The powerhouse vocalist reins in her love of Dolly Parton to just two selections. By Rik Flynn
From singing with family band The Neilsons as a kid to blossoming into an artist of towering stature, Canadian-born, New Zealand-based powerhouse Tami Neilson has been vindicated time and time again via armfuls of awards and unbroken critical acclaim dished out by the likes of Rolling Stone, The Guardian and, of course, Vintage Rock. She’s certainly earned her spot among the contemporary greats, not least for her advocacy of equality and diversity in a wildly unbalanced music industry. Blending the choice elements of country, gospel, R&B and rock’n’roll with a shimmering stage style – think silver tinsel capes and a towering beehive – and brimming with soul, Tami is one of those artists who is permanently on our radar. One of our lockdown highlights was her spectacular filmed show at Auckland’s The Civic theatre, with the 12-piece Big Boss Orchestra. Here, she offers up 10 of the songs that inspired her.
Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe, 1967
This is one of the most perfectly crafted songs of all time. It’s like listening to a Southern gothic novel summed up perfectly in four minutes – every line counts, not one word is wasted. You can see these characters live and breathe, and I remember hearing it for the first time when it came on the oldies station my dad was playing on the radio while touring across the country with my family band when I was a teen. It captivated me with its dark, dramatic lyrics and eerie string arrangements. Bobbie is a genius.
Dolly Parton – To Daddy, 1977
A song that comes across as simple but is so succinct and powerful. It breaks your heart and points out the sexism in this relationship, which was quite a subversive statement in those days. I love the story of sisterhood – Dolly wrote it for a new album with Porter Wagoner and he invited Emmylou Harris to the studio. When she heard it, she begged Dolly to let her have it. Dolly graciously agreed, much to the consternation of Porter, who knew it was a hit. Emmylou recorded it and it shot to the top of the charts.
Johnny Cash– The Long Black Veil, 1965
I clearly have a thing for dramatic stories, which is why I gravitate to country music! Country songwriters know how to rip your heart out. It doesn’t get better than this, co-written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. The first verse grabs you by the throat and you’re hooked. Marijohn, known as the ‘Den Mother of Music Row’, was one of the few female songwriters who pushed through into the boys’ club that was the Nashville industry. She discovered another young writer whose songs would raise the bar…
Kris Kristofferson – Sunday Morning Coming Down, 1970
Kris Kristofferson was in the army with one of Marijohn’s cousins and used that connection to send his songs to her publishing company. She signed him and gave him his start. This is a masterclass in songwriting: “Well I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt…” If you’ve ever been hungover, you’ll be listening to this song. You can taste the sour dryness, smell the stink on your clothes and feel the hopelessness in your heart. That is the magic of a great song.
Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman, 1968
Jimmy Webb is a stone-cold magician. Glen Campbell was in a session and needed one more song. They called Jimmy and he created this masterpiece on the spot. He needed one more verse to complete it, but didn’t hear back, so assumed it didn’t work out. It was only later he found out they cut it and it was released. Can you imagine this being one of your unfinished, not-quite-up-to-scratch songs? “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time” is one of the best lines of all time!
Loretta Lynn – Fist City, 1968
Loretta is the artist who made me pick up a guitar. She’s less about craft and all about heart. She writes like she talks: real and raw with zero bullsh*t tolerance. She tells it like it is, doesn’t always pretty it up and I love her for it. Fist City makes me laugh out loud and yell “Hell, yeah!” for its boldness and strut. Loretta never leaves you wondering what she means. Her truth-telling got more of her work banned on the radio than every song by all the male artists banned in the history of country music. What a badass.
Dolly Parton – Coat Of Many Colors, 1971
Yes, Dolly is on my list twice. I’m showing restraint because she could’ve been the entire list! From the time I was seven and my babysitter sang this to me as a lullaby, it has been one of my favourite stories. We grew up poor – not as poor as Dolly, but there were food stamps and sleeping on mattresses in friends’ homes after the bank repossessed the house. This song turned that shame into pride for the strong foundation of love and music our family had. It still makes me cry every single time.
Kitty Wells – It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, 1952
I can remember my grandma playing her guitar and singing this while my dad and uncle Kenny played along. Kitty was the first artist I got to open for with my family band when I was 12. It’s a response to The Wild Side Of Life by Hank Thompson, which laments women leading poor men astray in honky tonks. Kitty sang this rebuke stating it’s not the women who are to blame, which was incredibly bold. A female artist had never had a No.1 until Kitty smashed that record.
Wanda Jackson – I Gotta Know, 1956
While Kitty’s song was banned from the Opry, Wanda banned the Opry from seeing her perform! For her first appearance, she wore one of her strappy dresses and Ernest Tubb wouldn’t allow her onstage. As an artist who doesn’t like to be limited to one genre, this song is a touchstone for me. Wanda was being told that she had to choose between country and rock’n’roll and when she confided her frustration to Thelma Blackmon, Thelma went away and wrote I Gotta Know, which swaps between the two genres.
Tami Neilson – Lonely, 2015
Growing up in a family band that toured for more than a decade, I thought I’d heard every song my dad wrote. After we lost him, my brother and I were listening to his demos and Jay stumbled across this. He was singing into his tape recorder with his guitar and the birds singing. He wrote it for my mom when they were newlyweds and had to go on tour immediately after they were married. We added verses about mom missing him, bringing it full circle. I included it on my Don’t Be Afraid album.