(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
It’s a good feeling to look at the lineup of approaching new releases and see two old musical friends coming down the road who haven’t been by for a visit in a while. I’m referring to Pam Tillis and John Anderson, two country stalwarts whose upcoming CDs I’ve been listening to a lot. That started for me after hearing an advance copy of their duet of Tillis and co-producer Gary Nicholson’s co-written song “Life Has Sure Changed Us Around” on Tillis’s Rhinestoned (due for release on April 17).
That’s the kind of friendly and almost-intimate man-woman back-and-forth bantering duet we haven’t heard in many years, probably not since George and Tammy became un-duet partners. Anderson’s deep, laconic voice perfectly complements Tillis’ sly vocal delivery. These are some Music Row veterans, after all, and they are both on their game.
Both were born in Florida in the ’50s, both have worked in rock and pop, and both gravitated to Nashville as their ultimate musical home. Other than that, each is a true music original.
Tillis, of course, was born into country music aristocracy — not that it has really always worked in her favor. Her father is Mel Tillis, the great country singer who also wrote such classics as “Detroit City” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Pam was performing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry at age 8. And she eventually reacted to all that by heading for California and delving into rock and pop and jazz. She gradually worked her way back to Nashville, with time out for acting stints on the stage in New York.
And she has never sounded better than she does now on Rhinestoned, her first album with new original material since 2001. Without sounding derivative, she brings a fresh approach to and a whiff of the musical sound of the era of Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and other country music progressives. Which remains a great sound, one which is not yet finished by any means.
Besides being a good songwriter and producer, Tillis attracts good songwriters. Here are some blue-chip writing credits for you to consider from this CD: Matraca Berg, Leslie Satcher, Walt Wilkins, Jim McBride, Davis Raines, Bruce Robison, Jon Randall and Lisa Brokop. The latter’s “Band in the Window” perfectly captures the aura of the late-night honky-tonk lure of Lower Broadway in Nashville, with bands literally playing in the windows of such raucous joints as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Robert’s Western Wear. I think my own personal favorite here is the tender Wilkins-Raines cut, “Someone Somewhere Tonight.” But it’s all good.
You will never mistake John Anderson’s voice for anyone else’s. He is about as country as they have ever come. If you ever want to get rid of some pompous music snobs at a party, just put on some John Anderson and crank it up all the way. Guaranteed to work. They’ll be out the door before you can say shazam.
But I’ll tell you what. The man can sing a damn song. Like no one else can. His new Easy Money CD (due for release May 15) is some classic Anderson. The first single, “A Woman Knows,” is actually on some country radio stations right now. And it demonstrates the true subtlety of a true honky-tonk singer and shows how — like the great George Jones did almost effortlessly — a single vocal inflection or slightly-drawn-out emphasis on a particular word can completely change the meaning of a song.
I know it’s a cliche that John can sing the phone book and make it enjoyable. Well, that’s true, but fortunately he doesn’t have to here. He’s got some good material to work with. With producer Rich riding herd and making a guest appearance, Anderson rocks out a bit, but he’s still firmly a trad country singer. Other guests include Merle Haggard, Keith Urban and Willie Nelson. The latter shows up to pick a lovely solo and sing on the surprisingly torchy “Willie’s Guitar.”