Whether By Destiny Or Heritage, Pam Tillis Returned To Country
Location and time: Opera House, 8 tonight
Surely, Pam Tillis knows the old adage by heart - that apples don’t fall far from the tree.
The daughter of country music giant Mel Tillis, Tillis had country written all over her - especially when it became clear she could sing like a honky tonk angel.
But her dad’s success felt stifling. She began singing professionally with him when she was 8, and later would talk about herself as “a little plant in the shade of a big tree.”
So for years, she pursued her own path, chasing a pop career with mixed results. In the mid-‘80s she cut a pop record with what she can now admit was the worst title in the history of vinyl - “Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutie.”
It wasn’t until she turned back toward country that her career took off. In 1991, she scored a No. 1 hit with “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” and has had a string of hits - “Maybe It Was Memphis,” “Shake The Sugar Tree,” “Let That Pony Run” and “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” (her 1992 record, “Homeward Looking Angel,” was full of such word-play) - and last year Tillis released the best record of her country career, the richly varied “Sweetheart’s Dance.”
But the surest sign that the apple had rolled back home happened last fall when the Country Music Association named her its Female Vocalist of the Year.
Tillis, who will appear at the Opera House tonight, says she has always loved country, but she longs to try on other things, too.
“I grew up in the old Nashville,” she told a reporter. “I know what real country music is, and I have a real love for it. But I’ve always been open to all kinds of music. I live to sing everything, including things that might seem kind of progressive or experimental. I like being on both sides of that fence and bringing it all to the table.”
She certainly does that on her latest hit, “Mi Vida Loco.” It marries a chooglin’ Bo Diddley beat and TexMex accents with a wild-girl attitude.
In the next breath, she can sing bright two-step shuffle with Vince Gill singing harmonies (“They Don’t Break ‘em Like They Used To”) or a touching ballad with adult themes (“Calico Plains,” “In Between Dances,” “Spilled Perfume).”
She sneaks in a spirited bluegrass piece, “‘Till All The Lonely,” which features a vocal by her father and cameos by Bill Monroe and Sam Bush, and she covers Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk In The Room.”
Unlike the records before it, “Sweetheart’s Dance” is written largely by other writers.
“I wanted to paint a landscape and not a self-portrait this time. In a lot of ways I’ve accomplished things on the new album that I’d been trying to pull off on the last two albums.”
She shrugs off criticism that she ranges too far and wide.
“I can’t fit myself into a certain mold,” she said. “But that’s OK. I’d rather carve my own niche. … I’d rather give people music they can’t get from anyone else.”
Tillis also refuses to let herself be typecast as a singer: Like her father she has branched out into acting, with roles in Peter Bogdanovich’s movie “The Thing Called Love” and in Brandon Tartikoff’s made-for-TV movie “XXX’s and OOO’s.”
She also played a cowgirl on an episode of “L.A. Law.”
The Tillis apple might not have rolled as far from the tree as she might originally have wanted, but Pam Tillis is still striking out on her own in dramatic fashion.
“People say I must be ecstatic,” she said after “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” went to No. 1.
“I am very happy, but more than wild delirium, I feel this resolute desire to make this last, to build on this.”
Now she can say she’s done it.