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"I feel like most everything I did learn, I learned the hard way."

Interview: Country Music’s Pam Tillis

Pam Tillis has been a part of country music from a very early age, first appearing on the Grand Ole Opry at the age of eight. She grew up learning from her father, Mel Tillis, who has entertained fans for more than fifty years. After a brief stint in the pop world, she found herself back where she felt most at home.

Her early country albums were rooted in those steep traditions, but as she discusses in this interview, she was steered in a direction that she quickly learned wasn't where she wanted to be. In her recent release, It's All Relative, she honored her father by covering his music. In April she will release Rhinestoned on her own Stellar Cat Records label.

In a recent phone interview, Pam took time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about the new album, her new label, the direction of Country Music, and grass roots promotions.

Your new album will be released next month. How do you describe Rhinestoned?

I've heard it called neo-traditionalist and I kind of like that. I've never been one for type casting, but it does, in some ways, describe the music. I like to think that it's firmly rooted in the past, but it's also inclusive of many things that are in the moment.

It's a little bit traditional. I think of it as somewhat of a roots record, but it's a little left of center of commercial country that you might hear on the radio: a little Americana with shades of bluegrass.

Every record has a different vision, but for this one I was really thinking about some of the early '70s country, some of the music that was from a real impressionable time in my life, Gram Parsons and early Emmylou [Harris], early Linda Rondstadt, Neil Young, The Byrds. I call it hippie-country. In a lot of ways it's hippie-country.

I can definitely hear some of those '70s folk influences you mention.

Yeah, those are the influences. At the same time on the last two records I've made I've wanted to do something that didn't feel like it belonged in any particular decade. I wanted to do something timeless.

You sort of touched on this, but early in your country career, your music had that country pop feel —

It started to go that way, yes. My first album for Arista wasn't that way at all. Actually my first three albums weren't like that, but then it started to change. You know, I'm proud of all my records, but I just didn't feel like that was where I wanted to be.

So it was a conscious decision to turn your focus?

To head back, yes. (Laughs) To turn back to the barn.

This album is a follow up to your tribute to your father, It's All Relative. Did you feel a lot of pressure covering your father's music?

I did. I really did! I wanted to do it justice and I wanted to make him proud. I wanted to please the older fans, but also find a way to turn the younger generation on to his music. Maybe they'll go back and seek his work out. I had a lot of goals with that one.

On Rhinestoned you wrote "The Hard Way" with your brother. Are you often song-writing partners?

As often as we can. We come from the same place, so when we write together our voice is similar. Most of the time when you have a co-writer, it's usually two distinctive voices. With my brother and me, it's almost like we're songwriting twins. It's a little more singular.

Is it in any way autobiographical?

In a general kind of way, yes, absolutely. I feel like most everything I did learn, I learned the hard way. I've gotten better about that as I've matured, but certainly when I was younger that was definitely the case.

How was it different recording for your own imprint?

Even when I was with Arista records, which was the freest part of my career, you still have to run a lot of stuff by committee whether it's a budget, or the album artwork, or how may songs you get to record. This was total freedom. We had nobody to answer to. We didn't have to get anything approved.

It was just the greatest feeling. We chose exactly who we worked with and when we did it. We set the deadlines. It was fantastic.

Those are some advantages. Were there any disadvantage?

Well, it's great to have a Sony Records or a BMG or a Warner Brothers pocketbook. Money is a challenge when you're funding your own start-up costs and everything. But I feel like it's doable. You just have to be very careful.

Is this completely your own label then or are you a subsidiary?

No. It's mine.

Do you find the business end challenging?

There's always more to do than you can humanly do in a day, but that's true for anybody running any business. But you do feel more in control. It's that entrepreneurial spirit that makes you want to be in control of how it's marketed and how it's perceived.

We set the tone whether we want to be casual or relaxed about it or we can be as intense about it as we want to be. We don't have to compete with anyone on our label. You know a lot of times on these big labels there are 200 artists.

And maybe your album is coming out the same week as someone with a very similar sound?

Right! Exactly, it's pick a number and wait please. We don't have to deal with any of that.

I see on your website that you've launched a street team, "River Runners." Is that grassroots publicity working?

Right. Yeah, you know, these are all ideas that are floating out there. We're hoping we might hit on some novel approaches.

The beauty of a street team is… I'm at a point in my career where that whole big marketing machine they have at big labels doesn't appeal to me. Stellar Cat Records doesn't really want to sell anybody anything. We just want to get the music out there and get some exposure. It's anti-hype. I think the audience is savvier than that these days. Get it out there. Let them hear it. If someone likes it, we just say "Please tell your friends." I just think that is the wave of the future.

Are you utilizing the same types of grassroots approach on the Internet with sites like Myspace and Pure Volume?

Absolutely. We've come to embrace that, and I'm like the last person to [be online]. (laughs) But it's like, okay, I get it. I was standoffish about it, but now I see it and it's like this is unbelievable. It's a great tool.

Do you think the new music talent shows like American Idol and Nashville Star are good launching pads for someone trying to break into music?

Well, it totally depends on the kind of artist you want to be. It's good if you want to be mainstream. It makes instant stars, so it's fantastic, but if you don't fit in that mold, it's not for you. But that's okay.

There are certain artists it wouldn't work for at all. It's just not what they are looking for. They're not trying to appeal to that audience, and [the shows] are not trying to appeal to that artist. For those who fit their mold, it is fantastic.

There is nothing that really compares to the power of television.

You were in Smokey Joe's Café back in '99. Is a return to Broadway in you future?

(laughs) You know, if they call I'll go. I've been so busy with my music that I haven't really pursued that. It was a fantastic experience, and I'd do it in a heartbeat.

What does the future hold?

We want to be a success as a record company first of all. If Rhinestoned is a success for us that will make my big goal for the year.

I'll be performing all year. I just want to have a great year on the road and do great shows. The music business is not like, "Well, I knocked that out, let's go on to the next thing."

Every year you're doing the same thing, only new. Yes, we've made ten albums, but this is the new album. And yes we've been on the road, but this is the new tour. We're going to different towns and different places in the world and I just want to keep doing what I'm doing, only better.

Please check out Pam Tillis' website for news, information, streaming audio and video, and tour dates.

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