Grand Ole Opry member Pam Tillis is happy to be returning to the Augusta area since it brings her closer to where one of her favorite people had her own beginnings in show business.
And that person is the late Opry legend Minnie Pearl who bought her first stage costume at a department store in Aiken, S.C., in early 1939.
During a phone call last week, Tillis was delighted to learn that Sarah Ophelia Colley, as she was known then, had bought her first straw hat with plastic flowers, black Mary Jane slippers and yellow organdy dress at B.M. Surasky’s Department Store on Laurens Street in nearby Aiken.
Colley worked for a theatrical company based in Newnan, Ga., near Atlanta and went around the south during the Depression years directing one-act plays owned by the Newnan firm and casting local residents in the roles.
The Augusta Chronicle reported in February 1939 that the Aiken branch of the Pilot International civic club would be staging a musical comedy (Black Eyed Susan) to raise money for its local projects.
“The play will be directed by Miss Ophelia Colley of Tennessee,” the brief notice said.
She was such a hit with local people that Colley was invited back to perform her country-theme comedy monologue for a district meeting of the Pilot clubs being held in Aiken’s Highland Park Hotel. It was local resident Carolyn McElveen who suggested that Colley should wear country-looking clothes for the appearance. And that’s how they ended up at Surasky’s Department Store. Colley would wear that same costume the next year when she made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., where the Opry was being performed before moving to Ryman Auditorium.
Tillis indicated that she would be performing her original tribute to Miss Minnie, Two Dollar Hat, at her appearance with The Pam Tillis Trio at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, in the Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center in Evans library. Tickets are $44. Call (706) 726-0366 or buy online at augustaamusements.com.
The song is in reference to Pearl’s $1.98 price tag that always hung from her many straw hats.
Joining Tillis will be Mary Sue Englund on 12-string guitar and keyboards and Aria Stiles on violin and mandolin.
The night before her local date, Tillis will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, in the Averitt Center for the Arts in Statesboro, Ga. Call (912) 212-2787 for details.
Miss Minnie already had been a star of the WSM-AM Opry radio show cast for more than 25 years when Tillis started making guest appearances on the show in the mid-1960s as a guest artist with her famous singer-songwriter father Mel Tillis.
Her father had started out as a musician in Pearl’s touring band that also included future superstar Roger Miller. It was Miss Minnie, according to Pam, who advised her father that if he wanted to stay in show business that he needed to talk to the audiences more in spite of his speech stuttering.
“They will laugh with you and not at you,” Pearl told Tillis.
That, of course, led to Tillis himself becoming a music legend and to writing a long string of hit songs including Webb Pierce’s I Ain’t Never and Tupelo County Jail, Kenny Rogers &First Edition’s Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town, Ray Price’s Burning Memories and Charley Pride’s first single (The) Snakes Crawl At Night.
Although Tillis’ first love was for country music, she tried other forms of music in large part to keep her own accomplishments and public image separate from her famous father’s.
That included playing in a jug band and folk duo while briefly attending the University of Tennessee, founding a jazz and rock band in California and trying her hand at live stage musicals. She portrayed Mary Magdalene in the Tennessee Repertory company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Nashville, and she sang on Broadway a few years later in Smokey Joe’s Café.
So why didn’t she stay with Broadway and touring musical shows if that is what she loved?
“Money,” she replied simply on the phone. “It just doesn’t pay as much especially to keep a band going. The theater opportunities are more spread out, and you have to go where the opportunities take you.”
She especially loved her time performing classic rock songs in Smokey Joe’s Café.
“I can’t remember every single song that I sang in that show but I loved doing Kansas City (Kansas City Here I Come),” she said. “And the funny thing is for Jailhouse Rock they made me this great outfit with prison stripes like Elvis wore in the movie when he sang it.”
Tillis found her own niche in country music when she signed with newly-formed Arista Nashville Records in 1989 after a string of failed releases on the Warner Bros. label. Her debut release for Arista, Don’t Tell Me What To Do, made the Top 10 listings on the country charts and led to many other hits including Maybe It Was Memphis, Shake The Sugar Tree, Let That Pony Run and Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.
She won her first Country Music Association award in 1993 for Vocal Event of the Year appearing with other guest stars on George Jones’ hit I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair.
And the next year she won the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year Award.
Her cover of the classic rock hit When You Walk In The Room, originally recorded by Jackie DeShannon, featured Kim Richey and Mary Chapin Carpenter on background vocals, became one of her favorite music videos and was followed by her No. 1 hit Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life).
Currently Tillis is working with fellow Opry star Lorrie Morgan on a follow-up to their Dos Divas album. She said this one will contain a lot of favorite, traditional country songs. But then, of course, about everything Tillis records instantly becomes a favorite with her fans.
And, finally, don’t miss these upcoming country music shows:
HOT RIZE: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, Imperial Theatre, last of the Morris Museum of Art’s 2016-2017 Budweiser True Music Southern Soul &Song Series; $15, $23, $28, imperialtheatre.com; (706) 722-8341
VINCE GILL: 8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 17, Bell Auditorium, $39.50, $49.50, $59.50, $75; augustaentertainment complex.com, James Brown Arena box office or call (877) 428-4849
DAILEY &VINCENT: 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, Newberry (S.C.) Opera House, $30 and $40; call (803) 276-6264 or buy online at newberryoperahouse.com. The bluegrass duo of Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent.
JOHN CONLEE: 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center, Evans; $35 and $25; call (800) 965-9324 or online at itickets.com
DWIGHT YOAKAM: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 3, Bell Auditorium; augusta entertainmentcomplex.com, James Brown Arena box office or call (877) 428-4849