On The String: Pam Tillis Keeps Looking

May 20, 2020

Among country stars of a 1990s vintage, Pam Tillis has worked harder than most to stay open to new influences and change. Some of that expressed as a move to East Nashville in 2016. The proximate reason was that her husband and producer Matt Spicher has been a partner in a couple of restaurants over there, The Treehouse and The Pearl Diver. But the relocation came with some cultural reorientation as well.

“There’s a real energy here,” Tillis says from home in Episode 130 of The String. “All kinds of people would come into the restaurant. Margo Price would come in. And Elizabeth Cook. Any given night it looked like an entire indie roster.”

Some of that East Side energy informed and infused Looking For A Feeling, the first solo album of new songs Tillis has released in twelve years. That’s too much time, she agrees. But she toured a good deal in the meantime, and she recorded two duo albums with her old friend Lorrie Morgan, who like Tillis is the daughter of a Grand Ole Opry great. And there was, Tillis admits, some self-doubt in the mix as well.

“Being a quote ‘commercial’ oriented artist for so long, it was always easy to talk myself out of my own songs,” she says. It took some time to find the resolve to get over that. “I have these things in my head, and I’m going to share them with the world and let other people judge. And you do get to an age too where you stop caring. You know it’s a wonderful thing, being liberated.” Tillis is, for the record, 62 years old.

Pam’s momentum was also interrupted by the passing of her father Mel Tillis in 2017 at the age of 85. It’s hard to overstate his role as an ambassador of country music and as a songwriter whose songs were recorded by many legends besides himself. Pam herself made the superb album It’s All Relative in 2002, featuring 13 songs by Mel, from the famous to the deep catalog. “There are six of us kids, and we feel the weight. We want to keep his legacy going,” she says. “At some point when I slow down, I really want to help curate what he’s left behind, because he made a contribution to the world and I just respect it a lot. I miss working with him and I miss his voice in the world.”

During the hiatus, Tillis listened widely and was struck by k.d. lang’s album of 2011 with her so-called Siss Boom Bang band. Seeking the source of that sound she researched lang’s co-producer Joe Pisapia, a Nashville veteran who came to the fore leading the indelible pop band Joe, Marc’s Brother. Tillis cold-called him, starting the collaboration that brought Looking For A Feeling to its fulfilling conclusion. “He played bass and piano and all kinds of guitars,” she notes. “He engineered a lot of it. He helped mix the record and just contributed so much. He helped me finish some songs. I really couldn’t have finished without him.”

The songs, telegraphed by the title track, search here and there for answers personal and cosmic. In "Looking For A Feeling," set to a Bobbie Gentry kind of rocking chair groove, Tillis offers a cast of people “turning over every stone.” “Lady Music” investigates the push and pull of the muse that leads people like father Mel and daughter Pam into the bars and the life of trying to get a song across to people. Tillis covers Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on “Dark Turn Of Mind” with imagination, transforming a twilight folk song into an easy-brushing honky tonk two-stepper. And “Burning Star,” a favorite of hers and mine, puts our troubles in perspective with a long view of space and time, over a syncopated world beat.

The cool spaciousness of the album’s sound becomes a playground for Pam’s rich and vulnerable voice, conjuring feelings of its own. You can hear her following the guidance of Questlove, whom she quotes in her liner notes, as he urges moving forward “while remaining unafraid to move sideways or backwards.” Tillis, with an easy laugh, says in our interview that Steve Earle once told her she suffers from “rampant schizophrenia.”

“I do feel like there’s two artists that inhabit my head,” she says. “There’s been this commercial kind of thing, and even that I did my way as much as I could get away with. But then there’s also this other person that loves uncontrived and raw music and roots music. I’ve been able to walk that line.”