The crazy life: How Pam Tillis found her own way to country stardom

Chris Bieri

For Pam Tillis, the allure of country music had little to do with an ambition to follow in her famous father's footsteps.

Instead, like most country fans, Tillis found comfort in songs that often spotlight family, rural living and life's simple pleasures.

"I was kind of an oddball kid," said Tillis, daughter of Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Mel Tillis. "I think our home life was challenging sometimes. Mom was raising four kids while Dad was on the road all the time. I was a sensitive little kid. I felt a lot of my mom's burden. I was shy and different; maybe I felt like the music was a great escape and comfort."

While she didn't actively seek the spotlight, Tillis became a fixture on country radio in the 1990s, as artists like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire helped spearhead a country music revival.

Tillis said she wasn't influenced as much by her father as she was by the "Holy Trinity" of female artists in country music who gained popularity in the 1970s.

Tillis said Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn provided a new template for women in country music -- female artists who not only sang, but played instruments and often wrote their own songs.

"A lot of the female artists of my dad's era didn't write their own songs," Tillis said. "At first, they just looked pretty and sang the songs. More and more, women started playing their instrument(s). That's where I came into the picture, where I started getting interested."

Tillis started playing piano at a young age and, with her father's celebrity, probably could have had her pick of country musicians to teach her guitar.

Instead, the quiet child learned from Laura Weber, who had a folk guitar program on public television.

"I learned in front of the TV," she said. "She taught guitar on PBS and that's where I really learned when I was 11 or 12 years old."

By the time she graduated from high school, Tillis was no longer the shy introvert practicing guitar on the couch. She enrolled at the University of Tennessee, but didn't stay long.

"I started getting in bands my first year of college, which was the beginning of my pro career and the end of my academic career," she said with a chuckle.

Tillis signed to the Warner Bros. label in 1981, but she didn't find mainstream success until a decade later.

She recorded five albums in the '90s and charted 13 singles, including the No. 1 hit "Mi Vida Loca," which translates to "My Crazy Life."

Tillis will front a small all-female acoustic trio for her fourth trip to Alaska.

"We'll be doing the hits and also highlighting some of the new material," she said. "We always try to keep it fresh. We cover a lot of ground. One of the reasons I've leaned in that direction is the female harmonies sound. We built everything around those harmonies, so I had to have women (in the band) that can both sing and play."

As modern country continues to trend more toward pop music, Tillis says "some of the most interesting music is happening outside of the Top 20 playlist."

She also noted that mainstream country music has taken some steps back, and female artists, especially, are being forced to put style over substance.

"We're in a little bit of an era -- there are some beautiful girls and I'm not saying they're not talented, but they're being minimized," she said. "They're trying to make them two-dimensional."

Tillis has continued to tour and record, most recently "Dos Divas," a 2013 duet album with fellow '90s country staple Lorrie Morgan.

"That was a fan-requested album," Tillis said. "We got put on a tour together and the fans started saying, 'Where's the record?' We had to set about carving out the time (to record). It was a fun album -- a little less pressure, and the camaraderie is really nice."

Despite not taking her early musical cues from her father, Tillis tackled his considerable songbook in the 2002 release "It's All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis."

"One of the things that was cool about doing that project -- Dad's career, he kind of kept it separate from family life, so I really got to dive into my dad's music in a deeper way than I might have otherwise," she said. "It was a little bit scary. I wanted to do the songs justice and have people say she did her daddy proud."

• Reach Chris Bieri at cbieri@adn.com or 257-4200.


By Chris Bieri
cbieri@adn.com