When she found herself in Nashville for an extended stretch of time, to work on a new album, Pam Tillis decided to make the most of her weekends by appearing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry.
“Instead of hanging around the house on Friday and Saturday night while I’m working on this project, I realized that I could really put in some time out here, and I have,” she said Saturday night, moments after Little Jimmy Dickens invited her to become the newest member of the long-running radio show.
“I’ve been here a lot the last few months and it’s paid off,” she said. “They asked me, ‘Can you continue to make a commitment of time to this?’ You have to take it seriously. You don’t just join and never show up again. I want to be a part of it. I grew up with it. It’s important to me.”
Tillis came to Nashville with her famous father, Mel Tillis. She recorded for Warner Bros. in the mid ’80s and was a popular figure in local nightclubs before her career took off in 1991. After signing with Arista Records she had her first hit with “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” Although she made her first Opry appearance at age 8, with her dad, her Opry debut as an artist came in 1991, when she performed “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”
Saturday night, during the televised portion of the Grand Ole Opry, Tillis had finished a lively rendition of “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)” a No. 1 hit in 1995, when Dickens approached her from the wings. He apologized for interrupting her segment.
Speaking for the Opry staff and cast, the Country Music Hall of Fame member said he wanted to extend an invitation to her to become a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry family.
Tillis smiled broadly, raised her hands and said, “Oh, well, let me think about it — yes!” as the capacity audience cheered loudly. Twelve-year-old Billy Gilman, on hand to make his Opry debut, presented Tillis with an armful of roses before the show paused for a commercial. She finished her set with “All the Good Ones Are Gone.”
“I didn’t know quite what was coming off,” Tillis said later. “It was like, in slow motion he asked me to join the Opry and I think I said ‘Yes.’ It was a surreal moment. There he is in his purple rhinestone suit saying, ‘You want to be a part of this?'”
During her run of hits for Arista, Tillis was voted female vocalist of the year by the Country Music Association in 1994. She has sold more than 5 million albums, according to a news release. Career demands made it hard to commit time to the Opry before now, she said.
“The last decade, I was so busy and in such a whirl — we were always out on the road. I wanted to put in the time out here and I wanted to become a member, but you go for the road thing, you’re going for the cash those first few years,” she reasoned. “Now, I’m in town more right now, working on my new album, so it worked out so perfect.”
The Grand Ole Opry is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. A new set was unveiled recently and a number of programming innovations are aimed at giving the show new vitality.
“I want to see it continue, and artists my age and younger have to take an interest in this thing to carry it forward,” Tillis said. “The management out here now, they don’t want to change what’s inherently cool. They want to keep it country, but they want to pull in a broad demographic, they want to have fun. They like it that I get the audience to participate. I rock a little bit out there and they’re like, ‘Cool, be yourself.’ It’s great. I’m blown away.”
Tillis’ new album, her seventh for Arista/Nashville, will be released in February. She has been working with producers Billy Joe Walker Jr., Dann Huff, Paul Worley and Kenny Greenberg.
Her official induction as an Opry member takes place Aug. 26.
“I feel these tears bubbling under the surface,” she said Saturday night. “I think it’ll hit me when I get home.”