As regular readers know, Pam Tillis released the best album of her career earlier this year: Rhinestoned. I had the wonderful pleasure of talking to her about this project that is so close to her heart, and I think I’m more proud of this interview than anything I’ve done on this site to date. I don’t have the discipline of a professional journalist quite yet, so this doesn’t have the normal structure of an interview. I don’t want to alter it in any way, so I’ll just call it a conversation instead. Hopefully all of you will get a sense of the sincerity and depth of her talent while reading it. Look for more interviews in the future with other great artists!

pam.gifA Conversation With Pam Tillis
(Photo Credit: Dean Dixon)

I’m very excited to talk to you today about Rhinestoned.
Thank you so much.

What a fantastic album!
Well, I’m kind of partial to it myself.

I’m very interested in talking about the philosophy behind the project, and how some of the songs are connected to your earlier work, but I want to ask you first: Did you realize you had created something very special once it was completed?
I felt that way, but you never know until you release it into the world. There’s always that moment of apprehension. How will this be received? I played it for my brother and my sister the night we finished mixing it. We were all going on the road together, and I came on to the bus. Of course it was a little bit hard to hear it perfectly over the engine roar, but they listened to it. They seemed a little taken aback by it, but they loved the direction of it. And my family is tough. If they don’t like something, they’ll tell you. So I felt very encouraged that they liked it so much.

You co-wrote “The Hard Way” with your brother, Mel Jr. That song reminded me a lot of “Melancholy Child” and “Homeward Looking Angel.”
Hey, that’s good company.

When you write a song that’s so deeply personal, how does it feel to find your audience finding their own personal connection to it?
Well, that’s what it’s all about to me. I love that about it. People ask me a lot why I don’t write more, and I think it takes a lot for me to open up in some ways. So I only write those songs like that every now and then, when I’m feeling like it’s okay to be vulnerable.

We’re so thankful you did. “Melancholy Child” was one of those songs that came along – I was in sixth grade when I heard that, and it was like somebody wrote a little piece of my life story as it was developing.

I was just really blown away by it. My father passed away actually, earlier this year, and as the album came out, the first song I heard that really floored me was “Someone Somewhere Tonight.” For me it’s sort of like the centerpiece of the album, the way “The River & The Highway” was for All of This Love.
I know, that’s an unbelievable song. I think you’re right about that. It’s just a really special piece of work, and you don’t come across songs like that every day.

It’s one of those songs that can’t just play in the background. Everything just stops and comes to a standstill.
It demands your attention.

To go to a lighter note, one of the things that I found very entertaining on the album was “Band in the Window”, which I know is the first single. Other than “Long Time Gone”, I can’t remember another song that talks about singing down on Broadway, and you’d think it’s so much in the history of the town.
Well, I think that people in Nashville get afraid to record something that’s not right down the middle. They’re like, “Oh, everybody doesn’t know about Lower Broad.” And I’m like, “It’s a good story. People come there from all over the world. It’s okay.”

What do you think Music Row could learn today from downtown Broadway? Do you think there are lessons there for them?
I will tell you what a friend of mine said in a conversation a couple of days ago, and I thought it was very interesting. I think there’s a good amount of truth to it. He said that people in the music business – I’m talking about those people who go into an office every day, and they listen to a thousand demos and they see a thousand artists, and they’re all trying to think about how to come out with the next big thing. When you’re downtown on Music Row in an office, it is really easy to lose touch with what the friends and neighbors find entertaining. You can just over think it, and I just totally agree with him.

My friends, they’ve got a group called The LoCash Cowboys, and people just love them. Nobody’s signed them yet, and they’re fantastic, but some people are just thinking too hard. You see stuff like that every day, people overlooking fantastic artists.

There’s just so much consolidation now, there’s so much at stake every time a major label puts out a record. You have the freedom with Stellar Cat [Records] to really go with your gut, and your heart, and your instincts.
Exactly. You’re right. As a small label, we can afford to business for a lot less. The majors, gosh, they spend a million dollars a release, it’s just insane. We don’t have to do that to get our music out there.

And the irony is you made a much better album.
Well, it’s the freedom. It gets back to that when you’re thinking too hard, you can really overlook some wonderful music. You can freak yourself out in the process, and make something that’s more contrived or more calculated. Music’s not supposed to be contrived or calculated. It’s supposed to be from the heart.

Going back to the album, it’s clear that’s a really true statement. Back on Every Time, you discovered Leslie Satcher and introduced her to the world. She writes those very strange, different songs that you can’t believe were never written before.
They sound classic, but different. That’s what I love: classic, but different. For me, that’s the whole sound we’re going for on the record.

It’s almost like you’re not sure what time period the album came from.
Gosh, you’re reading my mail, that’s exactly right! That’s exactly what we wanted. There’s elements of the 60’s, elements of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s. I don’t care a lot right now about making music that just sounds like June 2007. I want to make music that sounds good for a long time.

One of the interesting things, even when you were a mainstream radio artist, it seemed like you were almost getting away with something!
I think you’re right, I always felt that way. A little larcenist! “Can you believe she put that out and had a hit with it?!” It’s so crazy, but so much fun.

Every single record was different. You would put out a torch ballad like “Spilled Perfume”, and then you’re doing a Jackie DeShannon song, and then it’s Tex-Mex, and then it’s this huge ballad about the river and the highway. It was so entertaining. It seemed like there was a window there when female artists like yourself just grabbed Nashville and took control. It was this golden time.
It’s hard to tell where it’s going right now. I think it’s very, very tough for new artists. I’m seeing who the next superstars are. For about a year now, people ask me who I like, and I’ve said Miranda Lambert. She kind of stalled out there for a while, and now she’s coming back on so strong. Music Row always tries to manufacture the next big star, and you just can’t. It’s always gonna be the real thing, you know what I mean? You can’t make a star, you either are or you aren’t. And then it’s just like, “Get out of their way!”

I think you may have a star playing behind you! I heard the Mary Sue Englund album. That song “Until I Believed It Too”, I had goose bumps running up and down.
She’s wonderful. She’s really a special person, and a really strong writer.

Did you record this album with your band? I wasn’t sure about that.
Not entirely. Several of them guested on it here and there. I would say that in their way, everybody helped me along the way during the making of this album.

If you could indulge me, I have two kind of silly questions that have been burning in my head. When I heard “Life Has Sure Changed Us Around”, the little line about Eat a Peach, the Allman Brothers album – was there a writer’s debate? Did you know it was Eat a Peach, or were there any other albums you threw out there to put in the song?
[Laughs] I don’t know, Eat a Peach just came to mind and it sounded so darn good! But it could’ve been Neil Young’s Harvest or it could’ve been Gram Parson’s Grievous Angel. There’s any number of albums it could’ve been!

I guess Quarter Moon in a Ten-Cent Town would’ve thrown off the entire rhyme scheme.
God, we love that though.

You mentioned Miranda Lambert before, and she covered “Easy From Now On”. I’m sure that some of the songs that are hidden on your albums that you wrote are going to be rediscovered, because they’re just so fantastically written. I remember Homeward Looking Angel, every single on those songs could’ve been a hit in that time frame, and I think Michelle Wright covered “We’ve Tried Everything Else.”
Yes. I love that song.

This is a stupid question, and you’ll have to forgive me, but I’ve always wondered this. I know the story with “Shake the Sugar Tree” was you got it at the last minute, and you put your voice on the demo. The album was done, you thought. Am I correct on that?
Well, we were out of money. We were out of time. We were supposed to be done. They said, “Pam, you’re done!” There’s no more budget. But I found this song, and I told my producer, “This is a hit, if I know anything at all.” Nobody knows anything for sure, but I felt strongly, very strongly about it, and I was able to convince him. I said, “How can we make it work?” Let’s not just say we can’t, let’s say how can we?”

Sometimes you just can’t take no for an answer. I’ll tell you, any place I’ve gotten in my career, you just don’t get there by not having an opinion. That doesn’t mean you want to be a pain to work with, but you have to have passion about what you’re doing and conviction.

So, the way we came up with to do it is we took the demo, fixed a couple of little things on it. We upped those guys to master scale but it didn’t cost us any extra money. And it was a hit, a big hit!

What song was pushed off the album?
I remember struggling with one song that I really liked, but it just didn’t fit my voice. Which hasn’t happened to me that many times, but I do remember something that I was really struggling with, and I think this took the place of it.

“Down By the Water” [on the new album], you said reminds you of the musical love child of the Texas Tornados and the Dixie Chicks. I love that line.
And a little Emmylou. I just love the sound of it, and it’s a sound that you don’t hear a lot of anymore. It gets back to that roots thing.

I can’t quite figure out if what’s going on in the song is closer to “Blanket On the Ground” or “Banks of the Ohio.”
I think it’s closer to “Banks of the Ohio.”

There’s a really mysterious element to it. You know, the Dixie Chicks got a lot of the credit for bringing back porch instrumentation back to the radio, but with “Sugar Tree” and “Mandolin Rain”, which wasn’t a single…
I’ve been there a long time, I just haven’t as successful as they have been! [Laughs] I love those beautiful, natural, acoustic instruments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a child of the seventies. I love a stack of Marshall Amps as good as the next girl, but I really love a fiddle and a mandolin and a dobro, a great acoustic guitar. I just love those instruments. I like a banjo, don’t tell anybody! I do! [Laughs]

That will be our secret because I’m from New York City and I like the banjo, so if you can confess it from Tennessee, I think it’s okay!

I’m just really blown away by Rhinestoned. I think it is your strongest album to date, and that’s in tremendous company.
I really appreciate it, and almost all of the reviews have been fantastic. I really appreciate it. Though every now and then somebody will go, “Huh?”

Well, you’re not doing your job if some people don’t go, “Huh?”
I couldn’t believe it, I mean you and I both love “Someone Somewhere Tonight.” I read an article in a magazine that I respect very much a couple of days ago, and they just didn’t get it. They thought that song was overblown. I’m like, “Oh my goodness.” But you know music is a funny thing, and depending on who wrote that article – and even for myself, I’ve bought records before, got them home, and if I wasn’t in the right space, it would just go right over my head and I think, “Huh. Whatever.” But I can take that same album, and be heading out of town on a road trip, and I’m not having to think about anything else, and I can just relax and enjoy it, and I can fall in love with it. It’s just how it hits you at the time. Don’t you think?

I think so, and “Someone Somewhere Tonight,” I heard that song alone, in a quiet room, and I think the song demands it. Maybe that was just heard in an office.
Right, you have a deadline to write an article, and it’s like, “What was this?” [Laughs]

“I have to trudge through this? Give me something with a beat!”
But when you’re up late at night, and the house is quiet, and like I said, in the car. I like to listen to music in the car, that’s about my favorite. I just like to be on a long stretch of highway.

And you made a cool choice there [with that song]. It’s such an acoustic, quiet song, and then the music starts to come in a bit more, and that electric guitar after the second chorus. It’s like a knife through your soul.
Oh my gosh, that’s Pat Buchanan. I love the musicians on this record, and he’s an award-winning guitar slinger around here. The thing about Pat that I really like, and all the musicians on this album…We have some of the best musicians in the world here, and there are the “Eighteen Guys”, but there’s the guys that maybe are just a little bit rawer, a little funkier, and that’s the guys I gravitated to on this album.

There’s not a processed note on this album. There’s not a contrived second on it.
Nope, not at all. I can honestly say that.

You’ve done some religious songs in the past, like “Til All the Lonely’s Gone”, and I still can’t believe you got to sing with Johnny Cash doing a bible verse on “Keep Your Eyes On Jesus.”
I can’t believe that either, I just wish my grandmother had been alive to hear it. I loved it.

It’s almost like he’s the voice of God, and you’re the angel singing with him.
He did sound like God! You just imagine if you could hear God talking, it would probably sound like Johnny Cash with echo on it!

If it doesn’t, it’s going to throw me off! And I was so impressed that you put “Over My Head” as the closing of the album. It’s such an optimistic religious song, but it also tells us that we struggle sometimes.
I’m an optimistic person. That was written by Andrew Gold and Jenny Yates, and of course, Andrew Gold had a hand in the playing and production and the writing of some of Linda Ronstadt’s big hits. I got an e-mail the other day that was really cool. I loved his guitar work in the seventies. Just classic pop sound. I love that song, and it’s a sweet song. I just like ending the album on an up note.

It’s such a brilliant album, start to finish, and it’s like having an old friend back.
Thank you so much, you made my afternoon.

I’m very much looking forward to the next thing you put out. It will sound nothing like Rhinestoned, because it wouldn’t be you to do the same thing a second time.
You are so right! We’re trying to figure out which turn to take next!

I was lucky enough to catch you on Broadway, when you were in Smokey Joe’s Café. You blew the entire stage away. There was one other singer who could hold a candle to you, and she could belt, like Aretha Franklin style. You could really pull off a fantastic R&B album or a jazz album, or even like a Norah Jones thing.
It is so funny that you mention that. There’s something that I have to get into my studio this week to do. I’ve been asked to sing a song for a NASCAR compilation. They asked me to sing “Freeway of Love!” [Laughs] So I guess I better get my R&B chops up!

Wow. You’ll just have to go to a really danky, smoky blues bar the night before. I absolutely love your version of “Go Your Own Way.” I think that’s fantastic.
Wow, thank you. That was fun!

I really give you a lot of credit. There were all these great songs on your live album like “Long Drive to Dallas” and “Demolition Angel”, which knocked me on the floor the first time I heard it, but they wouldn’t have fit the album. You made a really smart artistic choice there. What I’ve always loved about your albums is that you couldn’t take, for example, “The River & The Highway” and slap it on Sweetheart’s Dance.
They’ve gotta go together. That’s exactly right. It’s very tough. I think at some point we’ll probably release “Long Drive” and “Demolition” on something else, but things have to fit together for me. When I hear a record, I want to hang with that record as long as possible. You know, people’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. You can’t change the feeling of it up too radically.

I used to be a big commercial country radio fan, and I’ve gone away from it just from following the artists that I like who were once on radio. I was blown away by the Dixie Chicks album Taking the Long Way last year because it was its own album. The problem with Rhinestoned though is I have it in the car, and once “Over My Head” comes on, you have to pull it out right away, because if it goes back to “Something Burning Out”, you’re listening to the whole album again. There’s no eject button!
That’s right! That’s the way we want it!

I’m just very thankful for you. I think you ennoble country music-making. You really do elevate it. It’s nice to hear art again.
Thank you. I hope I deserve that. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It’s a big honor. It’s the first interview I’ve done for the site. I wanted to sit down and talk to somebody that I really respect. Your music has changed my life and I’m very grateful for it.
Bless you. Thank you so very much. You just don’t know what that means.

Maybe we can do this again when you put the Christmas album out!
You got it!