Pam Tillis embraces her legacy
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., April 1, 2004) – As the daughter of country music legend Mel Tillis, singer Pam Tillis is well acquainted with the arguments about nature versus nurture. A Grammy Award-winner herself, she has five talented siblings, including several others involved in music. And while she thinks there are merits to both sides of the equation, she thinks there is another equally important factor.

“There are a lot of people with inherent talent and capabilities, but if you don’t make something of it, it’s not worth a whole lot,” said Tillis, who performs at Mass MoCA on Saturday night at 8, in a recent phone interview from a hotel. “You have to develop your talent and you have to be willing to work. Both my parents came out of the Great Depression, and they were not lazy people. The way I grew up, if someone called you lazy, that was a bad thing to be called.”

Tillis is apparently anything but lazy. Contrary to what one might suspect, having a famous country music singer and songwriter for a father didn’t automatically make things easy for her. She put in time working at the hamburger pavilion at Opryland, going door-to-door as an Avon lady, piercing ears in a shopping mall, waiting tables and cleaning houses, all as a way of supplementing her income while she tried to make a go of it in music.

She didn’t automatically assume that she would follow in her father’s footsteps, either. Early on, she sang with jazz and r&b groups. “I did a little bit of everything,” she said. “I didn’t see a reason not to sing different styles. My last name being Tillis, I figured I owed it to myself to find out if I did anything else better.”

“Besides, I love all different types of music. I love jazz and the old standards. And when I was in my teens there was a great soul station that came out of Chicago, an AM station I listened to late at night that played Gladys Knight and the Imperials and Little Stevie Wonder. I always liked soul music and all the different types of music. I think dad thought that was a little weird. He just thought I didn’t appreciate what was in my own back yard. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate it. It’s just that there was a whole world outside that music, too.”

That whole world included Broadway and musical theater, and Tillis even tried on roles in a Tennessee production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and a New York run of “Smokey Joe’s Café.”

But eventually, she returned to her roots. Since the early 1990s, she has been one of the most popular female singers in contemporary country, with six number-one hits including “Mi Vida Loca,” “It’s Lonely Out There,” “In Between Dances” and “Spilled Perfume.” She has been honored as Female Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Awards, has sold millions of albums, and has toured with country royalty including George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Alabama and Brooks and Dunn.

Tillis finally came around to embracing fully her father’s legacy when she recorded “It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis,” an album’s worth of her father’s songs, several years ago. In confronting her father’s work as a singer, she gained new insight into his talents, and learned some surprising things about his musical tastes.

“The thing that made him a really great writer was that he has a fabulous, almost photographic, memory,” she said. “When you’re a writer, that gives you much to draw on. He’s a great storyteller, with just a wicked sense of humor. He was really born to be a writer.”

“It was also kind of surprising about all the different styles he wrote in. In the early Fifties as a staff writer writing for different artists, he wasn’t just writing one type of song. He had to write whatever the style of the day was. He wrote rockabilly things, some kind of jazzy, torchy things, bluegrass things.

“And there was one thing called ‘Mental Revenge.’ He said that he and Kris Kristofferson were hanging out together a lot, and they both idolized Bob Dylan and tried to write something like him. I never knew he had a Dylan phase. If you ask him he’s totally purist country, but his music had a lot more depth than the same three chords.”

For most of the 1980s, Pam Tillis worked as a songwriter, penning hits for the likes of Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, Barbara Fairchild and Conway Twitty. In country music, and for a woman at that time in particular, it was hard to be taken seriously as both a singer and a songwriter.

“What a difference a decade makes,” said Tillis. “Things changed. It only takes somebody busting some stereotypes to change the whole game. When I first started recording they wouldn’t play two women on the radio back to back. There weren’t women producers or women doing their own songs or headlining concerts and producing their own records.”

Tillis credits Rosanne Cash, who performed at Mass MoCA last year, as one of the pioneers in breaking down the barriers to women in country playing a creative role in their own careers. “And on the concert side of things, Reba McEntire started kicking all the boys’ butts,” she said. “Then when I had my first hit, it seemed like there was just a wave of great female artists. Then the next thing you know it’s changed people perceptions.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 2, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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