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Pam Tillis on Her Eclectic Musical Influences, Her Father's Advice and New Album 'Looking For a Feeling'

Matt Spicher

I was 17 when I joined my first band, Pam Tillis sings on the title track to her new album Looking For a Feeling (out on April 24 via her own label, Stellar Cat Records). It's a small snapshot in the life of a woman who had already written songs for Barbara Fairchild, Gloria Gaynor and Chaka Khan and inspired a character in a major motion picture ("Thelma" in Thelma and Louise) by the time she was 30.

In fact, Tillis fronted a few bands before achieving solo stardom with her breakout 1990 album Put Yourself in My Place (featuring "Maybe it Was Memphis" and "Don't Tell Me What to Do"), including a jug band, an R&B outfit and a San Francisco Bay- area rock group called Freelight. Though she's the daughter of country legend Mel Tillis and has a deep and abiding love for country music, Tillis was hell-bent on making her own way in the the business. And she succeeded.

Looking For a Feeling

"I came of age both as a young lady and also musically in the late '70s and the music was so great. Anybody that knows anything about me knows I grew up in Nashville as the daughter of a country [artist]," Tillis tells Wide Open Country. "What they might not know is the other side of the story of Nashville and what a melting pot it was musically. I can't remember if it was Marshall Chapman or Rodney Crowell that [said] Nashville in the late '70s was like Paris in the '40s. There was a lot of mix of styles, between Neil Young and the Allman Brothers and so many. There was blues, there was rock, country, there was the California country and there was a rock sensibility... I don't feel like anybody but record company execs gave two flying Fs about genres."

In many ways, Looking For a Feeling encapsulates all the music that's shaped Tillis. The singer-songwriter, who wrote 7 of the 11 tracks, moved to East Nashville in 2016 and recorded her 11th studio album at Nashville's Middle Tree and Welcome to 1979 studios. The record also includes songs written by Nashville mainstays, such as Matraca Berg, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

"This album enabled me to combine some of the elements of some of the music that I did sing. I did everything -- I did jazz, disco, Madonna-ish New Wave -- Madonna and Blondie were big at the time. I sang R&B," Tillis says. "There was a crossover in Nashville. There were a lot of big hits that were country hits and then pop artists would cut them."

The title track, a Muscle Shoals-inspired groover, explores the various ways we cope with things beyond our control.

"['Looking For a Feeling'] is about stepping back and not judging people for how they're dealing with in their life," says Tillis, who co-wrote the track with Waylon Payne. "There's some philosophical underpinnings to this record if you really step back and think about what links it together. It's just trying to put things in context and process."

"Last Summer's Wine," which Tillis refers to as an "older, wiser" cousin to her 1991 hit "Maybe it was Memphis," was inspired by her brother's vineyard.

"Sometimes the best songs -- they just kind of come in a moment, they come in a rush. That one came in a rush," Tillis says. "My brother has a vineyard. He had a moment -- an epiphany. He'd never even gardened hardly and he hauled off and he planted a vineyard. It's so beautiful to me. I started thinking about a love affair, very much like in ["Maybe it Was Memphis"], where she's just thinking about an old love and what that moment was like," Tillis says. "I just started thinking about time in a bottle...the idea of the wine is really the moment that she can taste on her lips."

Tillis also honors one of her heroes, Dolly Parton, on the Bob Regan-penned country-funk groover "Dolly, 1969," which imagines hitching a ride with the Smoky Mountain queen.

"I've known Dolly all my life," Tillis says. "She made an impression on me at a young age."

"Burning Star" reckons with anxiety and uncertainty and seeks to find peace in the unknown.

"Hard to figure why things are the way they are/ All that I know is that we're living on a pebble by a burning star," Tillis sings.

"That song matters a lot to me," Tillis says. Like a lot of people, I carry around a little bit of a feeling of anxiety. You know, how the climate is changing and the world is changing so fast. In the song, I take a philosophical look at it and say 'What if everything is just unfolding according to a bigger plan that I can't see?' I'm just trying to be mindful and stay spiritually centered and try to put it all into the perspective of maybe we've been here before in history."

From the Dean Dillon co-write "Spilled Perfume" to the rowdy No. 1 hit "Mi Vida Loca," Tillis' songwriting prowess has always been as sharp as her vocal talent. As the daughter of a prominent Nashville songwriter, songwriting was always a given for Tillis.

"As a little girl, I though everybody wrote songs. I didn't know people didn't write songs. I never knew to be afraid of it," Tillis says. "A lady showed up one time at a gig of mine and she said 'You might not remember me but I'm your four-year-old class Kindergarten teacher.' She said 'You used to come to school every week and say 'would you like to hear my new song?'' So I started making up songs as a little girl."

The "Let That Pony Run" singer says staying true to herself and her voice is something she learned from her father.

"Very early on, he caught on to the fact that I was a pretty good mimic. Like a lot of young people, you copy what's on the radio," Tillis says. "He told me 'You've got to be yourself.' He said 'Don't chase after trends. Let it come to you. If it's going to, it will. If it's not meant to be, it won't.' For better or for worse, I've taken that to heart."

Looking For a Feeling is available for purchase here.

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Pam Tillis on Her Eclectic Musical Influences, Her Father's Advice and New Album 'Looking For a Feeling'