Pam Tillis Biography

24 July 1957, Plant City, Florida, USA. The eldest of the five children of country singer Mel Tillis, Pam did not have the happiest childhood. Mel spent much of his time touring, her parents eventually parted and she grew up often looking after her siblings. Initially, she had no wish to follow in her father’s country footsteps, although she had ambitions to sing and write songs. After her education at the University of Tennessee, she relocated to San Francisco where, for a time, she worked on a show with a jazz group. She married Rick Mason, moved back to Nashville and worked as a writer with Sawgrass Publishing. Around 1974, a few weeks after the birth of her son, Ben, she and Mason parted. She gradually became more active in music and sang and wrote in styles that varied from jazz and rock, to R&B and pop, without achieving any major success in any genre. In the early 80s, she spent some time in the UK but on her return to Nashville, moving more towards new country, she spent most of her time singing demos and advertising jingles. After joining Warner Brothers Records, for whom she recorded what has often been described as a pop album, she gained her first country chart success in 1984, with ‘Goodbye Highway’.

In 1986/7, she managed four more minor hits, including ‘Those Memories Of You’, but later described the late 80s as ‘years of languishing in obscurity’, although she did attract attention in 1986, when she performed a mock-country show she called Twang Night. In 1990, still seeking to establish her own identity and reluctant to be known as ‘Mel Tillis’ daughter’, she joined Arista Records. Her first single for the label, ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do’, became a Top 5 country hit and finally launched her career. ‘One Of Those Things’, originally released five years earlier on Warner, quickly followed and peaked at number 6. During the next two years, further Top 5 hits followed with ‘Maybe It Was Memphis’, ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’ and ‘Let The Pony Run’. Her own compositions accounted for more than half of the songs on her first two Arista albums and included the autobiographical ‘Melancholy Child’ and ‘Homeward Looking Angel’, which she co-wrote with her then husband Bob DiPiero. Her rocking number 11 hit, ‘Cleopatra, Queen Of Denial’, also proved a popular video.

In 1994, Tillis registered further hits that included ‘Spilled Perfume’, her version of Jackie DeShannon’s ‘When You Walk In The Room’ and her own 1995 number 1, ‘Mi Vida Loca’ (My Crazy Life). She has never been afraid to dress in an unusual manner and has appeared in hats that could have come from Minnie Pearl’s wardrobe. An American magazine once described her as ‘a failed punk rocker, one-time hell on wheels, reincarnated as a drop-dead country singer’. Her powerful vocal styling may not suit everybody; one reviewer commenting on an album wrote ‘if strident-voiced females are your thing, this should suit you nicely’. Her songs are recorded by other artists but it still remains to be seen whether she can really establish herself with the hardline country traditionalists.

Tillis still has a long way to go to equal her father’s tally of chart hits, but following a relatively quiet period she came back in the new millennium with a brace of strong albums. It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis (2002) saw her interpreting her father’s back catalogue.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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