The daughter of honkytonk-pop pioneer Mel Tillis, Pam Tillis took up the family torch and hit the upper rungs of the country charts in the 1990s. Although a lot of her hits were pretty slick and high-tech, she also showed her roots and recorded plenty of fiddle-and-steel honkytonk as well. Like many Top 40 Nashville stars of the past, Tillis slid off the charts and has since resurfaced as an indie artist -- and she still follows her own musical muse. Here's a quick look at her work...
Pam Tillis "Greatest Hits" (Arista, 1997)
Includes two new songs, "All The Good Ones Are Gone" and "Land Of The Living," both of which did pretty well on the charts.
Pam Tillis "RCA Country Legends" (BMG-RCA, 2002)
Pam Tillis "Above And Beyond The Doll Of Cutey" (Warner, 1983)
Her pop-oriented debut, re-released in 2009 on the Wounded Bird reissue label...
Pam Tillis "Put Yourself In My Place" (Arista, 1991)
(Produced by Paul Worley & Ed Seay)
Like her dad, the great honkytonk/countrypolitan songwriter, Mel Tillis, Pam Tillis displays an admirable stylistic breadth with a strong foundation in her hard country roots. Although there are some lamentable production touches (a too-piercing, intrusive electric guitar, a busy-sounding '80s-ish mix and too many crashing, big-rock drums), this disc still is pleasantly tilted towards the honkytonk end of things. I can't honestly say that I always like her voice that much, but Tillis is totally able to rise above the clutter and put these songs over. And she excels on now-forgotten gems like the steady, solid shuffle, "Ancient History," which is was one of this album's true country winners. Mostly too poppy and commercial sounding for me, but it's still better than average, as far as Nashville outings go.
Pam Tillis "Homeward Looking Angel" (Arista, 1992)
(Produced by Paul Worley & Ed Seay)
For the most part she's still keeping it country, although the sleeker production (a welcome improvement from the previous release) is starting to hem her in. There are some misfires -- the rambling, jazzy fiddle break on "Rough And Tumble Heart" is irritating, the duet with the dude from Diamond Rio is really cheesy and horrible -- but it's nice to hear an artist with some rough edges and a hard-country bent. She overplays her hand on one of the album's honkytonk ballads, "Do You Know Where Your Man Is," and the album's thumpin' opener, "How Gone Is Goodbye," also fits into the almost-but-not-quite category. Her heart's in the right place, but her approach is still a little wild and unfocused. The second half of the album lapses into pop-soul crossovers which didn't bode well for the future, but hey -- whaddya gonna do? All these Nashvillers go that way sooner or later. Winning track: "Shake The Sugar Tree," which has an inventive arrangement, but a melody that works.
Pam Tillis "Sweetheart's Dance" (Arista, 1994)
(Produced by Pam Tillis & Steve Fishell)
This album has a glitzier, more robust sound, more aggressively "pop" than before, but still pretty country. "Mi Vida Loca," which was a Number 1 hit, is my least favorite track on here, but some others are pretty nice, such as the pure country "They Don't Break 'Em Like They Used To," and her pedal steel-y cover version of the old Searcher hit, "When You Walk In The Room," is pretty nice. But she's certainly moving away from her earlier rootsy sound on this one.
Pam Tillis "All Of This Love" (Arista, 1995)
(Produced by Pam Tillis)
I have to say, Tillis may be the exception to the rule: she's a rugged, rootsy singer who actually gets better, or sounds more comfortable, the more elaborate her arrangements get. This is a glossily produced album, well within the confines of modern, pop-oriented Nashville, but it's also one of Tillis's best, most confident works. It's also, notably, a self-produced effort, so what you hear is what she intended. She dips into dopey novelty song terrain on "Betty's Got A Bass Boat," an over-obvious little ditty that I actually like, but which tanked out on the charts; a couple of songs are too cloying, like the teeth-grinding soul of "No Two Ways About It," but others are quite resonant, such as "All Of This Love," which closes the album. On the whole, I'd say this disc sets Tillis in the same camp as Dolly Parton or Patty Loveless -- a Nashville insider who comfortably straddles the fence, singing poppy stuff and true roots with equal ease. And this is the album where she really comes into her own.
Pam Tillis "Every Time" (Arista, 1998)
(Produced by Pam Tillis & Billy Joe Walker, Jr.)
Pretty glitzy, with a brash pop opener, "I Said A Prayer," and plenty of tinkly power ballads. To be fair, she also includes a few relatively rootsy numbers, and a couple of superior soul-searchers, notably "Whiskey On The Wound" and "Hurt Myself." Overall, this disc is far too slick, but for the territory, it's not that bad.
Pam Tillis "Thunder & Roses" (Arista, 2001)
Sooooper poppy. She still has a nice voice, but there ain't much "country" to be heard on here. Still, this is okay, if you forgive her lapses into lite-white soul (as on the dreadful title tune...) More measured ballads such as "It Isn't Just Raining," though, are more resonant, though the adult-contemporary soft-pop sound predominates. Includes "Waiting On The Wind," a duet with her dad, Mel Tillis, which was included as a bonus track.
Pam Tillis "It's All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis" (Sony/Lucky Dog, 2002)
(Produced by Pam Tillis)
A heartfelt tribute to her father, songwriter Mel Tillis... Some songs work, others don't, some take radically different approaches to familiar old hits. Her slow, doleful acoustic version of Mel's "Heart Over Mind" is a head-spinning departure from the original '50s hit (a famously loping, muscular shuffle tune), or her torchy take on "Emotions," which was pretty syrupy in the original, but is an outright dinner jazz ballad here. On some of the more country-sounding tracks, Pam hits the mark, although on others, such as "Unmitigated Gall," she doesn't quite muster the sheer uninhibited goofiness needed to replicate that old-fashioned hillbilly vibe that her papa mastered so well. This is actually more of an "Americana" album than a commercial country record; several tracks have a nice acoustic warmth to them, and guest stars include roots music stalwarts such as Dolly Parton, Rhonda Vincent, roadhouse warrior Delbert McClinton, and Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson, who also helped co-produce several of these songs. The most commercial-sounding track is the album's opener, "Burning Memories," which, I gotta say, sounds pretty darn good. It's also a nice testament to Mel's hitmaking power: songs like "So Wrong," "I Ain't Never," "Violet And A Rose" and "Detroit City" were just the tip of the iceberg as far as his songsmithing went (darn: no "Stomp Them Grapes"!) and many are tunes you may be surprised he wrote, way back when... Nice record; worth checking out.
Pam Tillis "Rhinestoned" (Stellar Cat, 2007)
Like many onetime Music City chart-toppers, '90s nightingale Pam Tillis has been buffeted and rebuffed by the harsh new Nashville, where most artists have about a half-year half-life... So, like many others, she's turned to the booming indie scene to put her music out, and as on her last few albums, Tillis does not disappoint. Fans will be happy to hear her sounding as solid as ever, making the kind of music they loved before, with just as much conviction and charm as she had back when she was racking up the hits in Billboard. Tillis says this record is a neotrad journey into country's past, although to my ears it doesn't seem to span back much further than fifteen or twenty years -- it's fairly slick, and it's the commercial sound of not so long ago, but for folks who dug how she sounded in the early 1990s, this'll come as a real treat. Nice song selection, too, with standouts including a jaunty version of Matraca Berg's "Crazy By Myself" and a sweet, smoky duet with John Anderson, "Life Sure Has Changed Around Us," which kinda says it all about this album. If you like Pam's old stuff, you'll definitely want to pick this up.
Pam Tillis "Just In Time For Christmas" (Stellar Cat, 2007)
Pam Tillis "In Concert - One Night Only" (Goldenlane, 2008)
Pam Tillis &
Lorrie Morgan "Dos Divas" (Red River Entertainment, 2013)
(Produced by Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis)
An interesting pairing of two veteran chartmakers of the 1990s, a couple of gals who certainly have a lot in common. Both Morgan and Tillis were the daughters of two pop-oriented honkytonk stars (George Morgan and Mel Tillis, respectively) who found great success in the rock-friendly landscape of early '90s Nashville and, like many artists of that era, found it hard to keep up as tastes changed at the decade's close. They both had their first big hits relatively late in life, around age thirty, and neither really lived in the shadows of their dad... Although they both embraced glossy pop crossovers, Morgan went further in that direction than Tillis, and after the hits stopped coming, Tillis was happy to indulge her (relatively) rootsy country leanings and seemed comfortable with the indie route; Morgan has recorded several indie albums, too, but she does seem pretty focussed on scoring another big hit, so sometimes she can try a little too hard or pick material that's a little too forceful and doesn't quite hit the mark. They each keep in character for this lively album, which is a combination of duets and mainly-solo performances: Tillis is more discreet and ballad-oriented, while Morgan pushes the envelope more, aiming for hits with big, poppy arrangements ala Nashville, 1996, or with outrageous, uptempo novelty numbers that stress her hard-partying, cougar-delic side. And I mean the cougar thing literally, as do they: the raunchy title track and the even more-explicit "Old Enough to Be Your Lover" hammer home their proud, party-down, bad-girl, baby-boomer sexuality. Get these gals tanked up in a bar with Lucinda Williams and Marshall Chapman, and it's mothers, lock up your babies! Even with the occasionally over-the-top production, this album has an undeniable undercurrent of charm and verve... Worth a spin, particularly if you were already a fan of either artist.
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