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Pam Tillis does country her way on "Rhinestoned"

By Brian Baker, April 2007

"I think I'm the most hard headed person you'll ever meet," says Pam Tillis with a wry smile in her voice. "Not personally, but the way my mind works, once I head in a direction, I don't look back."

It is clearly Tillis' hard-headed drive and determination that saw her through the dark days of her fizzled pop career in the early '80s and her subsequent doldrums when she inevitably switched to country and followed the highly regarded path of her legendary father, Mel Tillis. It was that same tenacious spirit that guided Tillis through the industry jungle of her spectacular successes as well as her disappointing periods.

And it was that very same stubborn resolve that led Tillis to record her latest album, "Rhinestoned," on her own, without a label and its "support" and inspired her to eventually release it herself on her newly established Stellar Cat imprint.

"There was a lot of deliberation that went into it," says Tillis of her decision to start her own label. "I was with Sony for a one-off record deal for 'It's All Relative,' and then they went through a huge restructuring, and I just left when all the people I came in with left."

"And so suddenly, I found myself not on a label, which was fine, but very different for me. My initial thought was that I don't want to go around and bank on my name, so to speak. I don't want to go around to the record companies and go, 'Sign me because I'm Pam Tillis.' My original thought was that I'm gonna make this record first, and then I'm gonna shop it. We got the record done, and we started feeling protective of it. It was like, 'This is too important to just throw it out.' You know how things go at labels; you're competing with 200 other artists for their attention, and we didn't want to get pushed back on the schedule. I know a lot of people doing this right now, so me and my partner said, 'Let's roll up our sleeves and try this.' What's the worst thing that can happen? If you stub your toe, you go back to the drawing board, but right now we feel really encouraged."

Although it's been five years since Tillis released 'It's All Relative,' the aforementioned loving and magnificent tribute to her father's incredible catalog of music (and a work that she affectionately refers to as "the Dad record"), she has been anything but idle in that time. She sounds weary just detailing her recent activities.

"I've spent four or five of the busiest years on the road that I've had in several years," says Tillis. "In the interim, we also did a live DVD of a 90-minute show, and that took several months to pull together. We did a Christmas album, which we've been selling at our Christmas show, but it won't be released nationally until this year. And then we kind of cut two records on the way to getting this one, and we really took our time. And there went five years. It's unbelievable."

Considering Pam Tillis' amazing and lengthy timeline, five years doesn't seem all that long. As the daughter of Mel Tillis, she was naturally exposed to music on a daily basis and encouraged to join the family business; she made her singing debut on the Grand Ole Opry at the age of eight.

She sang in Nashville as a teenager, but started her recording career in Los Angeles, signing with Elektra in 1981 and releasing a pop single that tanked. A move to Warner Brothers two years later yielded her debut album, "Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey," a good album that didn't fare much better.

By 1984, Tillis had returned to Nashville, transferred to Warner's country division and started recording barely charting singles while providing modest hits for other artists as a songwriter. Over the next five years, a broad range of artists - Conway Twitty, Suzy Bogguss, Juice Newton and Chaka Khan among them - had covered Tillis' songs.

After Warner released her in 1987, Tillis raised her profile around town in a number of creative ways, from organizing Twang Night performances to starring as Mary Magdalene in a local production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" to appearing at Women in the Round, a songwriter's night at the Bluebird Cafe.

All of this exposure led to her signing with Arista Records in 1990 and resulted in a string of hits for Tillis in the '90s, including "One of Those Things" and "Maybe It Was Memphis" from her Arista debut, "Put Yourself in My Place."

Her next 4 albums, including 1997's greatest hits collection, sold either gold or platinum numbers and produced 11 Billboard Top 10 charting singles. In 1994, she was named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, and she enjoyed a number of Grammy and ACM award nominations, winning a couple of Grammys. She sang and acted in "Smokey Joe's Café" on Broadway, guest starred on several TV shows and was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2000.

Eventually, Tillis' fortunes cooled as the label tried to shape her in the pop direction that country was heading. Tillis was only marginally invested in the music, and the results were less than spectacular, so she and Arista finally parted company.

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