The first solo effort from Pam Tillis in some 12 years deserves the serious attention of a true comeback record. It finds the 62-year-old and Grand Ole Opry member looking for a spark of inspiration, and finding it in reigniting her zest for music by adding a splash of soul and classic rock to the country mix, resulting in a loose and gritty good time, along with some truly touching moments.
The picture of Pam on the cover in a dated shower stall, wearing sunglasses while sipping wine and eating an Oreo cookie is probably the best illustration of what you get on Looking For a Feeling. If she was looking for a feeling, she found one in moving to east Nashville a few years ago, and working with producer Jimmy Ritchey on this new record that sees musical contributions from Jim Moose Brown on keys, steel guitar licks from Dan Dugmore, and songwriting assistance from folks like Waylon Payne, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and Matraca Berg.
Finding that little place in time when country got a little funky, folk fused with rock, and everyone was feeling a little less inhibited, Looking For a Feeling finds a cool mood and groove, and sits right down in it. When a jaw harp emerges on the song “Demolition Angel,” you know this isn’t a selection pulled from a Sunday hymnal. Phase guitar sets the mood on “Lady Music” about how the best rarely choose music as a profession, it’s music that chooses them. And the title track gives you all kinds of cool “Ode To Billie Joe” vibes while talking about trying to feed a deeper hunger.
Tillis even has a little funky country moment paying tribute to Dolly Parton in spoken word verses of “Dolly 1969.” As the daughter of Mel Tillis, Pam saw the world through country music eyes from a tender age, and can now tell her tales. But there are some more understated moments and somber tones on the record as well, like resolving past grievances in “Better Friends,” or the grateful and reminiscent “Last Summer’s Wine,” which like so many of the tracks on the record, sets the perfect backdrop for Pam’s soaring voice.
And just in case some of Pam’s Opry faithful were worried, she does a rendition of Gillian Welch’s “Dark Turn of Mind” that is slightly faster, significantly more twangy, and absolutely perfect for the dance hall or honky tonk. It really helps ground Looking For a Feeling, and underscores the variety, taste, and ear for a good songs Tillis brought to this record.
Some of the slower songs of the album may feel a little too “adult contemporary” for some in the country audience. And when you take some chances like Tillis does here, you may not always stick the landing. You appreciate what Pam was trying to go for on “Karma,” but the results kind of remind you of off-brand 80’s New Wave. But it’s those chances that also result in a record that isn’t just your average and safe late career effort to keep your constituents happy.
It’s a common challenge for artists later in the careers to grow and build and retain the same passion they had for music while they were starting out. It’s similarly a challenge to simultaneously not let the expectations of fans hem in a performer’s creativity, while you still must find a way to fulfill those fans’ desires and expectations. By finding some good songs and bringing together the right collaborators, Pam Tillis turns in a record that feels alive and anew. She went looking for a feeling, and found it.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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