In 2001, Sony signed Tillis and the following year saw the release of the critically acclaimed "It's All Relative," an album that she insists never quite received the push it really deserved (the album is still available at www.pamtillis.com). Without a label affiliation, Tillis managed to stay as busy as she had been during her label years and managed to find a new measure of success for herself, starting with her live and Christmas projects and culminating in "Rhinestoned."
With "Rhinestoned," Tillis is not only operating outside of the distribution comfort zone of the label system, she's also taken a step back from the system's ability to get radio airplay. Because resources are limited, Tillis and Stellar Cat will rely on the blossoming network of Americana radio stations, shows and podcasts to spread the word about Tillis' return to her country roots. And while Tillis doesn't have money to push an actual single, she has worked up a video for the track "Band in the Window" that she is very excited about releasing.
"We're living pretty dangerously," says Tillis with a laugh. "There is a certain sound at mainstream country radio - and I won't lie to you, that's where the money is - but you reach a point in your life. I've had good success, like six or seven years of being on the top of the charts in radio, and then it gets tough because they move on to the new artists. 'Maybe It Was Memphis' is still in rotation as Country Gold, but when you're not the new thing anymore, it gets really daunting, and not being on a major label, and not having those huge dollars behind me, we thought, 'Why chase after that?'"
"Having my own label, this music can sound any way I want it to. So it sounds a little bit different than the flavor de jour. It's my own thing, and we're not trying to fit in. In my mind, it's a countrier record than you hear (on radio)...sometimes country radio, they don't like it to be too country."
With no label hierarchy to impose its will, Tillis felt free to incorporate a broader range of her musical loves and influences into "Rhinestoned." As a result, the album is an eclectic sampler of just about everything she's ever done and done well.
"There's elements of bluegrass and elements of folk and every now and then a rock edge, but it's unapologetically country," says Tillis. "I had the freedom to make it sound the way I wanted it to."
For Tillis, that meant the freedom to choose the material she wanted to record, whether self-penned originals or songs from outside songwriters that she wished to cover. Tillis chose primarily work by other writers, including a pair of her own songs, co-written with Nashville fixture Gary Nicholson and her brother Mel Tillis Jr.
Tillis then did a pair of sessions where she recorded 10 songs each time. Upon reflection, Tillis was vaguely dissatisfied with the results and played the tapes for Nicholson, who cited the problem as a distinct lack of country sound and attitude. Tillis started nearly from scratch, finding new songs to record and keeping very little of the original sessions.
"I found 'Band in the Window,' and being an old hippie, I kind of pictured this early '70s, slightly psychedelic Gram Parsons album cover in my mind, and I pictured that band in the window on the album cover, shot like that with old Nudie suits and everything," says Tillis. "There's times when things are really cool (in country music), and then there's times when you're like, 'I can't find anything new that I like right now.' But the early '70s, I really love, and so there's a lot of that influence. I just had a loose concept, and I found songs that I felt fit it close enough. It's not like a jigsaw puzzle, it has to be kind of loose."
Although the concept Tillis envisioned was loose, it was clear enough that she knew it had to stand as a solid body of work.
"In the age of downloads, people can pick a track from here and a track from there, and that's good and fine, but if I'm gonna make an album, I want it to sound like it all goes together," says Tillis with a laugh, "We also found a different group of musicians and so when we went in with them, we said, 'Okay, let's start over.'"
Energized from the clarification of goal and approach, Tillis and her impassioned musical collaborators burned through the "Rhinestoned" sessions.
"We cut the whole record in two days," says Tillis. "We recorded really fast. A lot of stuff was one or two takes with minimal overdubs. It has a live feel, and I like that. We were just trying to get away from (being) overproduced, calculated."
On that count, and so many others, Tillis and her team succeeded in grand fashion, making an album with living room intimacy, stage intensity and back porch sincerity. The lack of Tillis compositions on "Rhinestoned" is evidence of her admittedly reduced songwriting capacity in recent years and her harsh self-editing attitude ("I am so hard on my own material, I think I need therapy..."), although she notes that she has a few good ones stockpiled for the next album, which she's already thinking about.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of "Rhinestoned" for Pam Tillis is the sense of having escaped her shackles to give herself the opportunity to do something both special and personal with her music. As satisfying as her success has been over the years, an album on her own label - and on her own terms - just may be the sweetest accomplishment for Tillis to date.
"It's just a wonderful feeling to just go, 'I don't have to explain this to anybody, I don't have to justify anything we spend, I don't have to go back and beg for more money, I can work with exactly who I want to...It was just wonderful," says Tillis. "Albums are always really grueling, but [‘Rhinestoned') felt grueling in very relaxed kind of way, if that makes any sense. I don't know where it's going, although I do think it's a continuation. I think it's a little bit of a bookend with the Dad record. And going by my track record, I'd be surprised if I carried the whole thing on one more time. I think I'll do something a little bit different next time."