Second-generation country star Pam Tillis wasn’t born in a trunk, but she came pretty close. “When I was a little girl, I remember my daddy [Mel Tillis] putting me in his guitar case for a nap,” Pam, 61, exclusively reveals to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “I was surrounded by music from when I was in my cradle. How much was DNA and how much was environment, I can’t tell ya, but there was never anything else I thought about doing.”
After writing songs for everyone from Chaka Khan to Conway Twitty, Pam stepped out of her father’s shadow to become a country legend in her own right, winning a Grammy and two CMA awards before becoming a member of the exclusive Grand Ole Opry in 2000.
Now in an emotional interview, the star opens up to Closer about being a single mom to her son, Ben Mason, now 40; finding love with her husband of a decade, Matthew Spicher, 51; beating cancer; and losing the dad she loved.
Scroll below to read our exclusive Q&A with Pam!
It’s great to catch up with you at CMA Fest, and it’s been fun watching you on Nashville. How’d you end up on the show?
My best friend Callie Khouri is the writer, but what was really funny was that she didn’t know that they had called me! We met each other 30 years ago when she was a waitress, and we came up together.
Any more acting coming up?
Any opportunity that I get to act, I love it. I was on Broadway in Smokey Joe’s Cafe [in 1999] — that was amazing. I can’t talk about it, but I’m going to be involved in a pilot that we’re about to start working on.
People know you mostly for music — you’ve had 13 Top 10 country hits. Any moment that put you on your path?
Daddy pulled a bunch of kids out of the audience at the end of every show. When I was 8, I said, “Daddy, I want to come up there.” I remember him passing the mic down to me, like in slow motion. In my mind now, it’s a metaphor. He was passing the torch for me.
You started out writing songs?
I started writing at 15 really seriously. [Later on] it helped pay the bills. I was a young single mom and I had to support me and my child. So, in addition to singing demos for other publishing companies, I had a writing deal and I was able to live on that and pay a down payment on my first little house.
And we read that you wrote jingles?
“Country Time Lemonade,” and one for Coors Silver Bullet — I did the female version and Alan Jackson did the male one. He went from being an up-and-coming kid to letting me hitch a ride home on his jet.
You’ve worked with a lot of big stars besides your dad. Who stands out?
My first big tour was with George Strait — I’ll be forever grateful to him. And I toured with Vince Gill and Brooks & Dunn, some of the greatest artists.
You got your start when your son, Ben, whom you had with your first husband, Rick Mason, in 1979, was still young …
It was hard! Thank God for my mama, because she held the fort down. There were moments when she said, “Oh my God, Pamela” — that’s when you know you’re in trouble — “I can’t believe I’m living through this again.” She’s got a halo. You don’t see it, but it’s up there. Somehow we managed.
Why didn’t things work out with Rick?
I married Ben’s daddy super young. I was not ready. I had no clue. And the sad truth, and I don’t talk about this a lot, was that he had a terrible alcohol problem. I didn’t know what that looked like when I married him, and unfortunately, that disease killed him.
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We’re sorry to hear that. How about with your second husband?
I still love Bob DiPiero very much. He’s an awesome person. I think our marriage was kind of a victim of success. We got married on the 14th of February and I had my first hit right after that. Everything took me away and we weren’t as good as we should have been about making sure that the relationship came first. He’s happy now, so I’m happy.
You’ve been married to Matt for 10 years.
And we’ve been together for 18 years! It’s trust, and just having somebody who’s got your back. [Tearing up] I’m a cancer survivor, and Matt’s seen me through the good, the bad and the ugly. He works so hard.
That’s nice to hear. How are you feeling today?
Fantastic. I’ve been in remission for 10 years. And I can sing, so you know, it’s amazing.
It’s been about a year-and-a-half since your dad passed. How are you doing?
God, now you’re really going to get me going. Anybody who has lost a parent knows it takes a little while before it seems real, so I’m just blessed to be carrying on the family tradition. My brother [Mel Tillis Jr.] is out there doing a straight-up Mel Tillis tribute, and I’m very proud of him. It means the world to me that people come up to me on a daily basis and let me know how much they loved him. So he’s gone, but he’s in no way forgotten. He was a light in the world, and that’s a great legacy.
He was once on The Tonight Show talking about a device that cured his stuttering …
Yeah, that didn’t last long … By making light of his stuttering, he was showing his very real humility, and that he knew how to laugh at himself. I’ll tell you how he learned that. Minnie Pearl was one of the first people to give Daddy a job, but he didn’t want to talk. She said, “Melvin, don’t worry about it. They’ll laugh with you. The world loves somebody who knows how to laugh at themselves.” He took that to heart and became an inspiration for so many people.
So true! How’s your son, Ben, doing?
He’s a wilderness guide, and he loves nature, so I think I did that right. I gave him an appreciation for that. Sometimes I’m sitting in an airport all day, and he’s in the Rocky Mountains, and I’m thinking, what’s wrong with this picture? [Laughs] I’ll be the guide!
Are there any credos that you live by?
I did watch Dad just be kind, and I try to be kind when I don’t have to be. I had massive stage fright for years and years, and so sometimes I wasn’t as nice to my band as I wish. I felt everything so keenly, it was hard.
Anything on your bucket list?
If anybody out there needs a singer on a trail ride, I could be some good campfire entertainment. I’m volunteering my services!
For more on Pam Tillis, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!