Pam Tillis has a classic Nashville country voice, with the stamp of the Grand Ole Opry (a place she first sung at when she was just eight years old) imprinted in each note. Every vowel she croons has a slight ache; each consonant has just a little trill. She sings stories of life and love in the tradition of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, and like these legendary ladies, Tillis blazes her own path. She was dropped from her major label contract despite having a string of hit records in the ‘90s (including six number one singles), and hasn’t put out a new disc in five years. Well, she’s back. Tillis has started her own record company, Stellar Cat, and launched it with a pleasing album of songs that displays her remarkable vocal chops and a heart as big as Tennessee.
The former Country Music Award Vocalist of the Year stacks the deck by bringing in the big guns. She has the cream of Nashville’s studio musicians backing her up on Rhinestoned, such as Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar and banjo, Aubrey Hanie on fiddle, Dan Dugmore on steel guitar and John Jarvis on piano and B-3 organ. The instrumentation on this album is uniformly terrific. Each cut has a distinctive string run or solo that stands out without getting in the way of the material. These players, like Tillis, are always in service to the song.
Tillis also employs a stable of reliable songwriters, such as Matraca Berg, Bruce Robison and Jon Randall, although Tillis penned the two best tracks: “Life Has Sure Changed Around Us” and “The Hard Way”. These two songs are self-referentially autobiographical and tell of her past struggles from different perspectives. “Life Has Sure Changed Around Us”, a duet with John Anderson, concerns Tillis’ wild youth and notes how much both her and her hometown have changed. She notes her youthful experiences in “The Hard Way” as well, this time as an alibi for why she has difficulty accepting the present when everything seems to be going right.
In a way, Tillis has always assumed this persona. When she famously called herself “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” back in the ‘90s, Tillis used humor as a method of deprecating her good fortune. She may be more serious now, but maybe it is because we live in more serious times. The act of making personal music during a time of war implies that private feelings still matter. If a musician is going to sing about love, she needs to do it with an intensity that suggests how important one individual’s emotions are. The strength of Tillis’ performances shows that she knows this. By and large, these are not silly love songs—although one cut, Berg’s “Crazy By Myself”, serves as the exception that proves the rule.
The album is split about 50/50 between happy tunes and sad songs. Tillis expresses the same point no matter what path she takes to get there: it’s important to take chances on other human beings. The impulse to connect matters even more than hooking up with another, because this inner feeling reveals the true essence of who one really is. One cannot be oneself by being alone.
That stuttering country singer who happens to be Tillis’ dad, Mel, wrote “Sweet Mental Revenge”, that masterpiece about the advantages of mind over matter for the lonely. Daughter Pam knows it’s more important to pour one’s heart out. She passionately sings every song, but this is country music, not opera. Tillis lets her ardor out by letting the songs tell the story. Her inflections make it clear that she feels every word.