.” Tillis began studying classical piano at eight, took up guitar at 11, began writing at 13, and started singing in clubs at 15. “A lot of folks assumed Dad taught me these things, but he was working 300 days of the year,” Tillis explained. “I learned from osmosis.”
Throughout her education, Tillis said, music was the only thing she took seriously. After two semesters at the University of Tennessee, she recalled, “... instead of continuing to waste my parents’ money, I decided to quit and enroll instead in the Music City School of Hard Knocks.” She pounded the pavement of Music Row, singing back-up and demos, as well as jingles for Hardee’s, Coors, and Country Time Lemonade. She wrote songs for Sawgrass Music, her father’s publishing company, before heading to California to “dabble in jazz rock” in 1977.
She focused on song writing when she returned to Nashville in 1979. Her songs have been recorded by artists as varied as Chaka Khan, Martina McBride, Gloria Gaynor, Conway Twitty, Juice Newton, and Highway 101. Tillis recorded a pop album, Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutie, in 1983, during a short stay on the Warner Brothers label. She called it “a time of experimenting, writing and trying to find my sound.” She was well on her way to finding that sound when she signed with Arista/Nashville in 1989. “It might have been obvious to everyone else, but it took Pam Tillis two decades to realize she really is a country singer,” Alanna Nash wrote in Entertainment Weekly. “Pam had twang on her tongue and sawdust in her blood, yet the disco and blues she tried early in her career proved alien to her system.”
Success quickly followed Tillis’ return to her roots. In 1991, Put Yourself in My Place, her first completely country album, offered timeless hits like “Maybe It Was Memphis” and “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” Both eventually went to number one, and the title track made the top five. Tillis told Country.com, “If a song is a hit, if it has any impact at all, it’s not just background music. It gets incorporated into the fabric of people’s lives. Audiences are an awfully good barometer. They let youknow what they like or don’t like. It happens every night. When we launch into ‘Maybe It Was Memphis,’ you can feel the emotion go across the room. That’s the power of a great song. ‘Don’t Tell Me What to Do’ means as much to the fans as when I first released it. Attitude never goes out of style.”
On 1992’s Home ward Looking Angel, Tillis exhibited her playful side in the comedic ditty “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” The top ten song also won Music Row’s Video of the Year. The sassy “Shake the Sugar Tree” went to Number One, while the plaintive “Let That Pony Run” hit the Top Five. “With Sweetheart’s Dance, Tillis... placed herself among country’s most accomplished modern women,” Nash wrote about Tillis’ 1994 album. “That she
For the Record…
Born Pamela Yvonne Tillis, July 24, 1957, in Plant City, FL; daughter of Mel Tiliis (country singer-songwriter); married Rick Mason, 1978 (divorced); married Bob DiPiero, 1991 (divorced); Children: (first marriage) Ben. Education —Attended University of Tennessee.
Singer/songwriter, actress; made first stage appearance with father, Mel Tiliis, at age eight; staff writer for father’s publishing company, Sawgrass Music, 1976-77; member of Freelight jazz band, 1977-78; signed with Warner Brothers, Nashville, 1982; moved to Arista/Nashville, 1989; recorded Put Yourself in My Place, 1991, Homeward Looking Angel, 1992, Sweetheart’s Dance, 1994, All of This Love, 1995, Greatest Hits, 1997, Every Time, 1998; only female country artist of 1990s to solo produce her own music, 1995; participated in first all-female country tour with Lorrie Morgan and Carlene Carter, 1996; hosted “Live at the Ryman” television series, 1995; guest starred in “Diagnosis Murder” and “Promised Land” (CBS), 1998; 18 top ten songs.
Awards: Music Row Video of the Year for “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial,” 1993; Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year, 1994; Country Music Television Top Female Video Artist, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Arista/Nashville, 7 Music Circle North, Nashville, TN 37203. Management— Stan Moress, 1209 16th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212. Fan club —Pam Tiliis Fan Network, c/o Johanna Michel, P.O. Box 128575, Nashville, TN 37212. Website —Official Pam Tiliis World Wide Web Site: www.pamtillis.net. Arista/Nashville site: www.twangthis.com.
can strike this kind of synthesis, both musical and personal, suggests that Tiliis, like her father, is in it for the long haul.”
In 1995, Tillis took on a role few women of Nashville have—sole producer of her own music—and All of This Love was the result. Again, she demonstrated her range with singles such as “The River and the Highway” and “Betty’s Got a Bass Boat.” Tillis called her Greatest Hits record, released in 1997, a turning point. “With it, I closed the first chapter of my career and began the second,” she said. Her career gained momentum when the single “All the Good Ones Are Gone” was nominated for numerous awards, including two Grammys.
The light-hearted “I Said A Prayer,” the first single off 1998’s Every Time, gained notice as a change of pace for Tiliis. “She’s been known for the most deeply emotional, heart-wrenching songs around—especially ‘All the Good Ones Are Gone,’” Wherehouse Entertainment music buyer Jeff Stoltz told Jim Bessman of Billboard magazine. “‘I Said A Prayer’ is ‘more rocking and a big summer song.’” Tillis told Country America, “It’s funny, that little song. My son recently drove across the country, and he said he heard it every time he turned on the radio. I said, ‘Well, that’s because it applies to you.’” The album was released after a year of what Tillis called “’cataclysmic’ personal and professional upheaval,” Bessman wrote. It was a year that ended both her marriage and her longtime management situation.
Arista/Nashville senior vice president of marketing Fletcher Foster told Bessman, “This album [Every Time] is very diverse. Pam has obviously ventured out as an artist.” Diversity is a trademark of Tillis’ concert performances, too. She told Country.com’s Wix, “I think you’ll walk away and say, ‘I didn’t know she did all that.’ That’s really what I’m all about. I like eclectic and like to really mix it up. You can describe a Shania in one word or you might say ‘sexy,’ or ‘Wynnona is soulful.’ But when you say ‘Pam Tillis,’ you think versatile.”
She has toured with Alan Jackson, George Strait, Vince Gill, and fellow second-generation stars Lorrie Morgan and Carlene Carter. In 1998, Tillis fulfilled her lifelong dream of performing with her father, joining him for weekly shows at his Branson, Missouri, theater. “I was adamant about not doing it before I established myself,” Tillis told Michael Bane of Country Music. “I never wanted to ride on any coattails. And sometimes I’d get impatient, because that would be a drag. There’d be things that’d come up that I’d want to do with Dad, but I just went, ‘no way, they won’t get it.’ The spin doctors, the critics, I just thought they wouldn’t get it yet. So I waited.”
She felt 1998 was the right time to expand her acting repertoire. She appeared in back-to-backcrossover episodes of Promised Land and Diagnosis Murder on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). “My interest in acting started in 1989 when I starred in Tennessee Repertory’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ as Mary Magdalene,” explained Tillis, who has also appeared on L.A. Lawand hosted Live at the Ryman.
Tillis has maintained a rare level of creative control over her career, and plans to keep it that way. “There are people who made it faster and hit it bigger,” she told Bane, “but I feel I’ve been blessed with a consistent career. And, I’ve gotten to do it on my own terms. I’ve done each album a little different, not wanting to become my own ‘cliche.’”
And as she told Wendy Newcomer of Country Weekly, “I love what I’m doing, but I think most artists always feel like they’ve yet to do their masterpiece. Look at someone like my dad, who’s got 50 albums out. I’ve got a long way to go creatively. My dream is just to keep making music.”
Put Yourself in My Place, Arista/Nashville, 1991.
Homeward Looking Angel, Arista/Nashville, 1992.
Sweetheart’s Dance, Arista/Nashville, 1994.
All of This Love, Arista/Nashville, 1995.
Greatest Hits, Arista/Nashville, 1997.
Every Time, Arista/Nashville, 1998.
The Prince of Egypt soundtrack, contributor, Nashville/DreamWorks, 1998.
McCloud, Barry, and contributing writers, Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, Perigee, 1995.
Billboard, May 23, 1998.
Country America, January 1999.
Country Music, January 25, 1999.
Country Weekly, July 21, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, May 6, 1994.
“Some ‘New Attitude’ from Pam Tillis,” Country.com, http://www.country.com (June 1998).
“Pam Tillis—Showcase Artist,” Country.com, http://www.country.com (March 1996).
Additional information was provided by Arista/Nashville publicity materials, 1998.
—Shari Swearingen Garrett