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How Pam Tillis Inspired Thelma from 'Thelma & Louise': 'We Were Young Women With Big Dreams'

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP and Ebay

Before Pam Tillis ruled the country charts with "Maybe it Was Memphis," "Shake the Sugar Tree" and "Mi Vida Loca," she was  a struggling singer trying to make it big in Music City. In her early 20s, Tillis was performing at Nashville's Exit In, where she became close friends with screenwriter, producer and director Callie Khouri, who was then working at the club as a waitress.

In a Vanity Fair profile, Khouri said the two could often be found "racing the sun home" after a night out in Nashville.

"We had more power as a team," Khouri said. "We were very different, but, together, we were like a third thing,"

Though they had no idea at the time, the dynamic between the two friends would be the catalyst for a story of two fed up women -- Louise Sawyer, a fiery waitress, and her best friend, Thelma Dickinson -- the focus of the 1991 film Thelma & Louise.

In 1988, Khouri began writing the whip-smart screenplay for the movie, which introduced audiences to Brad Pitt as the world's most attractive drifter. The Ridley Scott flick, infused with Khouri's wicked sense of humor and helmed by powerful performances from Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, is a classic.

Tillis, whose 11th studio album Looking For a Feeling is out today (April 24), says that while the exploits of Thelma and Louise were far more dramatic than what she and Khouri experienced, the feeling of being ignored, underestimated and taken for granted was all too familiar for the two friends.

"We were running buddies. [It was] just the feeling of being restless and feeling like you're kind of trapped in situations. When we met each other, we were young women with big dreams, but we didn't know how to get them off the ground," Tillis tells Wide Open Country. "We had all kinds of people in the industry not always taking us seriously. Men trouble. All of the things that played out in the movie in a much more dramatic way. That feeling of having all this pent up energy and not knowing where to take it and what to do with it...Sometimes all of those things can feel pretty desperate."

That feeling of desperation and the desire to break free is evident in the script. ("You get what you settle for," Louise (Sarandon) says to Thelma (Davis) early in the film.)

Khouri weaved elements of Tillis' personality into the character of Thelma Dickinson, the under-appreciated housewife who just wanted to go line dancing, take some shots of Wild Turkey and let her hair down with her friend before the women found themselves on the run from the law.

"Afterwards, she was telling me some of my quirks that she put into the character of Thelma. She even gave Thelma my middle name," Tillis says. "I'm Pamela Yvonne and she's Thelma Yvonne."

The Thelma and Louise soundtrack further reflects the country and Americana roots of the movie and Khouri herself, who was raised in Kentucky. The film features songs by Kelly Willis ("Little Honey"), Tammy Wynette ("I Don't Wanna Play House"), blues-rocker Chris Whitley ("Kick the Stones"), Charlie Sexton ("Tennessee Plates," penned by John Hiatt), Marianne Faithfull ("The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," written by Shel Silverstein) and, of course, Tillis ("Drawn to the Fire").

Khouri, who won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Thelma and Louise in 1992, went on to create the series Nashvillewhich centered on fictional country queen Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton). Tillis appears as herself in 7 episodes of the series.

'There's a Great Comradery There'

It's impossible to ignore the parallels between the ongoing struggle for women to tell their stories in Hollywood and the current lack of women's voices on country radio. Back in 1991, Thelma and Louise could've easily heard a string of country songs by women while gunning it for Mexico in their 1966 Thunderbird. Today, the landscape of country radio is a great deal different.

Tillis says while Nashville "was still a boy's town" back then, women were heard loud and clear in the genre.

"For a while in country music, women were really ruling the airwaves," Tillis says. "That's why it's so confusing to me -- what is going on at country radio now. I just really don't know how it devolved."

In addition to her solo success, Tillis has teamed up with Lorrie Morgan for the 2013 album Dos Divas and the Grits and Glamour Tour. She's also been sharing the stage with Terri Clark and Suzy Bogguss for their popular Chicks With Hits Tour.

Like Thelma and Louise, there's a kinship between the artists -- whether they're in a tour bus or a Thunderbird.

"There's a great comradery there -- women on the road," Tillis says. "It's a different deal than the boys."

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How Pam Tillis Inspired Thelma from 'Thelma & Louise': 'We Were Young Women With Big Dreams'