My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘Sweetheart’s Dance’

Pam-Tillis-Sweethearts-DanceWhen the time came for Pam Tillis to record her third album for Arista Nashville, she knew she wanted more say over the project. Tillis lobbied with her label and got their permission to co-produce the project with Steve Fishell instead of using Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had helmed her previous work. As a result, Sweetheart’s Dance became the most successful of her studio projects to date.

The main element that threaded the songs on Sweetheart’s Dance is the thematic diversity among the ten tracks. Unlike her previous work, and that of her contemporaries, Sweetheart’s Dance is a joyously upbeat affair that relies on a remarkably sunny disposition for most of its thirty-four minutes.

For most, relying on a singular emotion would be a downfall but Tillis is an astute enough songsmith to understand the delicate art of balance. The lead single is one of only three ballads, and relays a biting conversation between two female friends – one is in desperate search for true love while the other acts as moral support, having been there herself. “Spilled Perfume,” which Tillis co-wrote with Dean Dillon, is masterful in its simplicity but its Tillis’ vocal, tender and without underlying judgment that brings the song to elevated heights.

The lead single would peak at #5, but Tillis would have greater success with the next two releases. A cover of Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk In The Room” would peak at #2. Covering 60s pop hits is always a risk, but Tillis presents the track in a new light, turning it into a slice of country-pop that aptly shows everyone else how it’s done. She’d finally score her only Billboard #1 with the next single, Tex-Mex rocker “Mi Via Loca (My Crazy Life).”

Tillis’ abruptly chose to end her winning streak when she pulled Layng Martine Jr’s “I Was Blown Away” in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings. If circumstances had been different, this could’ve been her second #1. The fiddle drenched number peaked at #16.

The highlight of the project is “In Between Dances,” a gorgeous waltz by Craig Brickhardt and Barry Alfonso and the best song (next to “Maybe It Was Memphis”) Tillis has ever recorded. A tale of a woman between relationships, the writers brilliantly place her in a dancehall between partners, waiting for the right time to rejoin the action – “The partners are chosen, look at them waltzing away/
The tempo gets slower, closer and closer they sway
/I’ve had my moments when I could get lost in the sound
/But when the song ended the one in my arms let me down.”

Matraca Berg and Mike Noble co-wrote the excellent “Calico Plains,” a track Berg herself recorded on Lyin’ To The Moon four years earlier. It tells the story of a young girl who worships her older sister, whose dreams of a grander life are cut short by an unexpected pregnancy. The urgency by which Tillis brings the song to life only heightens the track’s beauty; accentuated by beautiful dobro riffs.

The detours into pain and longing are few, but those three ballads help ground the album. The title track is a fabulous country shuffle and one of the best fiddle tunes of the modern era. She revs up again on the delightful bluegrass inspired “Till All The Lonely’s Gone,” a joyous song about death that references Hank Williams, Sr in the opening verse – Well Hank made a living out of lonely/he sang liek a freight train whistle moan/Said “You’ll never get our of this world alive”/as if he’d always known.

Sweetheart’s Dance is flawless from start to finish, a classic in every sense of the term. Even the tracks that somewhat pander to trends – “They Don’t Break ‘Em Like They Used To” and “Better Off Blue” are exceptional examples of modern country done right in that era. This is an artist truly on top of her game at a time when such material was getting massive airplay on country radio. If you don’t own this album, I suggest you rectify that immediately – it’s easily one of the best country albums I’ve ever heard.

Grade: A+

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7 responses to “Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘Sweetheart’s Dance’

  1. Luckyoldsun July 12, 2013 at 10:23 am

    I think there was a misplaced apostrophe in the song (and album) title. Should’ve been “Sweethearts’ Dance.”

    “Mi Vida Loca” was definitely a good one.

  2. Michael A. July 12, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Nice write up, Jonathan. I think “Spilled Perfume” was one of my earliest exposures to Tillis’ music and it was definitely the catalyst that caused me to purchase my first Pam Tillis album (and one of my very first CDs ever, in fact) when I was getting into the country genre at that time. “When You Walk in the Room” is a lot of fun. “Mi Vida Loca” is actually one of my least favorite Tillis songs. Maybe I’ve just heard it too many times. IMO, Pam’s best song isn’t “In Between Dances” or “Maybe It Was Memphis” (again, overplayed), but rather “The River and the Highway”.

    • Jonathan Pappalardo July 12, 2013 at 3:19 pm

      Thanks, Michael. Coming up with an all-time best Pam Tillis song is certainly a challenge. I love “The River and the Highway” as much as “In Between Dances,” “Spilled Perfume,” and “Let That Pony Run.” She has so many wonderful ballads.

      I agree that “Maybe It Was Memphis” has been overplayed. Goes in the same category as “Independence Day.” Both are great songs, but the qualities that make them special have diminished in the wake of being heard (somewhat) to death on the radio.

  3. Jonathan Pappalardo July 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks, Michael. Coming up with an all-time best Pam Tillis song is certainly a challenge. I love “The River and the Highway” as much as “In Between Dances,” “Spilled Perfume,” and “Let That Pony Run.” She has so many wonderful ballads.

    I agree that “Maybe It Was Memphis” has been overplayed. Goes in the same category as “Independence Day.” Both are great songs, but the qualities that make them special have diminished in the wake of being heard (somewhat) to death on the radio.

  4. J.R. Journey July 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    “Spilled Perfume” was probably the first Pam Tillis song I can remember hearing too. And it’s still my favorite of hers. There’s an urgency and a bite in Tillis’ vocal delivery that was so rare in those days – and almost unheard of today. The best Reba singles from the era have the same quality (“Fancy”, “Does he Love You”, “And Still”); Tanya Tucker had it in spades (“If It Don’t Come Easy”, “(Without You) What Do I Do With Me”); and once in a great while Trisha Yearwood would let go with a full-throated delivery (“Down On My Knees”), but Pam seemed to sing with that same urgency on a regular basis. I love it.

    This is an excellent album and I like every track. All the singles are great (though I have to agree with Michael that I’m kinda bored wtih “Mi Vida Loca” and have been for a decade) and “Til All the Lonely’s Gone” is another favorite of mine.

  5. Razor X July 12, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    I was surprised to learn that “Mi Vida Loca” is her only #1. I don’t dislike it, but she has many songs that are much better. “Spilled Perfume” and “In Between Dances” are both excellent, and overall this is a very good album.

    • Luckyoldsun July 14, 2013 at 5:35 pm

      There was a huge amount of competition in Pam’s heyday–The top tier artists: Garth, Clint, A.J., Strait, Reba, B&D, Gill and Two guys named Travis, all regularly scoring #1 hits. Also Trisha, Wynonna and MCC. Plus McGraw was getting hot. And then there were the second- and third-tier artists–Chesnutt, Diffie, Kershaw, Raye, Toby, Lawrence, Dwight, Byrd, Diamond Rio, Sawyer Brown, Lorrie, Patty, Clay, Tippin. (And those are just the #1 hitmakers that I know from memory. I probably left off a few.) Even with the faster chart movement then, it’s not surprising to me that Pam’s records usually stalled short of #1.

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