“The whole album is a piece of work,” says Pam Tillis of her puckishly titled Rhinestoned. “It’s not a concept album, but the whole thing fits together — the mood that I’m going for and the picture I’m trying to paint. It’s the collective power of the songs.”
These songs find Tillis viewing life through the highly polished lens of experience. They range from the despairing valedictory of “Something Burning Out” to the sardonic whimsy of “Betting Money on Love” to the knowing chuckles of “Life Has Sure Changed Us Around,” the last of which pairs Tillis with John Anderson in a bumpy drive down memory lane.
While there are love songs in the collection, it’s the kind of love that has its fingers crossed and is illuminated by flashbacks.
“Certainly, love is fundamental to happiness in life,” the singer concedes. “But let’s be honest. As an adult, my concerns are broad. It’s not just personal love or romantic love that interests me. It’s also love of my work, the world, my friends, the love of God — all those relationships.”
Tillis co-wrote two of the album’s 11 songs — “Life Has Sure Changed Us Around” and “The Hard Way.” Among the other lyrical contributors are Leslie Satcher, Matraca Berg, Jon Randall, Lisa Brokop, Verlon Thompson and Bruce Robison.
A member of the Grand Ole Opry since 2000 and the Country Music Association’s 1994 female vocalist of the year, Tillis has luxuriant laurels on which to rest. She scored a string of 11 Top 5 hits during the 1990s for Arista Records, including “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” “Maybe It Was Memphis,” “When You Walk in the Room,” “Just Between Dances,” “Spilled Perfume” and the No. 1 “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life).”
She also appeared in such TV shows as L.A. Law and Promised Land and starred in the Broadway production of Smokey Joe’s Café.
Rhinestoned is Tillis’ first album in five years, her last being It’s All Relative, a collection of songs written by her father, Mel Tillis. That project was on Sony Records. For Rhinestoned, Tillis set up her own label, Stellar Cat. And she says she had some compelling reasons for doing so.
“It was like being a football player,” she explains. “What’s my play sheet here? What’s my strategy? [I knew] this wasn’t maybe a Top 40 album. And I’m not being judgmental about Top 40. It’s been good to me. But there’s a world of country music outside of that. … If you fall outside those [Top 40] parameters, you know the major labels are not going to be interested in it. [Then] there’s the fact that they’re also interested, generally, in signing new artists and young artists.”
Partnering with an independent label, she continues, was another possible route she found equally perilous.
“I felt like it was just as easy to do my own thing as it was to partner,” she says. “Sure, more of the money comes out of my own pocket, but I could focus totally on the product — not have to vie for attention or have to worry about somebody else’s agenda or timeframe. I could get the album out exactly when I needed to. It’s just incredible what we’ve been able to do with this project because we’re solely devoted to this particular album.”
Finding her own songs instead of relying on a label’s A&R department was a chore in which Tillis took delight.
“As a singer, that’s what you do anyway,” she notes. “You collect songs. … I’d been collecting them a long time. They were songs that were maybe a little bit different. I’d run them by when I was at my last label and [say], ‘I want to record this,’ and they wouldn’t get very excited because they didn’t think they were ‘single material.’ Yet they were so well received by the [concert] audience. I just know that there are some really great songs that get overlooked in this town while everybody tries to copy everybody.”
Tillis and her partner of eight years, Matt Spicher, started recording Rhinestoned in 2004. But dissatisfied with what they had created, they called in veteran musician and songwriter Gary Nicholson to help out.
“We just kind of got bogged down,” Tillis confesses. “We’d been thinking about the record for two years. So it was like, ‘Let’s just get some fresh input on this.’ [Gary] was somebody with a fresh perspective and, also, somebody who had so much [artistic] integrity. I just knew that this was not the point in my career when I should compromise in any way. I knew that would leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
She decided on the duet with Anderson, Tillis says, because “he’s just one of my favorites.” Then she pauses and adds with a giggle. “I wanted to hear him sing the word ‘around’” — a reference to Anderson’s habit of stretching common words into wondrous new sounds.
Morever, Tillis says, Anderson was a family friend. “I wanted that kind of feeling — family and friends — on the whole project,” she says. “It is unapologetically down-home.”
The family angle is apparent, although not obtrusive. Her brother, Mel Tillis Jr., co-wrote “The Hard Way.” Her sister, Carrie April Tillis, sings background vocals on the album and has a key role in “Band in the Window,” the music video for the first single.
Tillis has resigned herself to the fact that she can’t compete with the major labels for airplay.
“It costs a half a million dollars to market a single at radio,” she says. “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to make sure my fans know about the album, and I’m going to play it live and sell it on the Internet. I’m going to work every other angle.”