Singer-songwriter Tami Neilson steals the show — even when she’s unable to perform
Country roads take this award-winning singer-songwriter home to the place where she belongs.
Words: Emma Rawson Photos: Tessa Chrisp
Originally published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of NZ Life & Leisure.
On the night she would have sashayed along a red carpet at the New Zealand Country Music Awards, Tami Neilson rolled out red bath towels on the hallway floor of her Waimauku home. For 46 years, the awards, in Gore, have been a big knees-up. This year, mid-pandemic, the names of the winners were announced in a sequin-free Radio New Zealand broadcast.
Tami is famed for her big voice (“if Etta James and Peggy Lee had a baby, I would be it”) and kickass sense of humour. She also does not attend pity parties. Instead, she got dolled up in a sparkly emerald dress, teased her hair into a towering beehive and graciously acknowledged the adoring make-believe crowd lining her hall — all in good fun for a YouTube video.
“It’s just an honour to be nominated,” she purred, pure pop-princess-at-the-Grammys, into her hairbrush microphone.
“It’s not about winning. And no matter what happens, my fellow nominees are just lucky to know me.” But win she did, stealing the Best Country Song 2020 gong for Hey, Bus Driver!, which was co-written with her brother Jay Neilson.
Canadian-born Tami has lived in New Zealand long enough to celebrate the award in the most Kiwi of ways. Still wearing her shimmery frock and beehive, she put the rock ’n’ roll into cheese rolls by whipping up a batch of the Southland delicacy during a video call with her fellow country-music nominees, Kaylee Bell and Katie Thompson.
It didn’t go well, despite following Waimate-based Kaylee’s family recipe. She used the wrong soup mix and the soggy results were not award winning.
The upbeat singalong melody, Hey, Bus Driver! is about life as a musician on the road, away from family. In it, Tami pleads with the bus driver to put his foot down on the pedal so “Mama” can get home soon. If a little thing called a global pandemic hadn’t got in the way she would have performed the song with Jay back in March at the famous South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
It was to be followed by a gig at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion ranch. A European tour was also nixed. Boo. If only pandemics could be heckled. Instead, Chickaboom! (her seventh album) was released when she was at home on her four-hectare lifestyle block in Auckland’s rural north-west. As her husband Grant was an essential worker, she stayed at home with kids Charlie (8) and Sam (6).
“People ask, ‘So, did you write your next album in lockdown?’ Well, I have a six-year-old and an eight-year-old. So, no, I did not have time to write a new album.”
Two of Tami’s hits, Big Boss Mama and Stay Outta My Business, deal with the complexities of life as a touring female artist who also just happens to be a mum. Touring is a necessity, and performing is something she loves, even if it does take her away from her family.
“Traveling is mostly an exhausting means to an end. Being on the stage – that electric connection with an audience while performing – is when I feel totally alive, crackling with purpose and doing exactly what I was put on the Earth to do.”
Live shows are 70 per cent of Tami’s income in the age of digital streaming. (The Spotify system is complicated, but the service is reported to pay the artists a piddly 0.00318 cents per 1000 streams.) But despite the loss of touring income, there is an upside.
“Staying at home feels like Christmas to me, and going away on holiday is not relaxing. But driving home through the tree-lined roads of my neighbourhood after a gig, I can feel myself decompressing.”
The family moved to the country four years ago from the west Auckland suburb of Greenhithe. Tami says her husband loves the outdoors and is a workhorse, happy doing farm jobs. “For him, hard work is unwinding, whereas I like sitting in the house and watching him doing the work from the deck.”
“The boys love it here. Charlie’s job is to feed the chickens, and they both help with jobs such as storing firewood or moving the cows to a new paddock. They know the work that goes into growing food and that water doesn’t come out of the tap magically.”
Tami’s upbringing was less country and more Partridge Family. Her family’s country-gospel music group, the Neilson Family Band, spent years on the road. Tami and her late father Ron were the lead singers, with mum Betty on harmony, little brother Todd on the drums, and Jay on the bass.
“Touring is deeply embedded in my DNA — it’s how I grew up, and it feels like my natural state of being. I often joke that some people smell home cooking or a freshly cut lawn and it takes them back to their childhood. But, for me, the smell of chlorine in a hotel lobby and fresh linen gives me that same nostalgia. That’s my family home,” she says.
Dynamic Ron was not only the driving force behind the band, he was also behind the wheel of the family motorhome. And it was thanks to a faulty motorhome that Tami met Johnny Cash while wearing her pyjamas. It happened after a mad dash through the night for the family to make it to the Merritt Mountain Music Festival in British Columbia, where they were opening for Cash.
The campervan fridge had an electrical fault, and all the family’s possessions (aside from their instruments) went up in smoke, leaving them with just the clothes on their back.
In Tami’s case, pyjamas. “The festival very kindly gave us some promotional tee-shirts, but there was no mistaking me on stage in plaid flannel pyjama bottoms. It was mortifying for a teenager, especially in front of a legend.”
Ron uploaded a few videos of the Neilsons on YouTube before he died in 2015. Some of the clips are internet meme-worthy, especially those showing a teenage Tami with big 1990s hair and velvet dresses, and Ron with the king of all mullets. “My dad died taking the YouTube password with him; I can hear him laughing at us from heaven because we can’t take them down.”
Ron was a prolific songwriter and Tami’s musical inspiration; his sudden death left a gaping hole in her heart. Those childhood days on the road left Tami with an irrepressible need to create and perform and a work ethic that doesn’t involve quitting.
It wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. “It’s hard enough being a teenager, let alone confined in a 30-foot campervan with your family.”
For downtime, Ron would park the motorhome at a shopping mall and the family would have two hours to spend on their own before they had to get back in the van and on the road. Tami would usually fast-foot it to a bookstore to read.
The family band was destroyed by a disloyal manager who pocketed US$200,000 of their earnings and bolted it to Panama. They moved to Betty’s hometown of Midland, Ontario, a small city famous for its storms of frozen rain in winter, and Ron became a bus driver.
Tami, Jay and Todd busked to help buy groceries. It was a tough time but, like the lyrics of a good country song, there was a silver lining in the freezing clouds. Tami met a waitress who worked in the café outside which the family busked, and they became good friends. It was the early 2000s, and the friend met a Kiwi bloke on the internet and later moved to New Zealand. When Tami visited her in 2001, she met Grant. They married in 2007.
“You never know what journey you are on, so I can almost say thank you to Mr Panama. Almost.”
Although her cheese-roll-making ability would earn a “see me” in red pen on a school-report card, Tami shows she’s a fully-fledged Aotearoan in other ways. Charlie and Sam’s agriculture-day preparations are now a doddle, and New Zealand’s long cream doughnuts beat those made by Canada’s famous Tim Hortons hands down. Tami’s still the mum that sometimes shows up at school with a beehive wig and cat’s-eye liner.
Her music – with vocals described by Rolling Stone as that of a “fire-breathing belter” – is a hybrid of rockabilly, country, gospel, soul and blues and has won her a slew of New Zealand music awards. “Instead of a genre, I tend to say my music is almost like an era of music — the golden age of music in the 1950s and 1960s — straight from Memphis.”
The pandemic — and the resulting show cancellations — came as a shock, and a whole year’s worth of plans and schedules went out the window. “It felt like my brain was recalculating, like when you turn the car off the road, and the GPS screen does the spinning wheel. I kept thinking, ‘What’s the next direction? What’s the next alternative route to take?’”
But like a true Neilson, she dreamed up a new hustle. To keep in touch with her fans during the pandemic and to stay creative, Tami created The Tami Show, a YouTube gig produced with Jay, who is based in Toronto. In the show, the siblings sing duets and Tami gives tutorials on how to create a Bettie Page fringe (the secret is hair clippers and nerves of steel), and a good beehive (backcombing, hair extensions, hairspray and admirable tricep strength).
She filmed clips while Grant was home and able to take the kids outside to play. It was a welcome distraction from thoughts of cancelled gigs.
The months between level 4 and level 1, (March 25 to June 8), represented the most prolonged period Tami has gone without performing. The Big Boss Mama had a gig 10 days after Charlie was born and was performing on stage when she was seven and a half months pregnant with Sam.
“My poor high heels were under such strain. I look back now and think, ‘what the hell were you trying to prove? Just chill out, Tami.’
“I guess I was just trying to show myself that I was still going to hold onto my identity after having kids.”
She believes that, despite recent setbacks, if New Zealanders embrace local artists, the industry has a fighting chance. Using Kiwi music in advertising and films also helps. Many of Tami’s international fans first heard her on The Brokenwood Mysteries, a television drama that has a substantial European following (bigger than its New Zealand fanbase).
She’s chomping at the bit to perform again in New Zealand (her Brass, Strings, Sing tour plays in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland from November 11 to 14 respectively). She has a sense of survivor’s guilt for all the musicians overseas who still can’t perform, and yet there’s still the irrepressible Neilson urge to play.
“I just can’t wait to get back on stage again. It’s time to get out of the house and to get the show on the road.”
TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’
The digitization of music has dramatically changed the way artists release their work. Musicians used to release one, or maybe two, singles to generate hype before an album. These days, they will release approximately five singles before the album. “It’s all about making the playlists on Spotify [which leads to more online music sales].
“When you release singles, you are trying to get the algorithm going before you drop the album. Once you have released the album, you have fewer opportunities to be playlisted.”
Tami’s retro-loving fans can enjoy Chickaboom! in its LP form; the 12” vinyl in a vintage buttercream colour is a huge seller. “People want something they can hold in their hands, especially after being cooped up inside looking at screens for two months.” tamineilson.com
THE GONG SHOW
This year’s New Zealand Country Music Award is just one of many gongs Tami has won, including Best Country Album four times (2009, 2010, 2012, and 2015). She was also named Best Female Artist in 2010, 2011 and 2014.
In 2014, she won the prestigious APRA Silver Scroll Award for Songwriting for her sultry Walk Back into Your Arms, also written with brother Jay. Tami and Jay’s song You Were Mine is also long-listed for a Silver Scroll this year (the winner is announced in October).