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When Pam Tillis invited her family to sing on her new album, she expected a day of family bonding. What she didn't expect was the food bill.
"It was fun, but they just about ate me out of house and home!" she laughs. "I think they ate about $600 worth of groceries that day!"
Still, it was worth it for Pam to hear dad Mel, plus his children and grandchildren, belting out "Come On And Sing" for her new album of Mel's songs, It's All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis. It was a treat for Mel, too.
"I thought the grandkids did great on it," he says. "They're little hams, all of them! But they're all entertainers, and they can sing."
"I told them not to get too close to the microphone," recalls Pam with a chuckle, "but you could see different ones inching up, trying to have their moment in the spotlight."
Pam's place in the spotlight has been secure since her Nashville debut in 1991, but she's spent the years since proving she's a lot more than just "Mel's daughter." Now that she's made her own name, the time seemed right to pay tribute to her dad, which she does beautifully on her new CD.
"I think she should have done it a long time ago!" jokes Mel. "She had been talking about it for the last couple of years. She's put her own spin to the songs, but I still recognize most of them!"
"I was sweating bullets the day I played it for him," admits Pam. "But he was happy, so I figured anything else that happened to this album is gravy. I got the stamp of approval."
Certainly, Mel is pleased and proud - but he's not done yet. "I've got 10 more songs for her," he laughs. "She hasn't even touched all the hits!"
"And then there'll be the double live album!" she adds with a smile. "Daddy's written over a thousand songs, so that was one of the hardest things about doing this album - narrowing it down. I did songs that I felt like made sense coming from me. For instance, I didn't record 'Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town,' because that's just such a man's song."
"Yeah, but I rewrote it for her, and called it 'Rudy'!" pipes in Mel, who offers his gender-revised lyrics for the late-'60s classic, made famous by Kenny Rogers: You lathered up your face, you shaved and combed your curly hair/Rudy, are you contemplating going out somewhere?
"Oh, Daddy!" exclaims Pam, dissolving into laughter.
It's rare that the Tillises get to enjoy a laugh together this way - Pam and Mel are usually so busy they can spend little time together. That's why she's taken to playing shows at his theater in Branson, Mo.
"Since Dad's owned the theater, it's been an opportunity for me to spend more time with the family," she says. "The last time I was in Branson, Dad barbecued. He cooked hamburgers and hot dogs, and all the kids and grandkids came over and swam in the pool, and it was nice. In this family, if it's not centered around music, it's probably centered around food!"
Even those opportunities for Tillis togetherness will become fewer soon. "New Year's Eve will be my last show at the Mel Tillis Theater," declares Mel. "I sold it to a philanthropist, and he leased it to the Assembly of God, so it's going to be a church. I left it in the hands of the Lord - you can't get no better than that!"
Mel had owned the theater for 13 years, performing upward of 400 shows there annually. "It's time to slow down a little bit," says the spry 70-year-old. "I've got a nice little ranch in Florida and a beautiful farm in Tennessee, and I want to spend a little time at both."
Still, he plans to make a new album soon and keep playing 100 shows a year on the road. "I'm still gonna be busy," he figures.
He'll also continue to be there for his daughter, who still counts on him as a role model. "Over the years, I've gained a lot more understanding about what his life was like," says Pam. "You know that old saying, 'Walk a mile in my shoes?' In the Tillis family, it's, 'Ride a mile in my bus!'"
Pam found that another way to get to know Mel better was to sing a few of his songs. In her search for undiscovered Mel-written gems for It's All Relative, she dug through his old tapes and even visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum archives. "What Daddy didn't have, they had," she reports. "I really got to know, in depth, the legacy that I have."
To help celebrate that legacy, Pam called on a few special guests, who were more than happy to lend their voices to honor Mel. Chipping in on the album were Dolly Parton, Trisha Yearwood and Marty Stuart, among others. "I figured they all participated in it out of respect for Dad," says Pam. "It was kind of surreal for me to hear their voices with mine. I just can't tell you what that meant to me."
But the most meaningful thing about It's All Relative is the way it cements the bond between Pam and her father.
"This whole project is an emotional thing for me, and it is for him too," she says. "I can imagine if my son did an album of my songs, how it would make me feel."
Probably about as proud as Mel does right now.
"She does such a wonderful job on these songs," he says, indulging in a little paternal salesmanship. "I'm sure it's gonna be a hit!"