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Finally, Pam Tillis' pain fades away

It took a while, but Pam Tillis is finally experiencing the flip side of misfortune.

Although the 33-year-old Tillis started singing professionally 15 years ago, her recent success has come only after a long and sometimes painful road.

The length of the journey may seem unusual, considering her father, Mel, is one of the deans of country music.

"I just think God gives you things when you're ready," Tillis said last week during a phone interview. "I just wasn't ready. I'm a late bloomer."

Her debut album, Put Yourself in My Place, was released last year and has put four songs in the Top 10 of the country charts.

It is proof Tillis has blossomed.

Don't Tell Me What to Do went to No.

1. Her current single, Maybe It Was Memphis _ with its mention of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams _ is No. 3 in the Billboard country charts and was atop the influential Radio & Records chart for two weeks.

Tillis, who was born in Plant City, will perform Saturday at the Florida State Fair. She honed her songwriting and vocal skills during a two-year stint with an acoustic act, Women in the Round. The group worked Nashville's famed Bluebird Cafe while Tillis sought a record deal.

Soft-spoken in conversation, Tillis' singing is just the opposite: powerful and soulful. Her songs are distinguished by a fondness for word play. Blue Rose Is, for instance, is a classic country ballad built around the title pun.

"I like to play with words," Tillis said. "My guitar player calls me the Queen of the Metaphor."

Her writing, equal parts humor and heartbreak, has a certain fatalistic streak. Her tongue-in-cheek, working title for the album was The Flip Sides of Love.

"I say that that I'm either a pessimistic optimist or an optimistic pessimist," Tillis said. "It depends on which day you catch me on. Life is not all triumph and it's not all tragedy. But it's a little bit of both."

Tillis has had her share.

She's overcome a serious car accident, divorce (both that of her parents and one of her own) and the struggle of being a single mother (her 13-year-old son, Ben, is a rap music fan). Tillis said her troubles contributed to a certain lack of self-esteem, which also hampered her career.

"I always tell people I've had to piece together an ego," she said with a laugh.

"Maybe some of that has been being the daughter of a famous person _ and some of it was just my own. I can't blame that all on Dad."

Tillis tells people she often feels like the prodigal daughter because she left country music, recorded an "uneven pop album," then returned.

"There's a song on the new album that as much as anything talks about being lost for a while," she said. "It's pretty therapeutic to sing it:

"Papa's probably turning out the lights and headin' up the stairs/And the wayward child he never talks about still turns up in his prayers."

That style, intimate and personal, is one that hasn't come easy for Tillis, who prefers to let her voice give a song its emotion, rather than relying on the lyrics to do so.

"You don't always have to spell things out for people," she said.

Tillis, who between road trips is recording her second album, said her career really started to come together after her marriage last year to Bob DiPiero, her frequent songwriting partner.

"Once you're getting your emotional needs met, then you can go out and conquer the world," she said.

And what's next for one of country's promising artists to conquer?

"I've got to go pick out carpet for my bus."


Pam Tillis, at 3:30 and 7 p.m. at the Florida State Fair in Tampa. Call 621-7821 in Tampa. The fair schedule is on page 43.