Pam Tillis Kicks Up Her Heels to a Real Punk Beat That Daddy Mel Finds, Um, a Little Fowl
It was not the first time. "My daddy doesn't necessarily understand the kind of music I do," declares Pam, 26, which is putting it gently. Agrees Mel, 51, of his daughter and her raggedy band of musicians: "It's kinda punk to me, the way she has 'em dressed and everything." Pam, you see, is a hard-rocking Pat Benatar-style vocalist who writes such lyrics as "She's obscene in all the right places," while Daddy is a Nashville institution who's beloved for his mellow, understated style (although a stutterer, he never does it while singing) and has written well over 1,000 C&W songs, ranging from paeans to stock-car racing to Kenny Rogers' classic Ruby. "I think I subconsciously chose pop and rock and R&B, everything but country, because I didn't like competing on his turf," Pam admits.
From Mel's perspective, the New Wave stuff she chose is too far out for comfort. Pam played Nashville clubs for six years before he got around to catching her act—when they appeared together in Gainesville. "But the music is okay with me—it's a genuine expression," he shrugs, adding, "You know your kids are going to do exactly the opposite of what you think they ought to do."
The oldest of five Tillis children, Pam was just 1 when her daddy, a sometime milkman in Plant City, Fla., made his assault on Nashville. "We packed our '57 Chevy," she says, "and with a frying pan, an unemployment check and an old guitar, we came up here. We had to keep moving back, though. It wasn't as easy as he hoped."
Pam started studying piano at 8, got her first guitar at 11 and began writing songs at 12 with a gospel number. But it wasn't till she hit 15—about the time her parents were divorced, partly the result of showbiz demands—that she "really started getting into it, turning rebellious, carrying my guitar every-where." During those years the Tillis clan often appeared together onstage, at the Grand Ole Opry and elsewhere. "I hated it," Pam says. "It was an ego-bruiser. I just couldn't stand getting up there and having all that in me and having to go through his material. And I felt I was, like, on display: 'Here, he's got offspring!' "
Pam entered the University of Tennessee but, she says, "I joined a rock band the first week, and school went down the drain." In 1976 she went to work for Mel's music company and began publishing her own songs (eventually recorded by Gloria Gaynor and England Dan), but her heart was in San Francisco, and in 1977 she moved there. "What are you doing?" she remembers Mel protesting. "I can have you a hit album on the charts in a few months!" But his way, she says, wasn't hers. "He always had me singing little-girl songs, and I'd be crushed, and then he'd get mad at me."
As a belated flower child in San Francisco, Pam joined a jazz band, lived on a barge in Sausalito, worked as an Avon lady and fell for painter-singer Rick Mason. She and Rick married and had little Ben, now 4, but they split after 18 months, and she went home to Nashville. In that setting her music has finally taken off. Her first album, Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutie, came out last summer and is selling slowly but steadily. She is happy with her new, quiet life. "Sometimes I feel I should go to a big city and get an edge on my personality," she says. "But then I think, 'No, I'll stay a nice person.' "
Pam's one-story brick house is crammed full with Chinese artifacts (friends call her "Pammy Wong"). She dates, but nobody serious, and her son is the center of her life. "When I'm away from him for long," she says, "I feel as if I got my arm cut off." Along the way she even broadened her musical taste a bit. "I didn't get into country music until Leon Russell and Elvis Costello did some," she reflects. "Then I said, 'Wait a minute, maybe I'm missing something here.' "
And Daddy? Shortly after her album came out, Mel was asked if he was pleased with her success. "Sure I'm pleased with it," the proud father said. Did that mean he liked her record? "I'm going to be honest with you," Mel answered. "I haven't heard it yet."