Pam Tillis - Biography

Although Pam Tillis’ father Mel is one of country music’s longest-running and successful country stars and songwriters, she took her distinctive route through folk, pop and rock & roll before returning to her Nashville roots. When she finally did decide to concentrate on country music, Tillis emerged as one of the top female artists of the 1990s, racking up awards and hits with the best of them, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that she steered clear of the big hair, tearjerker ballads and corny pop that so many of her contemporaries relied on. Instead, Tillis applied a modern vocal delivery to her own thoroughly country compositions, resulting in a fresh, engaging style that more than a few of her sisters subsequently appropriated and expanded upon.


Born July 24, 1957, in Plant City, Florida, Tillis grew up in Nashville and appeared with father and siblings at the Grand Ole Opry when she was just eight years old. By her teenage years, she was playing guitar and singing, first at the Last Chance Saloon’s Talent Night and later, booking her own solo gigs at the Exit/In. A near fatal crash car sidelined her in 1973, smashing her face so badly that she underwent numerous reconstructive surgeries for the next five years. After enrolling at the University of Tennessee, she formed her first group, The High Country Swing Band, who performed an eccentric mix of old-timey jug band material and country rock. After college, Tillis went to work at her father’s Sawgrass Music publishing company and began songwriting in earnest. Yet, in 1977 she up and left Music City for San Francisco, performing as leader of the Pam Tillis Band and the free-form jazz-rock outfit, Freelight.


Bouncing back to Nashville, she sang back up for her dad, fronted an R&B band, and kept writing (disco diva Gloria Gaynor cut her song, “When I Get Around To It”). She eventually released her debut album, Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey (1983 Warner Bros.).


She managed a few low level entries on the country chart, and garnered a nomination as the Academy of Country Music’s “Best New Female,” but it was after signing with Arista Records in 1990 that Tillis finally came into her own. Her first single, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” crashed the country Top Five and subsequently her album Put Yourself in My Place (1991 Arista) went to the country album chart Top Five. The resulting singles all made the Top 15, with her memorable “Maybe It Was Memphis” climbing to #3.


Significantly, Tillis wrote or co-wrote almost of her own material, and the ingrained skill of the Tillis DNA served her well. Her Homeward Looking Angel (1992 Arista) was a Top 25 album (it was also her first to be certified Platinum) and the singles “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Let That Pony Run” made the Top Three. Tillis’ signature song “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” became an anthem of sorts, and the video quickly became a fixture on the CMT cable channel.


Tillis’ next album, Sweethearts Dance (1994 Arista) also went Platinum and, after a half dozen fruitless nominations from both the ACA and CMA, the Country Music Association named her their Female Vocalist of the Year. She roared through the rest of the decade with numerous hits (scoring a total of 13 Top Ten records), but by the turn of the century, despite induction as a cast member at the Grand Ole Opry and excellent releases like It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis (2002 Lucky Dog), Tillis’ avoidance of pop pandering took a toll on her commercial viability in the Faith Hill-era.


Tillis continues to record and also has done numerous acting jobs, both in movies and on Broadway.

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