Flipping through a Tillis family scrapbook is like flipping through a visual history of country music. Scattered among pictures of late great solemn faced Tillis ancestors you will run across a signed picture to the Tillis kids from a young handsome Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, or Webb Pierce. You would also see snapshots of Mel hanging out with his mentor Burl Ives in the Florida Keys, or pictures of the Tillis kids singing with Porter Wagoner, and Dolly Parton in the 1960s.
However, like any family scrapbook you would also find pictures of work and play. Daddy Mel strumming a guitar, BMI song writing award ceremony pictures, and of course, pictures of Mel's eldest child, Pam Tillis doing what came natural to her…singing …in an environment wrapped in the sweet blanket of music.
Now, many years later, Pam's newest project is woven with the same tapestry of her childhood and the result is a tribute to Mel and his classic songs. It's something she's wanted to do for years.
The collection, titled It's All Relative, Tillis Sings Tillis, says as much about Pam Tillis' own successes and status in country music as it does about her famous father. In true Pam fashion, she selected an eclectic range of talent to complete the tribute including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart, Rhonda Vincent, Trisha Yearwood, The Jordanaires, Delbert McClinton and Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson (who produced four of the tracks.) Pam's siblings and a few of Mel's grandchildren also get a chance to pay honor to Mel by singing on "Come On And Sing". The task of meticulously sifting through Mel's vast catalogue of songs was enormous. Selecting just 13 songs was next to impossible. Pam finally settled on some of Mel's most acclaimed hits like "Heart Over Mind," "I Ain't Never" and "Detroit City," plus a few that are not as familiar such as "Unmitigated Gall" and "Come On And Sing."
Some of the tracks lend a contemporary spin to the standards they have become like the haunting version of "Heart Over Mind" with Emmylou Harris. Yet others have the familiar resonance of a cherished time in country music. The chords of Nashville's past ring loud and clear in this impressive assortment of songs. Safe to say, the collection is a labor of love to the craft she so dearly loves and the songs of her father that "rocked her cradle," as she says. It's also a giant hug to the man who has been the one melodic constant in her life -- a chord that hasn't always been so easy to hear.
In 1957, Nashville was home to only a dozen or so songwriters at best. It was the one place where songwriters could pitch their songs in person to the stars of the day: Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell. Such was the environment where one struggling songwriter from Pahokee, Florida, dug in and began a career destined for greatness. Mel Tillis became one of Nashville's most successful songwriters in the late '50s and '60s penning such hits as "Detroit City", "Heart Over Mind", "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town", and "Strange." Little did Mel know, daughter Pamela Yvonne Tillis would one day make her own mark in country music history.
Pam likes to tell the story of her Mel taking her along on writing sessions, tucking her away in the first hillbilly crib so to speak -- a "guitar case on the floor" -- while he perfected his craft. Perhaps through "through osmosis," she jokingly comments, she inherited the love of music.
Whatever the case, Pam's musical talent has simply always existed -- like the seeds of the song ideas that Mel says were just there. Her earliest memories were of her grandmother's foot tapping the pedals of the family piano while she pecked out old Baptist standards. She also recalls listening to Mel's latest songwriting efforts on a shiny reel to reel tape deck late at night, or performing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry with her famous father. Pam, however, began her musical career in earnest at the age of eight studying first classical piano at Nashville's Blair Academy and later teaching herself a number of instruments. She pursued each instrument with the same passion as the previous one, though singing came more naturally to her.
Dragging around her Yamaha classical guitar was commonplace for Pam. Pam also had a natural talent for songwriting. Female songwriters were grossly outnumbered in Nashville during Pam's childhood. In fact, only a few were well known. Pam seemed undaunted by this fact knowing that writing was an integral part of her future as an entertainer. Along the way, Pam entertained where she could from school contests (which she always won), to camp musicals in the mountains of North Carolina, church choirs and, of course, in the Tillis family garage productions, where she was always the producer, director…and the star.
By this time, Mel was playing on the road and was away from his family for days at a time. He wasn't always convinced that Pam had the tenacity to tough it out in the competitive environment that Nashville had become, but he always believed in her talent.
Once in college, classes took a back seat to Pam's real love -- music -- and she spent most of her time in Knoxville singing in the nightclubs. Rather than "waste her parent's money" as she recalls those days, Pam left Knoxville and moved to California settling for a time in Sausalito where she had her first real success -- surprisingly as a jazz singer.
As the lead singer of the band Freelight, Pam learned she could sing virtually anything. Warner Bros. Records and the infamous Jimmy Bowen concluded that too, and signed her to her first major label contract. Her first album was actually a pop album entitled Above and Beyond The Doll Of Cutie. Pam saw little success from that effort so at the advice of her family, and friends moved back to Nashville and started anew in 1979.
Now a struggling single parent, Pam began sharpening her skills at songwriting, session singing, and as a back-up singer on the road for Mel's backup vocal section, the Stutteretes. She became a fixture on the nightclub scene, playing clubs like the Exit/In and the legendary Bluebird Café. As a songwriter, she began seeing the fruits of her hard work with cuts by Chaka Khan, Highway 101, Conway Twitty and others. The Nashville community embraced her and her name was now synonymous with talent instead of "Tillis."
Tim DuBois recognized this also and signed her to Arista Records in 1989 for what would become a long-standing and successful relationship. Her first Arista album debuted in 1990 entitled Put Yourself In My Place and resulted in her first #1 hit; "Don't Tell Me What To Do" penned by the late great Harlan Howard. The song has become an anthem of sorts for Pam, always doggedly charting her own course. Harlan Howard had also penned several hits for Mel.
In 1994 Pam was awarded the CMA's prestigious "Female Vocalist of the Year", and CMT's "Video of The Year", as well as a Grammy Award along the way. Five out of seven of her albums have certified either gold or platinum, selling an impressive five million copies including her gold Greatest Hits album. Suffice to say, the Arista tenure was highly prolific and wildly successful, producing six #1 hits and 14 Top 5's and numerous Top 20's -- in addition to two back-to-back platinum albums.
Pam also toured with the best in country music including George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Alabama and Brooks & Dunn. She always found time to write during these busy years and has written many of her hits including the #1 hit "Mi Vida Loca", " It's Lonely Out There", "In Between Dances" and "Spilled Perfume."
Pam also marked another first for her class of peers during the '90s, becoming one of the first female producers during that time producing her gold album All of this Love. She has since gone on to co-produce with many of Nashville's finest producers. Pam's also had the opportunity to develop other talents -- acting, writing and photography. No novice to acting, she appeared as Mary Magdalene in the Tennessee Repertory production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" in 1989, two years prior to her break on the music charts. Later she would once again grace the stage, only this time in New York City on Broadway in the popular "Smokey Joe's Café". Other acting credits include "Diagnosis Murder" with Dick Van Dyke "Touched By An Angel," "Hollywood Squares" and most recently Showtime's "Chris Isaak Show."
In 2002 she also fulfilled a life-long dream appearing in Vogue, InStyle and Redbook magazines as part of a national shoe campaign for Easy Spirit shoes.
Safe to say, Pam has carved a path that is uniquely her own. She is often described as a "survivor" and a "pioneer" for a new breed of female country stars. With her latest signing to Epic/Lucky Dog Records in 2002 and imminent release of her tribute album to Mel, Pam expects to chart a new path in the new millennium. Along the way it will be scattered with visual images of her own life.
You will most likely see snapshots of career milestones among family moments: Moments like winning the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, singing on the Grammys, son Ben singing as a baby in Vegas with Mel, becoming the latest Grand Ole Opry member in 2000, appearing on Broadway in 1999 in "Smokey Joe's Café", snapshots of numerous family fishing trips, and, oh yes, there's one more picture you will see Pam smiling, at home in Nashville, wrapped in her own blanket of success embracing her past and looking to the future.
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