For Pam Tillis, becoming the 71st member of the Grand Ole Opry Saturday night (Aug. 26) ranked as one of the great milestones of her life, she said, right up there with the birth of her son, Ben, and her 1994 victory as the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year.
“I grew up in this town and in this business and I can’t tell you what this means to me,” the 42-year-old singer, visibly moved, told the Opry audience during the portion of the radio show televised by TNN.
Marty Stuart, on hand at Tillis’ request to induct her into the Opry cast, seemed nearly as excited as the honoree.
“She writes, she sings, she acts. She is country music royalty,” he said as he introduced her. “You mention names like Patsy, Loretta, Tammy, Connie and Jeannie — all the greats who have stood on this stage — there’s one more we’re fixing to add to it.”
Dressed in a snappy red suit, Tillis performed a soulful rendition of her 1997 hit, “All the Good Ones Are Gone,” after which, Stuart presented her with a special guitar — one of 650 built by C. F. Martin & Co. to commemorate the Grand Ole Opry’s 75th Anniversary.
Tillis closed her short induction set with “Maybe It Was Memphis.” Stuart joined in with his guitar as she strummed the song’s closing chords.
“I’m taking this honor very seriously,” Tillis said at a press conference following her induction. “I hope every night that I step on that stage that I make people feel special. I really plan on giving it 150 percent.”
Tillis was 8 years old when she first performed on the Opry stage, when the show was at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. Becoming an Opry member, she said, means she has a home for her music for years to come, “even when I’m a little old lady and not even touring that much.”
Her father, Mel Tillis was performing at his theater in Branson, Mo., and did not attend the induction. Pam said she was sure Daddy Mel was taping the show. “He was jealous!” she kidded, referring to his reaction to her being invited to join the Opry. “There aren’t too many things that I’ve done that he hasn’t done first. This is one of those strange situations where I beat him to the punch.”
In a more serious tone, Tillis said that her hope, for a long time, had been for her and her father to join the Opry together. “I hope it works out that he can become a member,” she said.
“When I did the Broadway thing, he’d never done that, but then, I’ve never been in a Smokey and the Bandit [movie],” she added, in an almost mischievous tone. “We have this friendly competition going on so, Dad, the gauntlet is thrown down. You’d better get out here!”
Later, at a reception in her honor, Tillis hugged and praised her mother, Doris, for her constant support. “She used to iron my daddy’s stage shirts and help polish his boots, cook his meals and watch after his babies. Then, she helped me with my son and has been there for all the important times of my life.”
She also lauded the many people who have contributed to her success — all the behind-the-scenes people. “Somebody told me tonight I looked good and I told her it takes a village,” she joked.
While Tillis had no shortage of people to thank, all of her acknowledgements seemed heartfelt. “This is a night for me to be grateful, so please indulge me,” she asked of her guests. “In my family, we’ve learned to indulge each others’ dreams because they come with a price tag, folks.”
Tillis explained that she and Stuart, who came to the Opry as a youngster to play in Lester Flatt’s band, go way back. “He’s a buddy,” she said. “We’ve been out there in the trenches together. We’ve written together, we’ve prayed together, we’ve been long-time friends.” Stuart reminisced about how he, Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, daughter of late Opry star George Morgan, used to refer to themselves as “Opry brats” because they practically were raised at the Opry. “It’s so nice to have Pam home. Now, all three of us are here. What Pam represents to me is dignity and integrity. She helped set the standard for women in the ’90s. She’s a true artist … she touches our heart. That’s the measure of greatness.”
Tillis will release a new album early next year. “I’ve got a lot riding on it,” she said. “The older you get, the less you take for granted and I can’t remember working so hard on an album.” She hopes to do more international touring, and she has a children’s book and a screenplay in mind.
Tillis received flowers from a host of well-wishers including her father, fellow CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Trisha Yearwood, and, “in true country music fashion,” she joked, “my ex-husband.”