PAM I AM
Forty years from now, when the rickety old America West Arena--named after a long-defunct, long-forgotten airline--is razed to accommodate a new parking lot, a trivia question will ask: "What was the first-ever act to play at Colangelo's Folly?" No, it wasn't "Your Phoenix Suns" (still seeking an NBA championship in 2032). And it wasn't country-music-star-turned-movie-star-turned-Mars-colonist George Strait--although that's close.
It was the young country singer-songwriter Pam Tillis--opening for old George--who first tested the arena's acoustics on June 6, 1992. Ah, yes, we dwellers in the desert will remember: the daughter of M-m-mel.
Pam Tillis, calling in from "some Midwestern bus path," laughs good-naturedly at the futuristic scenario.
"I can see it," she says, half-sighing. "I'll always be known first as Mel's daughter."
Just a few years ago, the inevitable discussion of her singing, acting, country-comedian dad might have raised his eldest daughter's hackles some, but it's now a natural part of her meet-the-press patter. This, Pam Tillis admits, is due in part to maturation and her own recent, resounding success. Her first album, Put Yourself in My Place, has gone gold, spawning numerous industry award nominations and hit songs, including "Don't Tell Me What to Do." That first single topped the country charts, marking only the fourth time--and the first in more than a decade--that a female C&W artist accomplished such on her inaugural offering. And now that her second disc, Homeward Looking Angel, is out and doing well--with first single "Shake the Sugar Tree" already a Top 10 hit--Tillis the younger has grown more at ease with her daunting heritage. But, she admits, getting here from there was a tough haul.
"I had to get real secure within myself," Tillis says. "For years people weren't real sensitive about it. I'd just wreck myself putting on a show, and folks would come up to me and say, 'We just love your dad,' and I'd think, 'Man, what am I? Chopped liver?'"
In fact, father and daughter rarely found common ground in earlier years. Although her first public performance was at age 8, singing with her daddy in the Grand Ole Opry, Mel's strident, pro-country speeches grated on his strong-willed daughter. In high school and college in the 70s, she leaned toward rock n' roll--to the v-v-vocal distress of her father--preferring chicken-fried rockers like Linda Ronstadt, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Eagles. She wrote songs and performed in local clubs from age 16, pinballing around Music City with no particular direction in mind. She even joined up with a jazz pianist, moved to California and performed fusion for a spell.
"Dolly Parton meets Flora Purim," Tillis chuckles. "It was fairly wacky." But, she notes, there were always plenty of ready-made, moneymaking gigs she could have garnered back home, thanks to the Tillis name. But the dismal, quasi-disco dreck oozing out of Nashville in the 70s did little to send her searching for her roots.
"A few people, like Emmylou Harris and the Outlaw movement, did their level best to keep the standards up," Tillis says, speaking of Nashville's 70s low point. "But it was a sad state of affairs. Even though my dad kept after me about going country, I just couldn't do it."
When the early 80s ushered in "new traditionalists" such as George Strait and fresh work by the likes of Rosanne Cash, however, Pam Tillis told a most-happy Mel that the time had come. She was ready for the country.
"I guess deep down inside it was always there, but the combination of rebelling against Dad and all that awful music in the 70s kept it hidden," says Tillis. She resumed performing and writing songs with renewed enthusiasm and a fresh new twang. Tillis became an in-demand session singer, and her songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Conway Twitty to Chaka Khan. In 1990 she became a staff writer for Tree International, country music's largest publishing mill.
Still, Tillis wasn't content with the considerable "mailbox money" her pen was producing. She picked up the pace of her club performing and began cutting demos of her work in earnest. In fact, she was in the studio working up a tape of her "Someone Else's Trouble Now" (later made a hit by Highway 101) when she found out that the newly opened Nashville branch of Arista Records had offered her a contract. Less than a year later, Put Yourself in My Place was made and Tillis was nominated for the Academy of Country Music's Top Female Artist award and the Country Music Association's (CMA) Single of the Year for "Don't Tell Me What to Do." "I guess I consider myself a moderate success right now," Tillis says. "But things change around so fast in Nashville that it could all be gone tomorrow." She readily acknowledges that a "changing of the guard" has been taking place in Music City, evidenced most recently by the paucity of classic country stars in attendance at last month's CMA awards show. Tillis does not soft-pedal the way this new-look Nashville--now thoroughly dominated by the young and the restless of country music--came to be.
"There'd been a power struggle going on between the old and new for several years," Tillis relates. "Then, one day, Nashville just convulsed." The net result, she admits, is that the tradition-rooted legends of the genre sat at home fingering their old rhinestone-studded gowns and sequined tuxedos while a slick new generation of country stars literally cashed in.
"Show biz is money--the bottom line," Tillis states, "but the older folks didn't buy into that until it was too late." As the daughter of a legend, Tillis feels badly for the ousted parties but was not at all surprised by the ruthlessness of the coup.
"Sure, it's disrespectful," she says. "It's a sad commentary on our disposable culture. Young players like Dwight Yoakam and Emmylou tried to build a bridge by recording with some old stars. But there are external forces at work. The reality is that with so many younger listeners now, country music is working for that disposable consumer dollar. Most of the old-timers didn't try for that big audience. And the kids have a wide range of tastes. I'm competing with U2 these days."
And country radio, Tillis maintains, is merely responding to the market and shouldn't be faulted for failing to play the out-of-style, out-of-touch legends of yesteryear.
"Should we ask them [country stations] to quit making money?" she asks rhetorically.
This current dichotomy, however, makes it difficult for the new to examine the old, Tillis admits.
"Younger artists and fans have an innocence about what country music was in the beginning," she says. "But how do you stay in touch with the heart of country music if you don't hear it?" Because of this lack of roots-searching, says Pam Tillis, ultratraditionalists like Marty Brown are having difficulty getting airplay and finding acceptance by the record-buying public.
"My frame of reference is different from most new acts," Tillis observes. "My dad grew up in the rural South during the Depression. He listened to the Grand Ole Opry in the dark because it cost too much to burn a bulb. I grew up with that music and that understanding. But that kind of historical reference doesn't play these days. Things move too quickly to grow roots. And, I fit in right now, but who knows how long I'll last?"
Still, Tillis sees a few new bridges under construction in country music, linking what was and what is, seeking harmony. She points out that modern country radio is creating separate country-classics stations to sate those who remain ever faithful to their Nashville heroes and to introduce history to the burgeoning legion of newcomers. Tillis finds an amusing parallel in that her 13-year-old son, Ben, counts the Doors and Jimi Hendrix among his "current" faves. Music is cyclical, Pam Tillis declares, with discovery of common ground an inevitable--if sometimes bloody--by-product of change.
"I was in L.A. at this way-hip boutique on Melrose Avenue recently," she says. "There were all these cool folks with rings in their noses, and they were listening to Merle Haggard." Tillis laughs.
"I'd say that's a hopeful sign, wouldn't you?
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