THE REAL WORLD

Pam Tillis trades rose-colored glasses for Thunder & Roses

Story by Chris Neal

Real life is not all wonderful, and it's not all terrible," declares Pam Tillis. "It's somewhere in between." Between bites of a long-delayed lunch, Pam is discussing her philosophy about love songs. While other singers croon about love as if it were perfect bliss, Pam keeps a more down-to-earth outlook.

"If there's a theme that runs through my work, it's realism," she muses. "Sometimes I hear songs people put out and I think, 'I don't know if that's really realistic.' I like irony, and I like the gray in between the black and the white."

Pam's new album, Thunder & Roses, is filled with examples of that approach - including the hit single, "Please," sung from the point of view of a single mother preparing for a date. "The first time I heard the song I got chills, and kind of teary," she admits.

The song hits home for Pam, herself the single mother of a teenage boy, and it's not the only Thunder & Roses track that does. Her own "Off White" is about finding new love after a divorce, a topic to which she can also relate.

" 'Off White' is a personal statement," says Pam, whose seven-year marriage to noted songwriter Bob DiPiero ended in 1998. "It's a positive look at what is a painful situation for most people. Sometimes there's a reason things happen, and I like to think there's a silver lining behind all that trauma."

The trauma of Pam's own divorce is long over now; she's been dating musician Matt Spicher for about two years. "He's an awesome boyfriend," she reports. Matt, the son of renowned fiddle player Buddy Spicher, has a special understanding of a performer's hectic lifestyle. "He grew up in the business like I did," Pam explains, "so he knows what it's about."

Pam's upbringing in the country music business came thanks to her dad, legendary Mel Tillis. Thunder & Roses features the father- and-daughter pair's first-ever duet, "Waiting On The Wind."

"It's a song we've been performing together for about three years," she says. The two have been trying to get the tune down on tape for most of that time, but conflicting schedules never allowed it until now. "I'm actually glad we waited," confides Pam, "because I think we do it better now than when we started. Sometimes you have to live with a song and sing it a bunch before it's as good as it can be. I sang 'Maybe It Was Memphis' for five years before I got a shot at recording it."

Pam also joined her dad for a series of Christmas shows at his Branson, Mo., theater.

"I'm not used to being in one place for very long, so it was kind of different," she says. "It was a real special thing to sing with my dad and my sisters. There are a lot of times I get to missing them out on the road, and I wish I could have them with me." Pam really thinks Branson, filled with showplaces for country veterans past their chart-topping days, gets a bad rap. "I find myself having to defend it a lot," she says, "but it's been fantastic for Dad. I'm lucky to have a place where I can go and be with my family, so I can't apologize to anybody for that. But, unlike my dad, I certainly haven't retired to Branson."

Pam isn't retiring to anywhere just yet - with her new album out, she's ready to hit the road. She now has a better handle on live performing than ever before, after suffering for years from stage fright. "I still have it from time to time," she admits. "That's just the way it is, and it's probably not going anywhere. It's generally in the beginning of a show, and I can ease out of it.

"Usually by the third song I'm all right, unless it's a really tough crowd - then I'm just holding my breath, waiting for that moment when they decide they like me," she chuckles. "But I love connecting with an audience, so I'm not going to let a little bit of stage fright stand in my way."

One stage Pam is very comfortable on is at the Grand Ole Opry. Just last year she was inducted into the Opry - an honor even her father has never received.

"To be a part of that tradition is pretty unbelievable," she says. "I feel like a link in a very cool chain. You know what moves me about the Opry? It doesn't throw you away. I feel like that place more than any other respects older performers. Show business is one of the few businesses where you don't get seniority, but it's not like that at the Opry."

Pam was never a stranger at the Opry - she first stood on its stage at age eight alongside her father. She began singing in clubs seven years later, and finally found success as a singer a decade ago, after years of struggle. Since then she has weathered one changing trend after another to emerge a musical survivor. With more than a dozen Top 10s under her belt, her secret is to be adaptable, while never forgetting her identity.

"You have to change with the times," she allows. "You don't wear the same clothes you wore in 1982. But on the other hand, you've got to stay true to who you are - so it's a tightrope act. You just don't look down."

Throughout it all, Pam has learned to appreciate the loyalty of her fans.

"I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have people support my music habit," she says. "As long as they'll pay for me to make records, I'll make them - and even when they stop paying, I'll find a way to make them. As long as somebody is willing to get my music out to people, oh my gosh, I'm running with it."

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