Golden Graham talks with the stars of country music

Pam Tillis

Interview with Graham Lees


Born Pamela Yvonne Tillis, daughter of legendary country star Mel Tillis, Pam has involved herself in a wide range of music, including punk, disco, R&B, jazz and rock before plunging head-first into the country scene. Her first album for Arista Put Yourself In My Place received positive reviews and a single from the album ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do’ entered the charts in late 1990 and made the Top Ten in February 19991. Pam’s second album Homeward Looking Angel spawned the single ‘Maybe It Was Memphis’ which made its debut on the singles charts just before Christmas 1991 and was nominated as CMA Single Of The Year. Pam was nominated for CMA Female Vocalist Of The Year in 1994, up against Mary Chapin Carpenter (who had taken the award two years on the run) and Reba McEntire. Tillis took the award, rewarding her years of “dogged” determination.

It has been three years since Pam Tillis released a studio album. In April this changed with the release of Thunder And Roses and the first single off the album ‘Please’ climbing the charts. I chatted with Pam in April and found her to be quietly spoken and charming.

Hello Pam, it’s a pleasure to speak to you and can I say what a great album Thunder And Roses is.

“Thank you so much!”

What was the inspiration for this new album?

“One of the things I wanted to do on this album was…I wanted every song to be very conversational, like every song is like a conversation I’ve had with a friend of mine, where I’ve either been the talker or the listener. Real slice of life songs, every day out of your diary kind of songs, I wanted to keep it real.”

Although Pam is a prolific songwriter, only one of her own songs is found on the new album. I asked Pam to tell me how she set about writing the lovely ‘Off White’.

“It is an idea I’ve kicked around for a long time. I had the title forever and it was finally finding the inspiration to write it, but it is a song for everybody who is brave enough to re-marry. It’s a kind of a wedding song for second marriages as it were.”

For the final track on the album, Mel Tillis joins Pam on a lovely song, ‘Waiting On The Wind’. I asked Pam if they had been looking for a song to do together as a duet, or was it a song that had come along which they felt would make an ideal duet.

“ You know I thought it was both! I was looking for a song to sing with dad and it is difficult to find a father – daughter duet. Actually this wasn’t a duet, I kinda changed it a little bit to fit and I thought it worked quite well. This is the first time we have done a duet together. I’ve sung background on one of his albums and (with a laugh) he’s sung background on one of my albums. We were just waiting for that song to do. I’d like to find another one, you know!”

Mel Tillis still has many fans in this country and I asked Pam how Mel is keeping and what he is doing these days.

“He’s great, thank you for asking, he’s fantastic. He’s actually been on the road and he works eight months out of the year. We have a family theatre in Branson and eight months out of the year he’s there and then he goes on the road, he just loves to work. Once a year I go and perform for a time there in Branson and enjoy it very much.”

Coming back to Pam’s own songwriting, ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’ peaked at #11 around 1991 in the charts and was supported by a highly amusing video. So how did the song come about?

“Well somebody called and left a joke on my answering machine. The punch line was because she’s the Queen of denial. Actually it wasn’t a very funny joke, but it did make a very good song title. Sometimes you have to really think about an idea and you have to explore all different aspects of it, but there are songs that write themselves. You just open your mouth and out they come….and that was one of those songs.”

‘Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy life) was another of Pam’s own songs, which was nominated for a Grammy.

“That required some thought! I got the title for that and asked my friend Jess Leary to help me write it, so we started with the chorus “Mi Vida Loca” then we went “oh ho” neither of us knew Spanish. What the heck do we rhyme “Mi Vida Loca” with, and it was kinda funny. I had actually been touring a lot in California, Texas and New Mexico and you hear a lot of Chicano music (pronounced Tay ha na), and I love that and I love the place where those influences intersect with country music. I really loved that and wanted to do something with that flavour and one day I was watching a talk show. Geraldo Rivera was interviewing a woman who had a tattoo “Mi Vida Loca” and he asked what does that mean, and she said “My Crazy Life”. We have a little saying in songwriting…write what you know about and that little songwriter light bulb went off and I thought I’ve got a crazy life! (laughs)” 

Pam Tillis has had a hand in producing several albums over the years and though not listed as a co-producer of Thunder And Roses, Pam had this to say on the subject.

“Well I just grew up in the studio and feel really comfortable in the studio. To me it’s like being in your kitchen and knew just enough technical stuff to get me into trouble. You know it was kinda….over time it was just a natural transition. I had a lot of musicians here support me and say you know what you want! You know what you’re doing! You don’t always have to rely on somebody else for the finished project. So I tried…All Of This Love album was self produced and I’ll tell you…that was a fantastic learning experience and it nearly killed me (laughs). You know the only way I would self-produce is if I had a couple of years to hole-up in a studio and really not have to worry about anything else…It is quite difficult and I’m glad that I experimented on myself first, but I would really prefer producing someone else. I think when you are working on an album it is really great to have somebody else to bounce things off, you don’t loose perspective that way.” 

Summing her career up, Pam says

“I dabbled in jazz and studied classical piano as a kid. I sing a lot of R&B in the clubs and studio work. You know at one point in my life it was necessary to be versatile. The more different styles I could sing, the greater my chances were for employment. But as a recording artiste, they want to know what band to put you in….people want to be able to get a handle on what you are and I understand that. You know things really came together for me and my career when I recorded an unapologetic country album in 1990 (Put You Self In My Place) and I’ve been proud to be a country artiste ever since. You know, with an accent like this, it makes sense. Country music isn’t something I do…it’s like the Clint Black song…it’s something that I am!”  



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