Pam Tillis
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., April 4, 2004) – Fans – and there were a lot of them – got what they came for at Mass MoCA on Saturday night in a concert by contemporary country singer Pam Tillis. The country diva played plenty of her hits, and she’s had a lot of them – a half dozen number-ones and over a dozen top 10s, all since the early 1990s.

In fine Nashville fashion, Tillis was an amiable frontwoman, chatting up the crowd, telling them how wonderful they were and how wonderful North Adams was – she even asked if she and her musicians could remain as the house band at Mass MoCA, and she joked about the Hoosic, “Is that Indian for ‘Where’s the river?’”

Give her points for having done her homework and knowing where she was – not all touring artists take the time to look around them or even note what town they’re in. And give her points for injecting as much personality into her brand of contemporary commercial country music as it could hold – without the added spice, what comes out of Nashville these days tends mostly towards generic, Seventies-era pop and easy listening with a pedal-steel twang.

Which is why Tillis deserves bonus points for taking the courageous step of playing several of her father’s songs halfway through the show. Mel Tillis was an active songwriter during Nashville’s golden era, the 1950s and ‘60s, writing for the likes of Webb Pierce, Ray Price and Patsy Cline. One couldn’t have asked for a clearer demonstration of the decline in country songwriting than the one Pam Tillis gave when she juxtaposed her own songs – some written by her, some by other modern songwriters -- next to those by her father.

The show totally switched gears, as did Tillis herself, during her renditions of “Burning Memories,” “I Ain’t Never” and “So Wrong.” Not only did the melodies soar in unusual modulations and sophisticated swoops and the lyrics hit hard with clever twists of phrase, but the temperature soared, too, as Tillis was pushed to her limits as a vocalist, acquitting herself well with acrobatic grace notes and flips.

Otherwise, Tillis, backed by her seven-piece band, the Mystic Biscuits, delivered a mostly upbeat and engaging program colored by her reedy voice and a modicum of showmanship. She stopped one number midway through and invited a gentleman up front to come to the stage so she could sing it directly to him for greater effect. She handled ballads, honky-tonk, country-pop and rock ‘n’ roll with equal aplomb, if somewhat without clear differentiation. She played several songs requested by the audience, and brought the curtain down with a gospel-influenced Dolly Parton number.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 5, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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