My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Pam Tillis

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Spilled Perfume’

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘Thunder & Roses’

35224855The most significant musical moment of Pam Tillis’ 2001 Thunder & Roses is “Waiting In The Wind,” which marks the first time in the span of six studio albums that she properly duets with her father Mel. The track, about a dad’s reaction to his daughter leaving the nest, conveys the emotion perfectly, but is bogged down by a poppish string section and phrases like ‘rise to every challenge’ and ‘catch your dreams’ that are generic and overwrought.

With Thunder & Roses Tillis also returns to the multi-producer format and forgoes a producing credit of her own for the first time since Homeward Looking Angel. The production change stems from the disappointing commercial success of Every Time, which yielded one top 15 hit in two singles. The move towards a more mainstream sound didn’t reverse Tillis’ dwindling relationship with country radio, but she gained her final chart hit in the leadoff single.

“Please,” written by John Hobbs, Michael Dulaney, and Jeffery Steele tells the story of an anxious single mother getting ready for a date hoping he’ll “be the dad, the friend, the man” and cherish her for “who I am.” Tillis, a twice married single mother herself, brings her own life experiences to her brilliant vocal, half talking, half singing at just the right moments to perfectly articulate the woman’s own doubts and fears. The title track, a pop/country confection, was the first single of Tillis’ career that failed to chart.

The album itself leans in a more mainstream direction, forgoing the fiddle, steel, and dobro flourishes that peppered Tillis’ music until this point. The move is an answer to the trends that were popular at country radio in the early 2000s, but the pandering didn’t reignite Tillis’ career. At the time I’d chalked it up to behavior – Tillis seemed to be acting kind of weird (I remember when she presented Brooks & Dunn with a Vocal Duo CMA award as though the other four acts in the category didn’t exist) and the music followed suit.

Songs like “Space” and “Be A Man” just don’t fit Tillis’ musical persona. She almost seems uncomfortable vocally, with breathy phrasing that go against the way she usually sings. There’s nothing innately wrong with “I Smile” lyrically, but the in-your-face production swallows any attempts at subtly in Tillis’ voice. Same goes for “If I Didn’t Love You,” which is bombast turned up to eleven. Brett James and Troy Verges’ “Tryin’” is a lot better, but I could do without the unnecessary background singers that clutter up the track with unnecessary noise.

The album isn’t a dud by any means as Tillis thankfully saves the day with some quality tracks thrown in to balance out the more sonically progressive numbers. Though the song would’ve been stellar with a far more traditional arrangement, “It Isn’t Just Raining” works because of Tillis’ confident voice throughout. Even better is “Which Five Years,” a Craig Wiseman and Lisa Drew composition about a woman’s insecurities towards growing older in which she wonders “So which five years would I lose/Which lessons would I choose to have to learn again/I wonder/Just to seem a little younger?” I also adore Stephanie Bentley and Chris Lindsey’s “Jagged Hearts,” a wonderful torch ballad and Tillis’ shinning moment.

Thunder & Roses is Tillis’ Strong Heart – an attempt at going mainstream that lessens the traditional strings, but doesn’t completely forgo the artist’s ability at picking some truly great songs. So I can forgive Tillis for pandering to radio since she didn’t loose her identity in the process. Thunder & Roses may be her most uneven effort to date, but I’ve certainly heard a lot worse (and far more desperate) attempts at fitting in with the cool kids.

Grade: B

Sounds like last century: Pam Tillis live in Switzerland

Last month our friend Thomas Kobler reported on a recent Suzy Bogguss concert in Switzerland. Our current Spotlight Artist Pam Tillis has also just paid a visit to that beautiful country, and Tom has kindly shared another review with us.

We must have been real good here last year, since I cannot think of any other reason, why on earth Lorrie Morgan in March, Suzy Bogguss in April and now Pam Tillis in June all should find their way across the Atlantic to Switzerland to play us some of the best 90’s country that there is.

So far, the last one in line of those 90’s greats was Pam Tillis on the big stage in the huge white tent of the 20th (Anniversary) International Trucker & Country Festival in Interlaken on June 29. If the name of that place rings a bell, you might have heard it on TV. It is the pretty resort in between two alpine lakes just around the corner from that dramatic north face of the Eiger mountain, where Clint Eastwood had been hanging around quite a bit in the 1975 spy thriller The Eiger Sanction.
As usual at festivals, the slots can be more or less favourable. Pam Tillis’s slot was a slightly tricky one. She came on after the Bellamy Brothers – whose country music is quite similar to popular German hit-radio tunes except for pedal steel and language. (The Bellamy Brothers’ 70‘s hit song ‘Let Your Love Flow’ is the biggest German hit single of the last forty years or so, according to a representative audience poll in a popular German TV-show a couple of years ago. Here it is called ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’, sung by German singer Jürgen Drews.) Hence, coming on after them and their Swiss friends – which gave them almost something like “home field advantage” – at around 11 p.m. was probably not the most desirable slot.

However, Pam Tillis could not be bothered and hit the stage with two more women beside and a further four musicians behind her. In a glittery white blouse, matching dangly earrings and glittery tight blue jeans, tucked into – you might have guessed – glittery black knee-high boots, she looked as shiny, proper and attractive as it could get.

Consequently, she started her show warning not to leave anything hanging around – especially not your heart – only to think over the whole mess love life can bring a couple of minutes later and ending up wondering: ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’. It most likely was not very far, but far enough to consider flirting with the ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’ experience. In the end, things sounded as if they got worked out because next came ‘Sweetheart’s Dance’ just before things turned somewhat sour again, making her shout ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do’, and coming to the conclusion that ‘Life Has Sure Changed Us Around’. . So far, so good. In a pre-concert interview Pam Tillis told CountryStyle:

“I love to express all kinds of feelings, be it through music or acting.”

No doubt, I thought after this opening selection of songs.

Then came a series of covers consisting of ‘Ring Of Fire’, ‘Walking After Midnight’ and Dolly’s ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind’. Had not Carlene Carter performed an absolutely stunning ‘Ring Of Fire’ the night before, I might have enjoyed Pam’s take more.

Turning back to her own material, she picked things up with the never recorded ‘Dance To The Sweet Rhythm Of Mine’, and reiterating her heart‘s desire unmistakably when continuing, ‘I Sure Could Use Your Company Now’. Something ‘Blue Rose‘s’ been dreaming of too, right afterward. Still one of those songs that almost make you want to thank the good Lord for the pedal-steel and Pam Tillis a lot.

After that, the concept of the playlist got more difficult to read, but ‘Calico Plains’, ‘Band In The Window’, ‘Put Yourself In My Place’, ‘Train Without A Whistle’ and the funky-bitter and witty ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’ did not make you miss any greater underlying scheme at all. She delivered these songs grippingly, supported by a fine band in which the multi-talented Mary Sue Englund stood out playing second fiddle, keyboard and acoustic guitar as well as providing background vocals and Lorrie Morgan’s part in the duet ‘I Know What You Did Last Night’ from the remarkable Grits and Glamour song catalog. In fact, I found it quite difficult to read my hastily scribbled notes for this review because I was somewhat afraid of missing a single moment of that part of the show.

After ‘Early Memories’, a running around ‘Pony’, the insightful ‘I Know What You Did Last Night’ and a good look at her ‘Vida Loca’ in general, it was almost 1 a.m. when her doubts about whether ‘Memphis’, the southern summer nights or just her and him being a little frisky were to blame for a doubtless great time there. Closing the night with wanna holding hands Beatles-style a little later was a rather charming, innocent and fitting encore in the light of what had happened there in Memphis.

Well, what really can you say after such a show? I felt, it might have been an even better concert than perhaps some during her country radio heydays in the 90’s had been, for it included so much of the music from a long and distinguished career of a wonderful artist and most charming person (with quite a particular taste when it comes to sunglasses, I found out at the media event). Or inversely: If Pam Tillis and her band had such a good time in Switzerland as the fans around me and I had during her concert – they must have had a blast.

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Do You Know Where Your Man Is?’

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Every Time’

every timePam’s last 1990s release (in 1998) was co-produced by the arist with Billy Joe Walker Jr. It was her first Arista album not to be certified gold, marking a commercial downturn for her. It may also mark a period of personal turmoil following her divorce from songwriter Bob DiPiero, it is also noticeable that she did not contribute to the songwriting on this album. Her vocals are (as usual) excellent throughout.

There were only two modestly performing singles. ‘I Said A Prayer’, an upbeat Leslie Satcher song given rather poppy production which was Pam’s last top 20 hit, peaked at #12. I personally prefer the prettily melodic title track (penned by Tommy Lee James and Jennifer Kimball), but this one only just squeezed into the top 40.

Leslie Satcher got two more cuts on this album. ‘You Put The Lonely On Me’ is another up-tempo number with an assertive approach and some nice honky tonk piano, which isn’t bad. The best of Satcher’s songs (and one of the two best tracks on the album) is ‘Whiskey On The Wound’, a sad story song about a man whose tangled love life leads him into the deep waters of alcoholism.

The other standout is the magnificent pain-filled steel-led ballad ‘Hurt Myself’, written by Savannah Snow. The protagonist compares her relationship with a toxic ex with other forms of self-destructiveness. ‘A Great Disguise’ is another very good song about hiding the pain of a breakup, which had previously been recorded by Martina McBride. Pam’s interpretation is more subtle than Martina’s powerful belting, but both versions are good.

‘A Whisper And A Scream’, written by Verlon Thompson and Austin Cunningham, is a fine song about striking the right balance in life, which is much better than the title sounds. The insistent mid-tempo ‘Lay The Heartache Down’ written by Jamie O’Hara is also pretty good, with harmonica fills.

‘We Must Be Thinking Alike’ is quite pleasant but ultimately forgettable, while ‘Not Me’ is boring pop filler. ‘After Hours’ is also rather dull.

There are a couple of great tracks and several good ones, but this album as a whole fails to reach the heights of Pam’s best work, and it’s not entirely surprising that it failed to make much of a mark. It’s certainly worth cherrypicking the best tracks on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be obtained very cheaply.

Grade: B

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘All of This Love’

PamTillisAllofThisLoveIn the wake of the success of Sweetheart’s Dance – a platinum selling album that nabbed her the coveted CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1994 – Pam Tillis decided to produce the follow-up record by herself, and became the first woman on a major label to do so. The stakes were high when All of This Love hit with a bang in November 1995.

The main reason I enjoy the women of 90s country so much is their dedication to their music. Most were often too smart for mainstream radio, thus enjoying relatively short commercial careers while reaping the rewards artistically. Tillis is one of these artists and she proved it with All of This Love, an album that had little to do with the bouncy sound of its predecessor. Instead the project was somber, moody, and alienated the casual fans that loved hits like “Mi Via Loca.”

Well, it was their loss because All of This Love produced some brilliant singles. “Deep Down,” a mournful fiddle drenched tune, peaked at #6. The song is the rare record where the juxtaposition of mournful lyric and upbeat melody comes together to create magic. Tillis co-wrote another tour de force, “It’s Lonely Out There,” with her now ex-husband Bob DiPiero. It’s a ferocious lyric, with a woman letting her man go, only to warn him “Go on and get your share/But believe me baby/It’s lonely out there.” The song may’ve only hit #16, but of all her singles, it’s left the biggest impression on me. One of my all-time favorite songs from the moment I first heard it all those years ago.

In between them, Tillis sent the album’s centerpiece to #8. “The River and the Highway,” written by Gerry House and Don Schlitz, is a poetic masterwork about two people trying to find comfort in each other. That Tillis could get such a left of center ballad into the top 10 speaks to her strong relationship with country radio at the time.

She wasn’t so fortunate on the final single, which became her first for Arista to miss the top 40. Despite or may be even in spite of its innate stupidity, I’ve always liked “Betty’s Got A Bass Boat.” The lyric is generic and the production has aged horribly, but the Bernie Nelson and Craig Wiseman-penned tune got me to purchase this album in the first place. Much like Julie Roberts’ misguided cover of Saving Jane’s “Girl Next Door,” it’s Tillis’ attempt at scoring a big hit with ripe radio fodder. In both cases the experiment failed, proving that trying to fit in just isn’t worth the embarrassing effort.

Tillis is much better when she’s not being guided by radio, and she proves it with a stellar cover of Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain,” which features Marty Stuart playing the bluegrass staple. The collaboration is a gorgeous marriage of my favorite musical instrument and Tillis’ otherwordly voice. She’s similarly excellent on the mandolin, fiddle, and steel guitar soaked country shuffle title track, a Chapin Hartford song about a woman saving all her love for the man she has yet to meet. “Sunset Red and Pale Moonlight” is an underappreciated Kim Richey number about budding love that’s as effervescent and sunny as the vivacious fiddle throughout suggests.

It’s easy to compare All of This Love with its predecessor, given all eyes were on Tillis (a budding superstar) at the time of its release. Most will refer to it as a lesser album given how it isn’t as radio friendly nor as appealing for casual fans (the songs could be looked at as not being ‘instantly catchy’ enough) but it’s certainly just as good but in many ways better than Sweetheart’s Dance. This is where Tillis came into her own as a powerhouse selector of material and while the two albums that followed weren’t nearly as strong, she’s bounced back in the last decade.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis ft Alison Krauss – ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’

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+

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Heart Over Mind’

Pam covers one of her dad’s hits:

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Homeward Looking Angel’

homeward looking angelPam’s second Arista album, released in 1992, was tastefully produced like its predecessor by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. Although the material was not quite as strong, there was enough to keep her momentum going, and in fact it was more successful commercially than its predecessor.

The first single ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’, written by Chapin Hartford reached #3. A pretty melody, tasteful arrangement, Pam’s confident lead vocal and banked harmonies from Stephanie Bentley (who later had a duet hit with Ty Herndon) apparently lifted from her demo of the song all contribute to making this a very attractive recording of a good song with an assertive attitude as the protagonist gives her neglectful man a warning.

The wistful story song ‘Let That Pony Run’ (about a suburban housewife who finds a new life after her husband leaves her), written by Gretchen Peters, is one of the standout tracks. It is the kind of mature, thoughtful lyric which would get no traction on today’s radio but in 1993 it reached #4. An exquisite vocal is backed up by backing vocals from Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy.

The playful irony of ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’, written by Pam, her then-husband Bob DiPiero, and Jan Buckingham, peaked just outside the top 10 (at #11).

By far my favourite track is the very traditional ‘Do You Know Where Your Man Is’ (written by Dave Gibson, Russell Smith and Carol Chase), which was another top 20 single. The pensive ballad asks a married woman about the state of her marriage

Did you kiss him when he left this morning
And does he know that he’s needed at home?
Well, if you don’t feel that old thrill
Then somebody else will
And there’s some mighty good women all alone

It’s ten o’clock
Do you know where your man is
And are you sure that he’s doing you right?
Are you still in his heart
When he’s out of your sight?
Do you know where your man is tonight?

It was previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, whose version is also very fine, but Pam’s just edges it for me. Her beautifully judged vocal is backed by a lovely traditional arrangement with prominent steel guitar.

Opening track ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’ is one of a brace of songs written by Pam with Bob DiPiero. It is a very good song which could easily have been another hit single, with a ballsy (and surprisingly upbeat) delivery and mature lyric with a woman regretting walking out and wondering if she can backtrack.

The excellent ballad ‘We’ve Tried Everything Else’ (written by Pam and Bob with Steve Seskin)might be the same couple a little further down the line, as the protagonist suggests to her ex that getting back together would be the best solution, since new lovers have failed to help them move on:

Neither one of us is feeling any better
All we’ve been doing is fooling ourselves
Baby, you and me were meant to be together
Let’s try love again
We’ve tried everything else

The title track offers a portrait of a young woman who is returning home as the prodigal daughter but who hasn’t given up on her dreams:

Her party dress is tattered but her vision is inspired…

There’s a road ahead and the road behind
All roads lead to home this time

A couple of tracks are less interesting. ‘Love Is Only Human’ is an AC-leaning duet with Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe which is a bit bland, although it is beautifully sung; I would have loved to hear this pairing on a more dynamic song. ‘Rough And Tumble Heart’ was previously recorded in a very similar arrangement by female-led 80s group Highway 101, so Pam’s version, while perfectly listenable, seems redundant, even though she wrote it (with DiPiero and Sam Hogin). ‘Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love’ is just plain boring and Pam’s vocal verges on the screechy.

Although I don’t like this album quite as much as Put Yourself In My Place, it actually sold better, becoming Pam’s first platinum certification. It is a solid and very varied collection with some excellent songs. Used copies can be obtained cheaply, and it’s well worth picking up.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Maybe It Was Memphis’

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Put Yourself In My Place’

putyourselfinmyplaceWhen she cracked the Top 10 for the very first time with the Harlan Howard and Max D. Barnes penned “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”, Pam Tillis may have appeared to be an overnight success to many country fans who were unaware that she already had one pop album and several unsuccessful country singles under her belt. As far as those fans were concerned, her career began with her signing to Arista Records, which was then one of several labels that rushed to open a division in Nashville to cash in on country music’s resurgence in popularity. Pam’s first album for the label was Put Yourself In My Place, which appeared shortly after “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” had peaked at #5 on the Billboard country singles chart.

In many ways, Put Yourself In My Place, which was produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay, was an album of second chances. It was a second chance for Pam after years of languishing in obscurity at Warner Bros., as well as for three of the album’s hit singles which had been previously recorded and had either been unsuccessful or had gone unreleased. “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” had originally been recorded by Marty Stuart under the title “I’ll Love You Forever (If I Want To)”, but the album for which it had been recorded had been shelved by Columbia and did not see the light of day until after Marty had found success on MCA, and the retitled song had become Pam’s breakthrough hit. Pam’s second single for Arista was a tune she co-wrote with Paul Overstreet. “One Of Those Things” had been released as a single by Warner Bros. in 1985 but had failed to chart. This time around it performed substantially better, landing at #6. It’s always been one of my favorite Pam Tillis songs, but it was excluded from her Greatest Hits album, which was released a few years later and doesn’t seem to be one of her better remembered songs today. “Maybe It Was Memphis”, which is probably Pam’s biggest and best-remembered hit, had also been previously recorded for Warner Bros., who had opted not to release it. The Arista version of the story of a steamy summer romantic encounter, soared to #3. It is one of the more progressive numbers on a largely traditional album.

In between “One Of Those Things” and “Maybe It Was Memphis”, the album’s title track was released as a single. The uptempo and energetic “Put Yourself In My Place” was written by Pam and Carl Jackson. Surprisingly it just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11. The album’s fifth and final single, the ultra-traditional and steel-guitar drenched “Blue Rose Is” was also a near miss, peaking at #21. It’s an excellent song, written by Pam with her then-husband Bob DiPiero and Jan Buckingham. I was, however, a little surprised when it became a single because it did seem a bit retro for country radio’s tastes, which were starting to drift back towards pop by 1992.

Among the album cuts, my favorites are the presumably semi-autobiographical “Melancholy Child”, which hints at a difficult childhood, “Draggin’ My Chains”, and the more contempoary “I’ve Seen Enough To Know”, a Tillis co-write with Radney Foster.

Put Yourself In My Place
reached #10 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and was certified gold for sales in excess of 500,000 units. Its importance to Pam’s career can not be overstated, for it allowed her to step out of the shadow of her famous father and to put to rest any lingering doubts about her commercial viability. It is her most consistent, most traditional and best album. Inexpensive copies are easy to find.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis ft Loretta Lynn – ‘Don’t Tell Me What to Do’

The song starts about three minutes in:

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Collection’ (the Warner Brothers recordings)

pam tillis collectionDuring the 1980s, Pam Tillis was signed to Warner Brothers Records, who released a number of singles to country radio. None enjoyed much success, and by the end of the decade Pam had moved on. After Pam’s rise to fame with Arista the following decade, Warner Bros capitalized by releasing an album containing a selection of the sides she had cut for them, including early versions of songs she had since taken to the top with Arista. Her only album for Warner Bros, Above And Beyond The Doll Of Cutey, was an unapologetically pop (and not very good) record, but these country recordings are all pretty good.

It is hard to see why these early versions of the atmospheric ‘Maybe It Was Memphis’ (a bit more understated than the hit) and the beautifully resigned melancholy of Pam’s own ‘One Of Those Things’ (which was to become one of my favorite Pam Tillis singles – and I think I like this version even more) were not successful at the time.

An excellent and respectful cover of Buck Owens’s ‘There Goes My Love’ shows Pam’s traditional country roots. ‘Those Memories Of You’ may be familiar from the Dolly Parton-Emmylou Harris-Linda Ronstadt Trio album of 1987; Pam’s version (from 1986) does not quite have the charm of that version but is a nice enough recording. Another possible missed opportunity was the fine version of a song which was to become Lorrie Morgan’s breakthrough hit – ‘Five Minutes’ (a Beth Nielsen Chapman song), which Warner Brothers left on the shelf. The production is a little dated with a faintly tinny sound, but the vocal is good.

The other songs are less familiar, but make for a pretty good collection. The joyful up-tempo ‘I Thought I’d About Had It With Love’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman with Milton Brown about finally finding true love, has a great charm. The catchy ‘I Wish She Wouldn’t Treat You That Way’ is a tongue-in-cheek complaint at the loving way her rival is treating the mutual object of their affections. Both of these songs should have had commercial potential.

Pam wrote ‘Sometimes A Stranger Will Do’ with Pat Bunch and Mary Ann Kennedy, a ballad with a melancholic undertone about resorting to the odd one-night-stand while traversing the dating scene in search of a forever love. The trio also wrote ‘Goodbye Highway’, which is a bit fillerish but adds a bit of tempo. ‘Tennessee Nights’ is a pleasant but fairly bland love ballad.

Packaging of this album was both cheap (no pictures) and deliberately misleading (referring to four songs as hits, when two were only hits when re-recorded for Arista, and the other two when recorded by different artists altogether). Dubious marketing aside, the actual music contained here is up to the standard of Tillis’s hit material. Used copies of the CD version are easy to find at cheap prices, and this is worth getting hold of if you’re a fan of Pam’s music. The same material was repackaged yet again in 2000 as Super Hits.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘One Of Those Things’

A very early performance by Pam (in 1985) of a future classic:

Spotlight Artist: Pam Tillis

pamtillisBeing related to a famous country entertainer can be a mixed blessing. Although the family ties can open doors for the aspiring singer, they can also serve to set unrealistic expectations. Just ask Roy Acuff Jr., Ronnie Robbins (billed as Marty Robbins, Jr.), The Lynns (daughters of Loretta Lynn), Riley Coyle (daughter of Jeannie C. Riley), Pake McEntire (Reba’s brother), Jay Lee Webb (Loretta Lynn’s brother), Peggy Sue (Loretta Lynn’s sister), and Hillman Hall (Tom T. Hall’s brother), each of whom issued an album or two and then disappeared. John Carter Cash has avoided the problem entirely by working behind the scenes.

Then there are those who achieve modest success and carve out respectable careers but never achieve top-drawer status, such as Shelly West (daughter of Dottie West), David Frizzell (brother of Lefty Frizzell), Tommy Cash (brother of Johnny Cash), Carlene Carter (daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter) and Thom Bresh (son of Merle Travis). Jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, son of country stars Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, might have fit into this category had he not died young.

True superstar success for those with famous kinfolk is indeed rare. The three biggest that come to mind are Crystal Gayle (Loretta Lynn’s sister), Lynn Anderson (the daughter of songwriter Casey & singer-songwriter Liz Anderson) and Hank Williams Jr. Pulling up behind these three are George Morgan’s daughter Lorrie, Rosanne Cash and this month’s spotlight artist, Pam Tillis.

Pamela Yvonne Tillis was born on July 24, 1957 in Plant City, Florida, the daughter of singer-songwriter-actor-comedian Mel Tillis.

As the daughter of one of the best-known songwriters around, and living in Nashville, Tillis was exposed to the elite of the country music industry even before her father had achieved recording star status. She made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the age of eight in an appearance with her father singing “Tom Dooley.” She grew up wanting to be a performer and tried her hand at songwriting at an early age and also found some work as a background singer. The results of an automobile accident at age 16 derailed her career for a while as several years of reconstructive facial surgery were needed to restore her appearance. Following her surgeries, Tillis enrolled at the University of Tennessee; then later at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, forming her first band. Since her only real interest was music, she eventually dropped out of college to pursue her own musical career.

Wanting to make it “on her own,” Tillis went to San Francisco where she joined a jazz-rock band Freelight.

After tiring of the San Francisco scene, she returned to Nashville and found work as a demo singer. She signed with Warner Brothers. in 1982, where she took a shot at pop success. Her sole album for Warner Brothers was Above and Beyond The Doll of Cutey. During the period between 1983 and ’87, Warner Brothers would issue at least eight singles on Tillis, five of which charted on Billboard’s Country chart, although none made the Top 50–not surprising since they were not being marketed as country singles. Unreleased were early versions of several of her later hits, which were released after she achieved success.

During this period, Tillis signed on as a staff songwriter with Tree Publishing in Nashville, where she shifted her focus to contemporary country music and achieved much success as a songwriter, with artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, Martina McBride, Gloria Gaynor, Conway Twitty, Holly Dunn, Juice Newton, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Dan Seals, and Highway 101 recording her songs.

Her visibility was greatly improved when she started making regular appearances on shows aired on the late lamented Nashville Network, especially on Nashville Now, a nightly variety show hosted by Ralph Emery. By 1991 she had signed with Arista Records, where her career took off. For part of this period (until 1998) she was married to fellow songwriter Bob DiPiero.

The Arista years saw Tillis emerge as a steady and reliable hit-maker as the following list demonstrates:

•“Don’t Tell Me What To Do” / “Melancholy Child” – #5 (1990)

•“One Of Those Things” / “Already Fallen – #6 (1991)

•“Put Yourself In My Place” / “I’ve Seen Enough To Know” – #11 (1991)

•“Maybe It Was Memphis” / “Draggin’ My Chains” – #3 (1991)

•“Blue Rose Is” / “Ancient History” – #21 (1992)

•“Shake The Sugar Tree” / “Maybe It Was Memphis” #3 (1992)

•“Let That Pony Run” / “Fine Fine Very Fine Love” – #4 (1992)

•“Cleopatra Queen Of Denial” / “Homeward Looking Angel” – #11 (1993)

•“Do You Know Where Your Man Is” / “We’ve Tried Everything Else” – #16 (1993)

•“Spilled Perfume” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #5 (1994)

•“When You Walk In The Room” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #2 (1994)

•“Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)” / “Ancient History” – #1 (1994)

•“I Was Blown Away” / “Calico Plains” – #16 (1995)

•“In Between Dances” / “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” – #3 (1995)

•“Deep Down” / “Tequila Mockingbird” – #6 (1995)

•“River And The Highway” / “All Of This Love” – #8 (1996)

•“It’s Lonely Out There” / “You Can’t Have A Good Time Without Me” – #14 (1996)

•“All The Good Ones Are Gone” / “Land Of The Living” – #4 (1997)

•“I Said A Prayer” / “Lay The Heartache Down” – #12 (1998)

•“Every Time” / “You Put The Lonely On Me” – #38 (1998)

After 1998, the hits started drying up as the next wave of young performers arrived.

Tillis’ Arista albums were generally quite successful, starting with 1991’s Put Yourself In My Place which had three Top 10 hits in lead single, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” “One of Those Things” and “Maybe It Was Memphis.” The album ultimately reached gold status.

Her 1992 follow-up Homeward Looking Angel was equally successful, with “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Let That Pony Run” reaching the Top 5. Homeward Looking Angel reached platinum status. In 1993, she won her first major award: the CMA Awards’ Vocal Event of the Year with George Jones and Friends for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”

In 1994, her third Arista album, Sweetheart’s Dance, was released, reaching #6 on the Billboard’s Country Album chart (her highest placement). Singles “Spilled Perfume” and “When You Walk in the Room” both became Top 5 hits and she had her only #1, “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life),” helping push the album to platinum status.

Issued in late 1996, All of This Love, became Tillis’ last gold non-compilation album. The only single to reach Top 10 status was “The River and The Highway.” It was the first album she produced on her own.

In 1997, Arista released her first (actually only) Greatest Hits album. The compilation featured two new tracks, both released as singles: “All the Good Ones Are Gone” and “The Land of the Living,” both of which reached the Top 5 in 1997. This collection also went platinum.

After 1997, the country music market shifted, becoming more youth-oriented and less country, with a resultant drop in both chart and sales success for Tillis. Her 1998 album Every Time featured “I Said A Prayer”, which just missed the Top 10 and was her last Top 20 single. Her last Arista album, issued in 2001, Thunder & Roses performed reasonably well on the album chart (both it and Every Time reached #24) but generated no real hit singles.

Since 1998 Pam Tillis has remained active, both in live appearances, occasionally performing with her father Mel, and occasionally recording. She became a Grand Ole Opry member in 2000, which was several years before her father, and had the honor of inducting him into Opry membership. She has tried her hand at acting, both on stage and on television, with considerable success.

She still records occasionally. In 2002 she fulfilled a lifetime dream of recording an album of songs written by or associated with her father. Titled It’s All Relative, the album found Pam ignoring the Mel Tillis template and giving her own interpretation of her father’s material, most notably on “Heart Over Mind”.

She started her own record label, Stellar Cat, and issued her album Rhinestoned under that imprint in 2007. One of the singles from the album, “Band In The Window,” earned considerable acclaim, although the album ultimately yielded no hits.

All told, Pam Tillis had over 30 chart records including 13 Top 10s. In 1994 she was named the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year. In 1999, she earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. When CMT did their countdown of the 40 Greatest Women of Country Music in 2002, Tillis ranked at #30. Kevin Coyne of Country Universe ranked her at #35 in his 100 Greatest Women of Country Music countdown in 2008.

Discography

With the exception of the Warner Brothers album, which originally was issued on vinyl and audio cassette, all of Tillis’ subsequent recordings have been released on CD. Most of the titles remain in print, others can be located used with a little bit of effort. Unlike country singers from generations before, the Pam Tillis catalog is fairly shallow with a total of a dozen original studio albums, plus some anthologies (Greatest Hits, Super Hits, Best Of, etc.) and whatever unreleased tracks may be lying around in somebody’s vault. Accordingly, collecting a fairly complete Pam Tillis collection isn’t that difficult, especially since her Warner Brothers debut recently was reissued on CD by Wounded Bird. All of her post-Warner Brothers albums are worthwhile and even her debut album (which I originally purchased on vinyl) has its moments.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has seven of her albums available as well as several anthologies.

There is a need for a decent two-disc set containing about 40 of her songs. Lately, the German label Bear Family has been issuing some less-than-exhaustive sets. Maybe they will step up to the plate –she’s worth a decent anthology.

Pam Tillis is still actively performing – you can catch  up with her at her website http://www.pamtillis.com/ . She does have some product for sale there as digital downloads including a Christmas album and a duet single (with Kris Thomas)  titled “Two Kings” which is about Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King, Jr. Her long-awaited duet album with Lorrie Morgan comes out later this month.

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Voices In The Wind’

220px-SuzyBoggussVoicesintheWindSuzy Bogguss had a lot riding on her Voices of the Wind album. She was following up the platinum selling Aces, which contained her first string of top ten singles, and justifying her Horizon Award victory over genre heavyweights Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, and Pam Tillis. While the record didn’t contain as many singles as Aces it was still a big success as her second consecutive gold record. Jimmy Bowen also returned as producer.

Bogguss was still riding the wave of her single “Letting Go” when time came to release the follow-up CD. Liberty/Capitol decided to tack that single on to the end of Voices in an effort to capitalize on the song’s success. It worked, and the track hit #6. The follow-up, a cover of John Hiatt’s “Drive South” fared even better, hitting #2. The high energy number, one of my favorite singles from her, was her biggest hit to date. The only other single, “Heartache” would break Bogguss’ hot streak, managing to stall at #23. The neo-traditional number was good, but probably a bit too slow for heavy rotation status on the radio.

Also included on the album is her version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which Dixie Chicks took into the top 10 from their Fly album in Spring 2000. Bogguss turns in a wonderful version of the song but it’s a bit too adult contemporary. It works better with the electric guitars and Natalie Maines’ biting vocal on the Chicks’ version. Bogguss’ is a little too sweet. “Eat At Joes,” co-written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is a fabulous bluesy number about life at an all night diner, and one of the highlights. Trisha Yearwood’s voice may’ve been better suited for the song, her bluesy side is unmatched, but Bogguss turns in a very competent performance.

“Aces” writer Cheryl Wheeler contributes “Don’t Wanna,” an emotionally stunning ballad that Bogguss takes to new heights with her angelic voice. Bogguss has a subtle way of conveying a lyric and this is one example of where the production works in her favor in helping her tell the story. “Lovin’ A Hurricane” is the second track written by Hiatt and while it’s very good, her vocal almost seems too bland for the upbeat production. It tries but fails to repeat the magic of “Drive South.”

Bogguss had a hand in co-writing two of the album’s tracks, including one with husband Doug Crider (who co-wrote “Letting Go”). “How Come You Go To Her” (co-written with Michael Garvin and Anthony Smith) is an excellent mid-tempo ballad about a woman wondering why her man just isn’t into her. The Crider co-write is “In The Day,” another contemporary sounding ballad that succeeds on Bogguss’ ability to sell a story, this time of a burgeoning romance.

Crider also co-wrote “Love Goes Without Saying,” another similar sounding ballad, but another lyrically strong number. Chuck Pyle wrote “Other Side of the Hill,” a honky-tonk highlight. I love the rousing steel guitar and western themes, as well as Bogguss’ perfectly energetic vocal. If this track were a single, it would’ve likely been a huge hit.

Voices In The Wind is the perfect example of a catch 22. Lyrically, there isn’t a dud in the bunch. But Bogguss and Bowen spend a bit too much real estate on similar sounding ballads that bog the album down in a sea of slowness. She needs more songs like “Other Side of the Hill” to breakup the monotony, and showcase more diversity in what she can do as a singer and artist. That being said, it’s still a very strong album and although the 1992 era production is dated by today’s standards, Voices In The Wind is a worthy addition to any music collection.

Grade: B+ 

Spotlight Artist: Suzy Bogguss

Suzy BogusAledo, Illinois native Susan Kay “Suzy” Bogguss was born on December 30, 1956. She was performing in a hometown church choir by age five and playing piano, drums, and guitar by the time she was a teenager. In high school Bogguss was active in the theater program and was crowned homecoming queen in her senior year. She would go on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in metalsmithing from Illinois State University.

Bogguss played guitar and drums in Quad City area coffeehouses during her college years and began touring the United States after graduation in support of Suzy, a now rare LP she sold at her shows. She moved to Nashville in 1985 where her work as a demo singer landed her a job as feature female performer at Dollywood. The high profile gig encouraged Bogguss to record a demo cassette of her own that she sold at the theme park. The cassette caught the attention of famed record exec Jim Foglesong, who quickly signed Bogguss to a recording contract with Capitol Nashville.

Three singles were released in the late 80s, although none managed to make a mark on the charts. Somewhere Between, Bogguss’ first album for the label, came in the winter of 1989 and included the top 20 single “Cross My Heart” as well as a cover of Patsy Montana’s anthem, “I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”

Now under the direction of Jimmy Bowen, a more refined sound followed. Her second album yielded no hits, but a guest appearance on labelmate Lee Greenwood’s album resulted in a top fifteen duet. By her third release she was finally making major headway. Aces, released in 1991, had four hit singles including the mesmerizing tile track and career hits “Someday Soon,” “Outbound Plane,” and “Letting Go.”

At the 1992 CMA Awards Bogguss was given the Horizon Award, an honor she no doubt richly deserved. At the time it was viewed as a shocking upset because she was nominated against Trisha Yearwood, whom the industry deemed the frontrunner and only winner. It got so bad that Yearwood went into the ceremony thinking there was no way she could lose. Then Naomi Judd called Bogguss as the winner and that was that (She and Yearwood were nominated against Brooks & Dunn, Pam Tillis, and Billy Dean).

Two more highly successful albums followed. Voices in the Wind brought Bogguss her highest charting single with the #2 “Drive South.” Something Up My Sleeve brought her two more big hits with “Just Like The Weather” and her signature tune “Hey Cinderella,” which began a friendship with her co-writer Matraca Berg that continues to this day.

Bogguss changed directions in 1994 opting to release a subtle album of duets with Chet Atkins entitled Simpatico. None of the singles charted nor did the record become the commercial success all involved were hoping for. This could’ve been due to a management shift at Capitol or the lingering effects of an ongoing feud with her labelmate Garth Brooks (between him and the label). I’ve also heard that Capitol was accused of spending too much of their promotional muscle on Brooks, thus leaving their ‘quieter’ artists (i.e. not global superstars) in the dust.

In the wake of her declining commercial fortunes, Bogguss retreated from the spotlight in 1995 to begin a family with husband (and songwriter) Doug Crider. Her next release Give Me Some Wheels came during a changing landscape for females in country music and proved her undoing. Her next album, Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt would be her last for Capitol. An eponymous album was released on Platinum Records in 1999, but it didn’t fare any better.

For the better part of the last decade, Bogguss has been recording passion projects. A dream about Asleep At The Wheel vocalist Ray Benson producing a western swing/Jazz album led to their collaborative effort Swing. The more contemporary Jazz infused Sweet Danger followed shortly thereafter. The latter included “In Heaven,” one of the best singles of her career and a stunning return to form. Her latest project, American Folk Songbook was born out of inspiration Bogguss gleamed while on tour with Garrison Keillor. It’s her way of exposing new generations to that catalog of music, including such classics as “Shenandoah,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Red River Valley,” and “Ol Dan Tucker.” The album was met with glowing reviews upon release in 2011.

While she doesn’t have any new music on the horizon, Bogguss continues to keep a heavy touring schedule, opting for small intimate venues and even performing at some restaurants off the beaten path. She’s been one of my favorite vocalists since I was a kid and I’m over the moon to join my colleagues in spotlighting her music for the next month.

Single Review – Kellie Pickler – ‘Someone Somewhere Tonight’

Someone-Somewhere-TonightOne of the great surprises of the spring television season has been Kellie Pickler’s turn on Dancing With The Stars. The show’s platform has been invaluable to her public image, helping her shatter any last strands of the ditzy blonde who came in fifth on American Idol and allowing her to show the confident and mature woman she’s become.

And it seems, unlike Blake Shelton, she’s using the platform for good. Pickler has gotten around to showing us the first signs of the ‘Kellie Country’ she said would come from her Black River Entertainment debut, and the results are beyond expectations. Her new single is “Someone Somewhere Tonight” a too-good-to-ignore Pam Tillis album cut from her 2007 album Rinestoned that perfectly displayed Tillis’ otherwordly voice in a master class of power and control unlike anything Nashville had seen since the Patsy Cline era. Pickler is clearly walking hallowed ground, and thankfully is more than up to the task.

There isn’t much that can be said about the quality of Davis Raines and Walt Wilkins’ lyrics. The story is a striking juxtaposition between innocence (baby’s first steps, a first kiss) and corruptness (death, alcoholism, a life in jail), and their simultaneous harmony in our world. The song would elevate the quality of country music in any era to unimaginable heights, and the artist singing it would have a career moment. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is just that good.

The inevitable comparisons between Tillis and Pickler are unfair as both bring their own vocal quality to the track with neither turning in the ‘better’ performance. Pickler’s voice is more delicate and twangy and that works to her advantage in selling the story. The urgency she brings to the line Someone somewhere tonight/ Is stuck in a prison/ Breathin’ but just barely livin’ Behind walls of their own” is so breathtaking, I realized I’d forgotten there was a time when country singers actually could relate (on a deeply personal level) to what they were singing about.

The production on the track is mostly stellar, but I could’ve done without the electric guitar that sits just underneath Pickler’s compelling vocal. The accompaniment also gets too loud towards the end, when the song builds to the emotional crescendo. But the prominent fiddle and steel guitar ground it in the traditional place Pickler came from on 100 Proof and not the horrendous pop/rock she tried out on her other two releases. She’s keeping it fairly neo-traditional and deserves credit for sticking to her artistic creativity.

But I’m most impressed that Pickler recorded this song at all, especially in an era where radio doesn’t support music of this high a caliber. If this first taste of her upcoming album is any indication of its quality, than we might be looking at a modern day throwback to the astute female vocalists from the 80s and 90s – ones who actually knew the difference between a great and bad song – and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s about time someone championed that type of music again, and Pickler seems like the right artist to do just that.

Grade: A- 

Listen here. 

Here’s Kellie giving the story behind the song.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’

imagesA major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old former Nashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk. Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

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