Tami Neilson: Honky tonk woman

Tami Neilson has carved a niche for herself in the country scene as the genre diversifies, trading Canada for New Zealand to record her latest album.

Tami Neilson's voice will stop you in your tracks.
Tami Neilson's voice will stop you in your tracks.

Tami Neilson knows how to get a crowd hooting. Even at six months pregnant, she's all about the risque, yet slightly goofy live banter, and knows make a simple line up of guitar, banjo, double bass, and vocals seem as lively, modern, and sexy as anything else out there. That's not to say she needs the stage banter to impress anyone though - her voice alone will stop you in your tracks, so powerful and full of colour is it.

Her knack for both singing and entertaining probably has a lot to do with the fact she's been practicing for decades. Her parents Ron and Betty packed up Tami, age 12, and her younger brothers in their mobile home, and took them on tour, performing across their home country Canada, and the US, for 10 years.

They opened for the likes of Johnny Cash, earned themselves comparisons with the Osmonds, and though it wasn't particularly "sex, drugs, and rock n roll", they did have a great life making music.

So it was a bit of a shock to the system when she first moved to New Zealand nine years ago (having fallen for a Kiwi man, now her husband), and found that country was a bit of a dirty word here.

"It was almost like country music had skipped an entire generation here. Most of the people in the beginning that came to my gigs, it was like a sea of white hair. And don't get me wrong, they're a wonderful audience, and they're loyal fans, but I was just kind of like, 'Where is everybody my age?"'

Various people even tried to convince her that perhaps she should try a different style.

"The number of times I would have people in the industry say to me, 'Why don't you just switch genres? You could sing anything' But the thing is, the minute that you're not true to yourself, your integrity as an artist will be questioned immediately. Country was my roots, what I've done my whole life, so I'm sorry, but I'm a honky white girl, and I will never be able to do what Ladi6 does," she laughs.

Fortunately what was a niche country scene has burgeoned in intervening years, and found a younger audience as the genre has diversified. Through events like the Gunslingers Ball in Auckland, and a great deal of talent coming out of Lyttelton, we've been introduced to a whole new generation and there's been a blurring of lines between country, blues, rockabilly, and soul.

The divisions are no longer clear-cut, country is no longer dismissed as cheesy, and Neilson has certainly had something to do with that.

Having won the Tui for Best Country Album, for each of her previous three solo releases (Red Dirt Angel, 2009; The Kitchen Table Sessions Vol I, 2010; Kitchen Table Sessions Vol II, 2012), contributed to two volumes of Sad But True: The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting, and co-headlined two successful Grand Old Hayride national tours in the past year, she's been getting her name out there, even if it can be hard to shrug off the assumptions that come with the country label.

"It's easy to assume what my music sounds like without listening to it, or understanding the scope of what you can do with country, and how many subgenres, and flavours, and nuances can be under that one word, like both Wanda Jackson and Roy Orbison."

Fortunately some have heard those nuances, and she has received funding for two singles from NZ On Air, which means unlike in past years when she's returned to Canada to record with her family ("They do it all for free"), she was able to record her latest album Dynamite in New Zealand, with her newfound family.

"It was really great to be able to record with people like Dave Khan who has been in my band for four years now, and also the boys, Marlon and Delaney, and Ben Woolley. I sort of traded my Canadian family for my new New Zealand music family. They're my musical brothers, those guys."

The result is her best album yet.

"You sort of set yourself these goalposts I suppose, and I felt that the three distinct ones for me this time were country, rockabilly, and soul. There's some more traditional country sounding songs, but then there's a song like Walk which is very soul driven- like my inspiration for that was Big Mama Thornton.

"It might seem strange to think of Big Mama and Hank Williams on the same album, but I guess the idea of the Sun Records repertoire was what I had in my head - you know Johnny Cash and Elvis and Roy and Carl Perkins, and Howlin' Wolf were all under the same label.

"I was paying homage to an era of music that I love, and I love a lot of different genres in that era."

Surprisingly, for an album of such breadth, several of the songs were written extremely quickly. Texas, which is a song for her two year old son Charlie, was written in an evening (though she'd been singing the chorus to Charlie since he was born); Running To You, Honey Girl, and the title track were all written with Delaney Davidson, as they were in the studio recording; and good old cheating song Whiskey and Kisses was written on the back of a sick bag during a flight to Lyttelton.

"That song is definitely me making the effort to write from a perspective that wasn't necessarily my own, just because it makes you grow as a writer. But I was also inspired because I'd recently opened for Emmylou Harris, and she has some of the best cheating songs around. Plus, myself being A, not a drinker, and B, not a cheater, when else will I get to be a cheating whiskey drinker?"

The album was recorded over five days, right after she'd finished the second Grand Old Hayride tour with Davidson (who also produced), Williams, Khan, Woolley, plus Joe McCallum on drums and Red McKelvie on steel guitar, because she knew they would've had several weeks to get the songs under their fingers and have all the arrangements and harmonies worked out.

"Because we wanted to record in that 50s and 60s style, where everyone was in the same room, and it was all live off the floor, no overdubs, everybody had to get the take right, I knew that if we were fresh off the road together, that would be likely to take less time."

It means that they sound like they've been playing these songs together forever - something that taps into the timeless, nostalgic appeal of country.

"It's almost like you're paying homage to that era of music that you love, but you don't want it to just live in the 50s, you want it to live now. So you hope to write songs that are of that vintage, but that are fresh enough to appeal to audiences today too."

Who: Tami Neilson
What: New album Dynamite, out now
Where and when: Performing at at Galatos, Auckland on April 5, and at Leigh Sawmill on April 6.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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