Pam Tillis

by Trevor Morelli

Pam Tillis' road to success was long and hard, littered with enough song-ready hardships to make other singers jealous. Daughter of country legend Mel Tillis, the Nashville, Tennessee born-and-raised singer spent her childhood mastering first piano and then guitar, resolute from an early age to follow in her father's musical footsteps. Her penchant for diverse musical stylings was evident from the start – Tillis was a member of both a country swing band and a folk duo before dropping out of the University of Tennessee in 1976. The next decade saw Tillis swinging from project to project, variously singing backing vocals for her father, starting a jazz and rock band called Freelight, and finally releasing solo material after landing a record deal with Warner Brothers. An album and several singles followed, with none achieving much success.

Tillis's mainstream breakthrough came in 1991 after landing a new record deal with Arista. The lead single was "Don't Tell Me What To Do" from the album Put Yourself in My Place, and it made #5 on the Country chart. Several more top-ten songs followed, and her 1992 follow-up album Homeward Looking Angel cemented the singer's success with another wave of hit singles.

Since then Tillis has continued to put out emotive, country-flavored music, finding time on the side for Broadway stints and a tribute album to her father. Her songs have always been honest and emotional, the sort of heart-on-your-sleeve material that can only come from somebody who's lived a life with lots of ups and downs. It's a hallmark quality of her music that's carried across record labels and stylistic shifts, and is still going strong today.
Trevor Morelli (Songfacts) : How were your shows at the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede back in July?

Pam Tillis: I had a great time. I hope everybody else did, too. It seems like they did.

Songfacts: So was the vibe quite different, with it being the 100th anniversary?

Pam: It's more festive. For a festival kind of crowd, I just thought they were so attentive. Canadian audiences are so appreciative.

Songfacts: That sounds awesome.

Pam: And they're not just there for the spectacle. They really listen. They're good listeners. That sounds funny, but it's true. They just really listen to the lyrics. I think they're a thoughtful audience.

Songfacts: Absolutely. Country music is huge here in Calgary. So is there anything that still surprises you when you're out on the road?

Pam: I'd like to say yes, but no. [Laughing]

Songfacts: Do you change up your set list to keep things fresh?

Pam: Oh, I'm changing it all the time. I know there are people that just come and do the same show for years and years and years, and some of the fans love that. But I can't do that. We change it up.

Songfacts: That must be hard, because there are always some fans that just want to hear certain songs.

Pam: There are certain songs that are just fixed parts. And then you have your variables. So that keeps it good. I think that's a win/win.

Songfacts: The other day on Twitter you asked people what's on their bucket list. I'm wondering what's still on yours that you haven't done yet?

Pam: Oh, man. Well, live long enough to see a grandkid; that would be awesome. And I think my husband and I have always talked about taking a boat around what they call the Great Loops. There's a southern loop and a northern loop, and we talk about that.
I'd like to do a trail ride one day, one of those two-week trail rides. I've always thought that would be fun, to be a real cowgirl for a couple of weeks. I've got a lot of things. I'm pretty adventurous. I just stay so dang busy with the music business. I'd like to go camping. I love nature. My dad went on a fishing trip one time way up in Canada, and they go in on one of those biplanes and salmon fish, and that just sounds like heaven to me. I'm kind of outdoors-y.

Songfacts: In a professional sense, have you accomplished all that you want to accomplish? I mean, you've been a professional artist for three decades.

Pam: I've got all kinds of stuff that I'd love to do. It's just finding time to do it. I think that's the challenge for country artists. It's a little different for pop artists because pop artists actually go home between tours. We just kind of tour all the time. So there are all kinds of recorded projects I'd like to get involved with, but it's real hard to do between gigs. Most of my things on my artist bucket list have to do with projects I'd like to do in the studio and songs I'd like to write.

Songfacts: That sounds really cool. Is there anything coming up that you can talk about that you're excited about?

Pam: I've got a couple of albums. I've got an acoustic album with my trio. I've got two other women that I work with a lot, and we're doing a trio album. That'll be done by the end of the year. I'm also doing an album with my friend Lorrie Morgan and we just cut all the tracks for that. And then I've got a solo album that I've got in my mind, just various concepts that I'd like to do.

Songfacts: Wow, that does sound very busy. What were some of the challenges you faced in creating your own record label?

Pam: Well, the biggest thing I think was the marketing. The big labels have the marketing dollars. And so you've got to find creative ways to market without the big money. I mean, we're just talking huge dollars. People have no idea what it takes at mainstream radio to promote a single and an album. When you're on your own label you've got to be really inventive.

And outside of that, it's the challenge of all the administrative, all the bookkeeping and all the copyright, making sure all the writers and everybody gets paid, the publishing and all that kind of stuff. My husband gets a great deal of the credit for that. He works real hard on the office side of things

Songfacts: You've also co-produced several of your albums, including 1994's hit album Sweetheart's Dance. Is it difficult to do that double duty - recording and singing on an album, and then being the producer, as well?

Pam: Yeah. That's something I wanted to do just to see what that was about. And at that point in time when I did the All This Love album, that's just what I wanted to do and my label let me. I also had a really great engineer that was Tom, my right hand man. So none of these projects get done alone, you know. It's always a team effort.
But nowadays I just like to co produce, because it is a little bit much to try to do everything. You need somebody in the process that's stepping back and that can be objective. And it's really hard to do when you're working on both sides of the console, so to speak, or the glass. It's too hard to be objective all the time.

Songfacts: Your songs are so personal I can imagine that once they're done, you probably don't really want to change them.

Pam: And also a performance. Sometimes you'll think, "Oh, let me do that one more time" but somebody out in the control room's going, "No, that was great, leave it alone." You've got to know when to stop. I know that's a weakness of mine. So I have to have someone else there. I just enjoy co producing these days.

Songfacts: You wrote the song "The Hard Way" with your brother and you once mentioned that you both think like twins. Can you explain that?

Pam: Yeah. It's pretty simple. Just growing up together and having all the shared history, and just a similar sense of humor. His songwriter point of view and his songwriter voice is just so similar in a lot of ways to mine, that it's kind of like one person thinking. We're just so in tune that you never have to explain your ideas or your thoughts to the other person. We're just already there.

Songfacts: Was it similar working with your father on the album It's All Relative?

Pam: Well, Daddy just came in and sang. He kind of just let me do the production on that album, because he was out on the road. He wasn't able to be involved in the production of it. With Dad and I, it's a little bit different. It's funny, we are very different artistically. I love what he does and everything, but we really have to negotiate our point of view sometimes. But the longer I do this, the more he trusts me.

Songfacts: What is the song "Life Has Sure Changed Us Around" about?

Pam: Exactly what it says. It's just a song looking back on all the years and it's a reflective song. It's thinking back on being a kid and how you thought it was going to be one way and you just thought it was all going to be so easy and fun.

Songfacts: And it's just different than how you thought it would be as a kid?

Pam: Yeah, exactly. It's not bad, it's just different.

Songfacts: Can you talk about your hit song "Mi Vida Loca"? When the song came out in 1994, you were singing about how crazy your life was. What was going on then that was making things so crazy?

Pam: Well, we were on the road even more. Right now I think I do somewhere between 6 and 8 dates a month. Back then, we were out 17, 19, up to 20 dates a month. I mean, we were just gone all the time. And anybody who's done that knows that'll make you feel crazy. It's good, it's fun. But it's very much like living in the eye of a hurricane.

Songfacts: Have there ever been times in your career where you just felt completely burnt out? Did it ever cause you to make poor decisions?

Pam: Yeah. It's never a straight line. I think everybody's got some things here and there that they would rethink or do differently. And yeah, I've suffered sometimes from burnout. I've definitely had some times when I've had to pull back. But everybody's got to negotiate that and navigate that. Anybody who's real busy knows about that.

Songfacts: You've got to have balance.

Pam: Yeah.

Songfacts: You co wrote the song "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial" back in 1994 and I was wondering how you came up with that play on words because it's quite clever.

Pam: Oh, thanks. You know, a friend called, and this is back when we had answering machines, a billion years ago, and somebody left a joke on my phone and that was the punch line. She was the queen of denial. Anyway, and I just thought that's a really stupid joke, but I was intrigued with the play on words.

And at that time, everything about 12 Step was in pop culture. Everybody was talking about 12 Step this and 12 Step that, and somebody being in denial. So we just kind of took that idea and ran with it and wrote it about a girl who just refused to take off her rose colored glasses when it came to this guy.

Songfacts: And it turned into a pretty big hit song.

Pam: Yeah, it was a hit for me. And people still want to hear it. So it's funny sometimes.

Songfacts: There have been other songs in your career that you recorded that were written for you. What draws you to a song? Are people approaching you with ideas, or are they finished works that you get to pick from?

Pam: They're usually finished works. And I think "Maybe It Was Memphis," that was a song I found several years before I got my deal on Arista. And I just loved it. The good thing that happened with that song is I didn't throw it out. Because I actually recorded it on Warner Brothers, and it wasn't a good version. And then I just kept singing it. Lots of times, when an artist records a song and it doesn't come off, they just move on to the next song. But if I ever did anything right in my career, it's the fact that I didn't give up on that song. I actually re-recorded it when I got my deal on Arista and the second time it came up, it was the record that was everything I needed it to be. And it was a huge hit. So that doesn't happen very often.

Songfacts: I didn't know that about that.

Pam: Yeah. I think I sang that song for 10 years before I got the chance to do it right.

Songfacts: That's really cool. One more question. What drew you to the song "Shake the Sugar Tree"?

Pam: "Shake the Sugar Tree" (thinking)... I don't know, it was just a gut feeling. I liked it because it was a song about kind of an adult situation, about a woman who felt like she's losing her man's interest and she wanted to do anything she could do to shake up the relationship. But it was also catchy. At that time, you know, with CMT, our videos were the big thing. Video, video, video. It was one of the new things for country music. I could just imagine little kids singing along with the song. And it had an innocent sound at the same time that it was about adult things. Kind of like old cartoons, you know, that we used to watch as kids. That's what I liked about it.

December 5, 2012. Get more at
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Comments: 1

  • Camille From TorontoMy husband and I were big fans of Pam Tillis in her hey day, so I appreciated this article on her. "Don't Tell Me What To Do" is a fabulous song with a great hook..."Queen of Denial", great lyrics...don't forget "Betty's Got A Bass Boat"...and I had forgotten about "Shake the Sugar Tree"...I am going to have to put these hits on my ipad!
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