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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - EDITOR'S LETTER -

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.

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