TAMI NEILSON putting the sass into country music
Born in Canada and now making a big impact on the New Zealand music scene, country music singer Tami Neilson talks to Judy Bailey about her childhood on the road and her touching tribute to her beloved dad.
Tami Neilson is carving out a stellar career in New Zealand country music. The sassy Canadian is at the forefront of a renaissance that’s making country hip for a whole new generation of fans. Music is in her veins. Tami grew up on the road in North America, her family’s band opening for legends like Johnny Cash and Kitty Wells.
“I remember my dad taking me backstage one day and he said, ‘Look, see that lady there…’ It was Kitty Wells, then the queen of American country music. She was sitting there, a tiny person dressed head to toe in sequins, clutching her handbag, all alone, while people dashed past her with food and instruments, totally ignoring her. Dad told me, ‘This is the music business. This is the reality. This is what you’re getting yourself into.’”
That lesson is etched on Tami’s memory. The loneliness of the road and, she says, the message that “You can’t get too big for your britches – stay humble.”
Her father Ron loomed large in her life. Both co-worker and mentor, he taught her to play the guitar, and how to structure a song. Ron died after a short illness just two years ago and Tami’s last album Don’t Be Afraid, was done as a tribute to him. He wrote two of the songs on that album – Lonely, written for her mother, Betty, when he was away on the road, and the title track Don’t Be Afraid, which was the last song he ever composed. When he was dying, Tami promised her beloved dad that his music would live on. She’s worked hard to keep that promise.
Ron Neilson had also come from showbiz stock. He’d been on the road since he was nine, opening for 1960s icons like The Supremes and Bobby Darin. He and Betty toured full-time for seven years before the children came along. Tami was born in 1977, her brother Jay the following year and Todd five years after that. Ron was also a talented comedian and was offered a position at the celebrated Comedy Store in LA. He turned it down because, Tami tells me, her parents didn’t want their young family growing up around the pressures of LA showbiz. “He sacrificed a lot for us,” she says, her eyes welling at the memory.
The family returned to Canada and carved out a successful career supporting major country stars like Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee on the road there and in the States. Then, when Tami was 18, came what she ruefully calls, “a management disaster”. The family had scored a big gig in Missouri. “Missouri’s a bit like the Vegas of country music,” Tami explains. It was to be their big break. Instead, it ended up costing them everything they had. Tami doesn’t want to dwell on what happened; suffice to say, the family had to go back to Canada, where they managed to rent a tiny apartment. Tami and her brothers, Jay, then 17, and Todd, 12, spent their days busking to earn money for groceries. Tami remembers the irony of doing the family’s washing in a laundromat while the radio played their current hit. It was a harsh lesson about the highs and lows of the music business.
Tami’s dad sank into a deep depression, believing he was responsible for the Missouri disaster. He felt he wasn’t qualified for anything but singing, but managed to get a job as a school bus driver – all those years on the road had at least given him driving skills. “He was the best bus driver in town for all those kids,” Tami says with a smile. “He brought so much joy to everything he did. And then eventually he got back on the horse again and invested his talent in us.”
Was it tough, being on the road for pretty much your entire childhood? “When you’re a kid, that’s your normal,” Tami explains pragmatically, “although I always fantasised about a little house with a white picket fence.”
She has found that stability here in New Zealand with her husband, Grant Tetzlaff, a police inspector. She met him when she came to New Zealand to visit a friend. It was a month after 9/11 and Tami was terrified of flying, but she’d already booked. Her mother’s parting words to her were, “Don’t go falling in love!”
For the next five years Tami and Grant had a long-distance relationship. Every six months he would go up to Canada or she would come here. “It was really good for my music. I had time to be
There was a lot of longing and angst… I still find songs in me coming from that time.
creative. There was a lot of longing and angst… I still find songs in me coming from that time,” she says, laughing.
Tami remained loyal to the family band until her brothers both went their own ways – then she was able to follow her heart to New Zealand.
The country music scene here 12 years ago came as a shock. “It was all hay bales and cowboy hats. Whenever I turned up to gigs the audience was predominantly 50-plus.”
“Americana” – a mix of folk, blues, country, rhythm and blues and rock and roll – wasn’t widespread here in the early 2000s. It wasn’t long though before Tami stumbled across talented Christchurch musicians Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams. “I went to hear them play and I felt my legs shaking. I don’t get that reaction often.”
The three hit it off instantly. Delaney and Marlon had a gig lined up on Waiheke Island and invited Tami to join them. “They sent me 12 songs to learn!” she says with a laugh.
It’s been a collaboration made in heaven. Delaney went on to produce her last two albums, Dynamite and Don’t be Afraid, with Kiwi producer/engineer Ben Edwards, and Marlon has sung on a number of her tracks. Tami, Delaney and Marlon also joined forces to headline the wildly successful Church Tour in 2015 with New Zealand singer/songwriter Barry Saunders. Tami is enormously grateful for her time here working with New Zealand musicians. “It’s made me the artist I am,” she tells me firmly.
Tami is the total package – she can deliver the gentle sentimental ballad and the next minute launch into a gutsy, gravelly blues number, followed by hard-driving rock and roll. She is an accomplished guitar player, but these days relishes being able to step out from behind the guitar and lose herself in the singing.
Those years on the road in North America taught her about the importance of theatre. “Visual presentation is part of the excitement,” she says. “If it’s not there it’s a bit disappointing.”
There is nothing disappointing about Tami. With her long dark hair pulled up into a 1960s-style beehive and her slinky, brightly coloured, fringed and sequinned dresses, she is magnetic on stage. Her numerous accolades include four prestigious Tui awards.
Tami believes the resurgence of interest in country music comes from people’s desire to get back to simple things. “The more high-tech things get, the more we long for basic,” she says.
Country music has always had a thread of Christianity running through it and although she’s not a regular churchgoer, Tami’s own faith is strong. “It’s always changing and evolving. I was raised in a strong evangelical family but I’ve formed my own path and beliefs in that framework. I know I’m not doing this alone, there is a strength outside of me that I can lean on.”
Tami and Grant have two young sons – Charlie, who’ll be five in March, and Sam, two-and-a-half. Tami suffers the usual working mother guilt and worries about being away from her boys while she’s on the road. “Men don’t get judged the same way. I’m always asked, ‘Who’s taking care of the children?’” she tells me wryly.
“I was talking to another female singer the other day who is a mother. I asked her, ‘How do you cope with the guilt trip?’ and she said, ‘It’s always a pull, but the thing that keeps me going is knowing that my son is watching his mum pursuing what she loves and working hard to achieve her goals. We’ll never have to give our sons that lesson, they see it in action.’
“It’s ironic everything’s starting to happen now I’ve got two small children!” (Tami is about to head off on a three-week tour of Canada opening for Blues artist Colin James, and her first European tour kicks off in the Northern Hemisphere summer.) She pauses and thinks for a moment. “Actually, I think so much that’s happened is because of the children. I’m less precious about my songwriting. If I have just a week to record in I get the most bang in the smallest amount of time. I’m a more efficient decision maker. I used to take luxurious stretches of time to write my songs, now I just store everything on my phone as it occurs to me.”
Her hit song Walk (Back to Your Arms), came to her while she was driving Charlie to daycare. The phone was on the passenger seat beside her. You can hear the indicator ticking away in the background. “Everything’s in my phone. Every snippet of melody, every lyric that pops into my head… it’s in there.”
The phone, in its light blue leather case, is a treasure. In it are the bones of her next album.
With her long dark hair pulled up into a beehive and her slinky fringed and sequinned dresses, she is magnetic on stage.
RIGHT: Tami grew up in the music industry as part of her family’s band.
ABOVE: She is an accomplished guitarist, but these days Tami relishes being able to focus on her singing.