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Tami Neilson Makes a Statement … With Help from Willie

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

Tami Neilson's latest album has her riding high in the Americana music world

Canadian Tami Neilson may have followed her heart to New Zealand - in the outer parts of the hemisphere - nearly 20 years ago, but her latest album Kingmaker puts her smack-bang in the centre of the Americana music world. And having a duet with country music’s oldest living-legend probably helps.

While Kingmaker, released in mid-July, is something of a self-penned in-your-face statement on feminism and behavioural sexism in the music industry, it is actually a song written as a heartfelt tribute to a life-gone which impacts the most on Neilson’s impressive album.

Together with Delaney Davidson, she co-wrote “Beyond the Stars” to remember her late-father, musician Ron Neilson, who died in 2015. And perhaps the greatest achievement of her career was getting Willie Nelson to duet on the song in which he acts her father’s voice in verse.

“Having Willie be the voice of my father in this duet is just something beyond my wildest dreams. I cried for three days after it was recorded, listening to it and thinking about how absolutely overwhelmed and proud my Dad, a musician and a huge Willie Nelson fan, would have been,” Neilson said in a statement.

Willie’s duet on a ballad reflecting on the grief of a loved one has added poignancy in that it was released only a few months after he lost his own sister and musical collaborator Bobbie, who was 91. Beyond the stars I can hear the guitars/They’re calling me up to be with you

The song was originally recorded remotely because of the pandemic but in March she was able to fly to the U.S. to actually perform it with Willie at his Luck Reunion event in Texas. Footage from this performance is edited into the “Beyond the Stars” video, directed by Neilson’s brother Todd. It also features her roaming the grounds of Nelson’s Luck Ranch where she enters the chapel before walking down a deserted road to the ground’s empty stage.

The duet was two years in the making. Neilson had originally been scheduled as a guest artist at the Luck Reunion in 2020. However, COVID intervened, the festival went online and she performed her three song-set virtually - beaming in from New Zealand. “Unbeknown to me, Willie, his wife Annie, and their family, were watching and, I know this sounds crazy, but they became fans,” she told The Project NZ.

Annie then contacted Neilson online and they developed a friendship during the pandemic, finally culminating in the high-profile duet. “I still wake up every morning and look at my phone to see if the song still exists in this world or if I just dreamt it all,” she told Roots music magazine No Depression.

Neilson’s rapid embrace by the Nelson clan might have been helped by her wonderful cover of the Willie-penned Christmas classic “Pretty Paper” – a hit for Roy Orbison – which she released as a single in 2020.

It was through her late father – and more precisely the Neilson Family Band – that the Indigenous Canadian got her start in music. From the age of 10, she would join the family as they opened shows for the likes of Kitty Wells and Johnny Cash across North America.

Miss Kitty Wells was the first show I opened/Ten years old singing “Will the Circle Be unbroken” next to her/Sometimes that country music pedigree is earned/You watch and learn

So it is not surprising that Kingmaker includes another track dedicated to her dad. The gentle “I can Forget” began as an instrumental melody she discovered on her father’s old work tapes. From there, the words easily flowed: Set me free/ I’m begging you/ Let me be/Give me a memory I can forget

“When my dad died, I said … ‘I don’t want you to worry about your songs. I will be your voice and none of your music will go to waste.’ There’re a lot of things you think, ‘I’ll never be able to do that again,’ but to be able to co-write a song with him was really special,” she told No Depression.

Sentiments aside, much of Kingmaker is devoted to Neilson’s passionate crusade to get women a fairer deal in music and, indeed, life.

“I’m pretty outspoken about equality – whether that be for racial, gender or sexual equality,” the mother of two boys told The Big Idea. “Treating others like the way you want to be treated is the golden rule in life. Over the past two years that’s deteriorated even more, maybe it’s come to light a bit more. It’s always been there.”

The autobiographical hand-clapping track “King of Country Music” cuts to the chase. Neilson sings: Could the king of country music be the daughter, not the son? The irony is not lost in the fact that Neilson’s sons (8 & 10) accompany her on soft harmony.

But the most biting song, and perhaps the most captivating musically, is the rockabilly “Green Peaches” which pulls no punches when confronting all the dilemmas facing a woman - especially a mother - in the music world.

South Carolina in the summer time

And there’s holes in both her Sunday shoes

She’s walking with the baby

When she stops by a lady

‘Ain’t you that girl who had a hit or two’

And she shakes her head and says

‘Sorry mam I’m afraid that girl sure isn’t me

But I get it all the time’

And the baby starts crying

And she lullaby’s him that melody

Oh, you gotta know when to pick ‘em

Before they’re too grown to see

Green peaches, steal ‘em right off the tree

There is also feminist defiance in the strident “Mama’s Talkin’” and the never-miss-a-beat “Careless Woman”.

Having a superstar sing duet on any album is a big plus, but even without Willie, Kingmaker must rank up there with Neilson’s best work. It wonderfully explores her rumbunctious vocal range, but more importantly establishes her as songwriter with true grit and, indeed, serious potential.

This point was nicely summarized in closing her profile in No Depression: “…. she is ready to keep using her voice and her songs to craft a better future for the next generation. She even has a head start.

“After all, in New Zealand it is already tomorrow.”

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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