A New Zealand music reviewer said Tami Neilson is “a red-hot honky-tonker somewhere between Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson with perhaps just a little bit of Peggy Lee sophistication."
That’s quite a heap of praise for the Canadian singer-songwriter who lives in New Zealand, where her 2014 album Dynamite!—a country album with a dose of soul and blues—reached the top of the charts.
“It’s daunting and thrilling to be compared to those incredible women,” Neilson tells me. “Patsy has been a huge influence on me as an artist—from her powerful, beautiful voice to her brazen strength in an era when women were expected to be the opposite.
“It’s the same with Peggy Lee, a woman who was writing, publishing and performing her own songs in the 1940s. She sued Disney and won after she was paid a pittance to score Lady and the Tramp. I sometimes perform her song ‘Don’t Smoke in Bed’—one of my favorites—in my live shows. I love the story behind it. She took her name off the writing credit and gave it solely to Willard Robison, because he was struggling with health and money issues. What a woman!
“Don’t even get me started on Wanda. I got to stand front row, center, at her show in Nashville (last year) and was in heaven. She’s so inspiring and still damned sexy. It oozes out of her, even when she is struggling across the stage with her fringe-trimmed, sequined walker. I met her briefly backstage and took a photo with her. As I walked away, clutching my camera, my hands started to shake, and I felt a bit like I was going to be sick. It was really overwhelming.”
Neilson, who was born in Toronto, spent a large portion of her teenage years in Nashville, performing with her family’s band, The Neilsons, and touring the US and Canada in a 40-foot motorhome. Besides Tami, the Neilsons were comprised of her parents, Ron and Betty, and her brothers, Jay and Todd. They performed one season in Nashville on the General Jackson Showboat, which serves meals and cruises on the Cumberland River.
Neilson says her return to Nashville last year was special because she hadn’t been back since marrying and moving to New Zealand more than a decade ago. She revisited “old haunts and hugged old friends,” and Nashville brought back memories of her father, who died a few years ago.
“It was a very emotional time to go back,” Neilson says. “My mom came down for the week, and my brother Jay was on tour with me for my North American shows. The performances were special, because I’d taken the very long way around. There I was on stage with my band, who had flown over from New Zealand after a fundraiser concert in Auckland, singing my ass off on an Americana showcase and making my daddy proud.”
Neilson finished a Nashville set with a cover version of a song by blues great Otis Rush.
“I was asked to curate a show that I called Songs of Sinners for the New Zealand Jazz & Blues Festival,” she says. “It’s the story of how gospel music became rock and roll, showcasing songs from Sister Rosetta to the Staples to Bob Dylan to Otis Rush. I’d been listening to a lot of Otis Rush after a friend had played me some of his music a while back and wanted to find something of his that would fit the theme. I came across ‘Reap What You Sow,’ and it’s references to judgment and retribution added a great dark edge to balance out the holy sanctification of Mahalia. As soon as I heard that vocal climax at the end of the ‘There’s gonna be judgment in the morning’ refrain, I was forever smitten. I knew this had to be one of the signature songs. Every vocalist needs one—the one that will blow the roof off every time. Otis gave me mine.”
Neilson’s most recent album, Don’t Be Afraid, was released in 2015. It has a soul/gospel/blues foundation with some rockabilly/country flavors. The album was written and recorded in the two months following her dad’s death.
“It got me through that time,” she says, “and was a way not only to process my grief but to keep him alive and celebrate him and his music. The title track is the last song that he ever wrote. He’d scribbled the lyrics on the back of the hospital menu, but it was driving him mad, not being able to record the melody running on a loop through his head. He was on oxygen and could barely speak, let alone sing. I brought his guitar in, and he played the first verse, which bookends the album. His levels dropped, and we had to stop. We never did get the chorus melody, because we lost him the next morning. Jay and I felt an urgency to complete it and perform it at his funeral. Dad was so passionate about it and showed the lyrics to everyone who came to visit him. It was his last will and testament.
“We found the song ‘Lonely’ in his folder of old demos the week after he passed away. He wrote it in 1970—just married to my mom and missing her while on tour. We rewrote it to be about mom and us missing him. I promised him in the hospital that I would be his voice—that I would sing his songs, and they would not go to waste. This album is me keeping that promise.”
Neilson remembers being a toddler and traveling with her father to his solo gigs. She also remembers, at age 11, her dad opened for Kitty Wells.
“At the end of the show, our family got up and sang ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ with Kitty and her band,” Neilson says. “Before the show, my dad motioned for me to follow him quietly and peek around the corner on the side of the stage. There was Kitty, seated on a creaky little wooden chair, head to toe in sequins, clutching her old purse on her lap while waiters were flying by with trays of food in the dark, dingy hallway. Dad whispered, ‘See that woman sitting there, Tami? That’s the Queen of Country Music. She has achieved everything there is to achieve in this business, but she’s still sitting alone backstage with food flying past her. That is the reality—it’s not all glamour and glory.’ ”
I ask Neilson which concert was the best performance she has seen.
“This is the hardest question yet!” she exclaims. “I sat in the audience after performing before Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, but there was an element that made it special because I was a part of it. As strictly a spectator: Mavis Staples at The Civic in Auckland, New Zealand (in April 2011) on a bill with Blind Boys of Alabama and Aaron Neville. I loved her first album at the time with Jeff Tweedy, You Are Not Alone, and was familiar with a lot of her stuff, but that show made me vibrate from head to toe, and I fell head over heels in love.
“If I am allowed one more, I saw St. Paul & The Broken Bones (in March 2016) for the first time at a festival in Auckland that we were both playing, and it blew my mind. Paul Laneway had a huge impact on my approach to performing. His all-out way of wringing out everything ’til there is nothing left really inspired me to not be afraid to lay it all out with confidence and strut. Now, if I can just get the number of his vocal coach, I will be set. How does he tour nonstop for five years and not lose it?”