The ‘90s were boom years for women in country music, with a long list of female artists earning unprecedented critical and commercial clout in an industry that has always been a boys club. Many of the women who broke through in that time (including Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride) have maintained successful careers well into this decade. But it’s some of the women who are several years removed from their commercial peaks (Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, and Suzy Bogguss) who have gone on to stake the strongest claims to belonging in the rarefied company of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline. With Rhinestoned, Pam Tillis, whose “Maybe It Was Memphis” stands as one of the finest mainstream country singles of the ‘90s, secures her place in that latter group.
Tillis has always distinguished herself from her contemporaries by embracing the full breadth of country music, giving her a rich catalogue that runs the gamut from twangy honky-tonk and spirited pop-country to mellow, introspective folk ballads. She’s proven time and again that there isn’t a style of country music that she can’t sell, but what elevates Rhinestoned, her first album in five years and the first album for her new indie label, above her previous records is the consistency of the material she’s chosen and written and, as co-producer, how well she’s matched those songs to a particular sound. And it’s to Tillis’s credit that her style-hopping never threatens to overshadow the songs or her first-rate performances of them.
The lively first single, “Band In The Window,” is a tribute to the dreamers who still perform in the windowboxes along Music Row, whose love of traditional country music trumps their hope that they might get noticed by a music executive passing by while they play their hundredth rendition of “Sweet Dreams.” The song’s honky-tonk arrangement is a perfect fit for the type of performers paid tribute by the lyric, and Tillis’s delivery of the song is wonderfully complex, paying respect to the sincerity of the band in the window even though she knows that’s no longer the path to stardom in Nashville. She sings with a similar world-wise perspective on “Life Has Sure Changed Us Around,” a duet with John Anderson on which they portray a couple of hellraisers reflecting fondly on their rowdy escapades. “Crazy By Myself,” written by Matraca Berg with her trademark wit and ear for memorable hooks, finds Tillis at her most self-deprecating; if it wouldn’t so thoroughly outclass most everything on country radio’s current playlists, it might have a chance of scoring the singer her first Top 10 hit in a decade.
As strong as the uptempo cuts are, it’s Rhinestoned‘s ballads that best showcase Tillis’s phenomenal interpretive skills. The refrain of opener “Something Burning Out” is just a single line (“Maybe it’s just something burning out that reminds me of us”), but the way she subtly emphasizes the word “burning” and pauses ever-so-slightly before the final “us” gives that one line extraordinary emotional weight. Even more cutting is the desperation she conveys in the tremble of her voice on “Someone Somewhere Tonight” as she implores her lover to “Lie down here beside me/Let’s lie real still/Tell me you love me/And you always will.” A lesser singer would’ve turned the song into something maudlin (or a country version of “Chasing Cars”), but Tillis, accompanied by spare acoustic guitars, sings the lines as though her life hinges on the response.
It’s in moments like those—including the lonesome “Train Without A Whistle” and the gospel-inflected “Over My Head”—that Tillis gives a reminder of how soulful country music is meant to sound. And Rhinestoned is, above all else, a stone country record. It’s also a career-best album from an artist who recognizes that the best way to preserve the genre’s traditions is to expand upon them with authority and conviction.