If there's such a thing as country music royalty, Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan are definitely it.
The two of them are daughters of successful and well-regarded country artists, Mel Tillis and George Morgan, respectively, who found great success of their own, especially in the 1990s.
On Saturday, the pair will perform at the Fox Theater as part of their Grits and Glamour Tour, the latest in a collaborative project that has been interspersed throughout their individual solo careers since first joining forces for their 2013 duet album "Dos Divas."
According to Tillis, the collaboration was initially suggested by her husband, Matt Spicher, who suggested that "it'd be neat if you found a package, a combo sometime, that would be something a little different to put out there." He then asked her who she'd like to work with on such a project.
One fateful trip to the Grand Old Opry that night and Tillis had her answer after seeing Morgan on stage.
"When she came off (stage), I said, 'Hey you know, we should get together,' and a light went off," Tillis said.
Their "Grits and Glamour" set list will consist of material from their two duet albums ("Dos Divas" and 2017's "Come See Me and Come Lonely") and solo material from each of their individual catalogs. To Tillis, "the sum is greater than its part, you know?"
Tillis said, "The whole show is not just the songs, it's the whole patter and the rhythm of the dialogue and seeing the interaction. People feel like they're kinda getting a glimpse behind the curtain. We kind of are in-between this new generation and the era of '70s country. The 1990s was kinda in the middle. So we've got roots that go way, way back and there's this sensibility of growing up in a different time and what entertaining is like back then."
'Opry brats' and puns
Tillis and Morgan will be backed by a stripped-down, acoustic backing band consisting of two guitars, two keyboards and a violin, making the show a truly intimate affair.
"Think about the big shows out touring, they're fantastic," Tillis said. "They've got big, huge productions. They're charismatic people but it's not conversational. So what we do is very conversational and I love that. You're kind of eavesdropping on two old buddies. Two 'Opry brats.'"
"Lorrie calls us 'Opry Brats' sometimes. Instead of 'Army brats' (we're) 'Opry brats.'"
Tillis herself has had an expert instinct for witty wordplay like the name of her singles "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial" and "Tequila Mockingbird," even all the way back to the name of her 1983 pop album "Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey."
"Either one of the best titles ever or the worst," Tillis said. "The verdict's still out. My dad couldn't say that album title without rolling his eyes. That's what I remember: He just couldn't do it. It was a reflex he couldn't fight."
"I'm never quite as clever as I'd like to be. I've always loved a good pun. It's funny, I don't think of myself as a comic like my dad, but I do notice that I'm pretty quick with quips. It's (a little bit) genetic and my brain will very quickly make these little weird leaps connecting odd dots."
I heard it firsthand when we spoke about Bakersfield's impact on country and rock music and as quick as a flash she said, "There's some irony in there: from the cornfield to Korn."
Thriving on stage, small screen
Tillis' career picked up in the 1990s with subsequent albums, peaking with 1994's "Sweetheart's Dance," which netted her a cadre of hit singles including the Tex-Mex-tinged "Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)," a song that was inescapable that year.
Besides her career as a singer, Tillis has been a prolific songwriter, writing for herself and other artists since the late 1970s, and has even taken the occasional shot at acting. Most recently, she was on the Crackle TV series "Fairwood" about two good-hearted Louvin Brothers-resembling siblings becoming unexpected television stars.
Tillis played Candy, the mother in the fictional Judds-like mother-daughter duo Candy and Honey.
"It's quirky and funny and weird and zany all at the same time. It was fun," Tillis said. "It's country meets 'Pee Wee's Playhouse.' It's very stylized and it's deadpan-quirky and, at the same time, it walks this line between really make-believe and really earnest. There's an earnest heart to it."
That very same exuberance and humility is evident when speaking with Tillis, who is incredibly funny, open, vibrant and engaging.
When I asked her if it was an accurate assessment to say that her long career was a testament to her adaptability, she replied, "I think I'm glad it appears that way because you don't see the misses and the years spent wandering in the desert."
Remembering Mel Tillis
Tillis and her father collaborated many times throughout her life, including on his 1980 single "Your Body is an Outlaw," her 2002 album "Tillis Sings Tillis" and on the duet "This Rockin' Christmas Medley" for her 2007 Christmas album "Just in Time for Christmas." He passed away at age 85 in 2017.
When asked what song of her father's was her favorite, she became wistful. For all of their individual successes, she was still her father's daughter and the weight of his relatively recent loss on her reminded me — having lost my own father in 1993 to cancer — that there are some things we can never truly get over, just around.
"He was such a consummate songwriter," Tillis said. "There's a song I do sometime in my show called 'Heart over Mind,' and I slow it way down, it's a very different treatment of it. It's beautiful." (Lorrie Morgan also has an unrelated song called "Heart Over Mind.")
"They all mean different things to me because of different eras I associate with him. I also loved the things he recorded that he didn't necessarily write (like) 'New Patches.' There was just something about the way he sang it that was just so wonderful."
"I'll tell you one that he recorded that means just a lot to me and my family — I don't know, it just makes us all tear up and choke up — but it was called 'Something Special,' and there was something really poignant about it. It was about the journey of life and (how) things weren't always perfect but along the way 'you're something special to me.'"
With her powerful voice, her exuberant sense of humor and an honest willingness to listen and connect, Tillis is brilliantly relatable across all manner of communication.
The Bakersfield show is the second show of the tour so local audiences will have an early chance to see the interaction between Morgan's yin to Tillis' yang.
"It's always great to be asked back," Tillis said. "It (Bakersfield) is a special town. It has a special significance and I have some good memories of playing there."