A couple of years ago, when Pam Tillis recorded a tribute album to her father, country-music lion Mel Tillis, she didn’t necessarily intend for it to provide a path to the next phase of her career.
But if you’re a still-vibrant, middle-aged country artist who’s grown weary of competing for radio play with the major-label flavor-of-the-month – in an industry that’s notorious for eating its young – you can do a lot worse than using the timeless classic-country music of Mel Tillis as a blueprint for your “new” direction, even if it’s not intentional at the time.
And if you just happen to be connected to that sound via your DNA? Well, so much the better.
The singer has been working on her new disc, slated for release this year, “on and off for about two years,” says Tillis, who comes to the Eagle Nest Entertainment Center in Maggie Valley on Friday. “In a lot of ways, I feel like this new music is a continuation of the direction I went in on a lot of the songs I did on the tribute record to my dad.
“I didn’t necessarily set out to make a ‘retro’-sounding country record with that one,” says Tillis of the Mel tribute, It’s All Relative – Tillis Sings Tillis, released in 2002. “I didn’t want to do a retread, and mimic the country sound of the ‘60s – I wanted it to have a timeless quality. I told the record company that I didn’t want to do a commercial, trendy-sounding record, because I didn’t want to do that to my dad’s songs.”
If Tillis sounds ambivalent about commercial-country success, keep in mind that, during her chart-busting ‘90s period, when she notched six No. 1 hits and 14 Top Five singles, she was a star in a country-radio industry so obsessed with “new faces” – and so devoted to the glossy, cookie-cutter formula churned out by the Nashville major labels – that most commercial-country stations wouldn’t touch a Mel Tillis record with a ten-foot honey-dipper.
But as it always must, especially in the commercial-country world, Pam’s flush era came to an end, when her 2001 release, Thunder and Roses, failed to chart. She was subsequently dropped by Arista.
And so, like Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton before her, Tillis turned back to more of the country-roots sound that was always more artistically satisfying to her anyway.
“Yeah, and it’s easier to focus on that now that people aren’t coming out of the woodwork to get me on the radio to compete with Gretchen Wilson – which is not necessarily a blow to me. … Not that I mean to single her out, but …”
“But,” indeed …
“Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe that country music is a static thing, something that froze in the early ‘60s,” says Tillis. “But when I hear things on country radio now, what I usually hear is the sound of everyone’s wheels turning.” What Tillis is too polite to say, of course, is that what you also hear is the sound of the same six studio musicians playing on every record, all trying to sound like every other Nashville-major record – which is one reason that most of what comes out of the Music City majors has sounded so tepid, and so uninspired, for so long.
“It’s not like I’m looking to re-make Lefty Frizzell records from the ‘50s, but I’ve just lost interest in that hyper-produced sound, and I’m trying to make music without that kind of self-consciousness,” says Tillis, who, in conversation, is engaging and articulate.
Tillis Sings Tillis, released on Sony-Nashville’s country-roots imprint, Lucky Dog Records, was one of the more satisfying country records of the last few years. For starters, it showcased a world-beating batch of songs, written by one of the truly great country writers of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – tunes like “Mental Revenge,” “Detroit City,” “So Wrong,” “I Ain’t Never,” “Emotions” and “Burning Memories” – which, back in the day, were hits for the likes of Webb Pierce, Patsy Cline, Bobby Bare, Brenda Lee, Waylon Jennings, and Mel himself.
Secondly, the heart-tug of hearing these songs recorded and interpreted by Mel’s daughter was irresistible. “Of course, some of those songs really had an emotional pull on me, because they’re part of my DNA at this point,” says Pam. “When I was doing the vocals for some of those songs, I had a few moments when the tears started coming down.”
And when she decided to nestle many of the tunes in a sonic bed of pedal steel, twin fiddles and the sighing background vocals of the Jordanaires – essentially borrowing some of the sonic imprint of the “Mel Era” – well, we never really stood a chance, did we?
“Yeah, I had a lot of great feedback from that record,” says Tillis. “I know this word has become sort of a cliché, but I just really wanted that record to sound organic.”
Not that Tillis Sings Tillis was a total throwback to the countrypolitan sound of the ‘60s – Pam judiciously added some pop and rock elements on the second half of the disc. “As his daughter, I just thought the coolest thing to do was to just be true to the songs, in whatever way my instincts told me.”
As for the future, Tillis points to her solo-acoustic reading of “Violet and a Rose” on the Mel record as a potentially viable path, even hinting at an eventual all-acoustic record.
“I cut my teeth in the Nashville studio world, where everything was so produced. So for me to do something that stripped down, it just felt so naked. It took me years to get to the point where I was brave enough to do that.”
[Writer and music critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at email@example.com.]
Pam Tillis appears at the Eagle Nest Entertainment Center (on Hwy. 19 in Maggie Valley) Friday, Feb. 24. 7:30 p.m. $35-$75. See www.eaglenestnc.com for directions. (828) 926 9685.