Who better to record a tribute album to country music pioneer Mel Tillis than his own daughter? Pam Tillis, a country legend in her own right, has done just that, collecting 13 of her father’s songs, from popular classics “Heart over Mind” and “Detroit City”, to the lesser known likes of “Unmitigated Gall” and “Come on and Sing”. Pam injects new spirit into the old songs, using her own musical capabilities to add a contemporary twist to some old favorites.
The elder Tillis’s songs hold a special place in Pam’s heart, as they were written while she was growing up. Countless evenings listening to her father pick at his guitar would see her learn the songs inside out, so that every twang in his voice was instantly recognizable. She, herself, has one of those unmistakable country voices which has taken her from singing jazz in Sausalito to her first pop release in the late ‘70s to writing for the likes of Chaka Khan and Conway Twitty, before enjoying her own success with her debut single “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” in 1990.
Following this, the hits continued for Pam, and she became one of the first female country music producers in the mid-‘90s, producing her own All of this Love. Eventually she would hit Broadway in Smokey Joe’s Café and appear on television in Diagnosis Murder among others. In 1994, she achieved her lifelong dream of being named Female Vocalist of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville.
So, the road for Pam Tillis has been a long and winding one, with the determination it took her to succeed something instilled in her by her father. On It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis not only does Pam bring to life Mel’s music, she stunningly evokes images of Nashville’s past, of young hopefuls making their way down to the Bluebird Café with their guitars strapped on their backs and their dreams trapped somewhere behind the lush curtains of the Grand Ole Opry—the very same dreams once belonging to Pam.
The opening moments of “Burning Memories” succeeds in doing this immediately. The toe-tapping tune represents everything great about country music. It’s about lost love and freedom from heartache with Pam injecting her own passion into the song, bringing it into the new millennium with gusty ease.
She expertly recreates the sound of old country on the excellent “Unmitigated Gall”, pouring over the complicated and punch-packing verses (“Feet that one day went a-walking / Out on me with a fast talking slob / You hardly knew her name”) before leading into the classic chorus, while a guitar pulsates in the background like a hundred runaway Dapple Grays, urgent and on fire.
Pam goes back to her jazz days on “So Wrong”, a song beautiful when Mel recorded it, and equally so with Pam in control. Pam’s lusty vocals sweep over the tinkling piano, as she makes peace with herself over past wrongs. Her penchant for jazz shines through again on “Emotions”, a highlight in Mel’s and now Pam’s careers. The languid song would not sound out of place on an old Hollywood soundtrack, it practically drips from Pam’s mouth, so hot it burns.
Pam continues the country resurgence on “It Ain’t Never”, “Goodbye Wheeling” and “Not Like it Was with You”, each perfect for a bit of boot-scootin’. The country ballads are just as strong with “Detroit City” and “Heart over Mind” both filled with beautiful imagery of loneliness and abandonment.
And “Violet and the Rose”, one of Mel’s more wondrous efforts which substitutes hearts for flowers to tell an age old story of infidelity and jealousy, is especially beautiful, helped out considerably thanks to the angelic voice of Dolly Parton on harmonies.
Dolly is just one of the many country artists Pam features on her tribute to bring even more resonance to it. Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris, Rhonda Vincent and Trisha Yearwood, Delbert McClinton and the Jordanaires also join Pam on the album, with a highlight being a duet with Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson on the upbeat “Honey (Open the Door)” featuring classic Mel Tillis lyrics, “Stop that banging on my door / Don’t you baby me baby / ‘Cause I’ve heard it before / It’s cold outside but you can sleep on the floor / ‘Cause honey ain’t your honey no more”.
Pam wraps up her tribute to her father with the family effort, “Come on and Sing”, featuring Mel’s children and grandchildren on back up. Mel himself pops in to lend a hand in what is a great cap off to a most worthy album. Pam’s respect for her father’s illustrious career, as well as her love of the music itself is evident with every song, and she does them great justice.