Tami Neilson Lives Beyond the Stars
by John Job
It’s such a crutch when a record reviewer comes across a new voice and resorts to worn-out comparisons to describe the unfamiliar.
“Her voice is as smoky as Janis Joplin’s, by way of Bette Midler.” Or maybe “It’s like Caroline Wonderland imitating Laurie Anderson after three days with no sleep.” To describe a new band, “It’s Talking Heads meet Canned Heat,” or “Rage Against the Machine channels Velvet Underground, with backing vocals by The Weeknd and Teddy Pendergrass.”
Then comes a voice like a crisp autumn sunrise. It seems more visual than aural, but it’s both, simultaneously. Your mind and ears instantly alert. Who is that? Oh my God, who is that? Any name you try to hang on the sound falls away like a shadow. It’s not Patsy. It’s not Wynonna. It isn’t Amethyst, Emmylou, or Reba, or Rhiannon.
The voice grows in every dimension. It’s beautiful. Imposing. Lavish. Pure. And unequalled. That’s why no comparison attaches to it. You’ve never heard this voice before, and you’ll never mistake it for another. It’s from somewhere beyond the stars.
Beyond the stars, can you hear the guitars? / They are calling you up to be with me. / Beyond the velvet sky, darling will you and I / Dance to the beat of our hearts? / To the place where I can believe / That you will never leave me / All alone in the dark?
There it is… the best stanza of any song I have ever heard. Then this new voice, this voice you’ve never heard before, blends together with the most familiar and most unmistakable voice on Earth, known on every continent, and the mixing is complete perfection. It’s Willie Nelson, with Tami Neilson.
Then you see her. Tall. Square-shouldered. Serious. Stately. Like the Virgin of Guadalupe with a constellation of stars for a crown, floating in the tiny church, through the saloon doors, down the dusty street and onto the stage of Luck, Texas, the well-preserved western town in Spicewood on the Pedernales, where “The Red-Headed Stranger” was filmed, back before Austin lost its soul. That’s way back.
Tami Neilson is a force of nature, like gravity, the tides, and true love. Born in Canada, living in New Zealand for the last 15 years, she’s a mystery to Americans. That’s a shame. She may never share the bill with Bela Fleck or Jim Lauderdale, but she’s as Americana as Marcia Ball, as bluesy as Angela Strehli, and as honest as Lou Ann Barton. If Tommy Emmanuel can keep the spirit of Chet Atkins alive, and if he can close the gap between Ayers Rock and the Smoky Mountains, who’s gonna question Tami Nielson’s Americana songwriting with its Kiwi sense of place?
That establishes something about the genre. There are no boundaries to Americana music. Its artists may be clustered in North America, but there’s no rule about that. The sun never sets on its landscape. The music is ethnically, racially, spiritually, regionally, and historically diverse, tied together with a simple belief in exceptional oneness, so much so that Los Lobos, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Taj Mahal, Flaco Jimenéz, R.B. Morris, Joe Ely, and Buddy Guy are all brothers. And of course, Billy Strings can share the stage with all of them, and when he does, he pushes them all on to the proverbial next level.
Tami Neilson grew up in a family band known in every corner of the Great White North. Moving to New Zealand propelled her to achievements that have surprised her as much as they’ve startled the Kiwi country music establishment. She has won every award presented by Recorded Music NZ, their equivalent to the Grammys.
In another time, Tami Neilson would be called a torch singer. She can hold her own with singers like K.d. lang, Sarah Vaughan, Adele, Rosemary Clooney, Betty Carter, Blossom Dearie, Etta James, and Barbra Streisand. That’s not to say Tami sounds anything like these other stars, but she shines as bright as they do in the night sky.
Tami has eight albums to her credit. The latest, released in July 2022, is called Kingmaker. It’s her fifth consecutive studio album and includes “Beyond the Stars,” the completely unexpected duet with Willie. The song is about the loss of Tami’s father, but it also honors Willie’s beloved sister, Bobbie, who passed away just a week before the song was recorded. Bobbie and Willie had performed together for more than 50 years. The song garnered Grammy nominations for “Best Americana Performance” and “Best American Roots Song.” It’s damn close to being perfect.
I’m writing this a month after Loretta Lynn’s feisty spirit ascended to be with Jesus in The Hall of the Meek Who Have Inherited the Earth and Passed on to Inherit Heaven. This fact is relevant to my thoughts on Kingmaker.
Ostensibly, this new album of Tami Neilson’s is about tilting at the various windmills of dominating but faceless males, music industry bosses, power thieves, chauvinists, supremacists, lock-down doctors, and Democrats. I mean Republicans. Or is it Tories. Social media billionaires. Prime ministers. Whomever.
It’s a big ole goofy world. Down Under. Up Over. And ever’where’s in between. It seems everybody had just too damn much time on their hands during the COVID pandemic for obsessing on how messed up the world is. More time to think. More unpleasant things to think about.
How many COVID-inspired albums are we wallowing in now? Too many to count. How many have any songs worth listening to?
If there’s one gem out of every dozen or so, then the pandemic’s been worth it. On Kingmaker, there are at least three.
The duet with Willie takes the cake. It’s a song of destiny. “Beyond the Stars” simply had to be written, and it simply had to be sung by Tami and Willie.
The album’s most tightly constructed song, “King of Country Music,” asks whether that title could be a girl’s. Loretta says yes. Tami’s not sure, but she wants to find out.
She lets us know she’s got some cows and some chickens, got a dog and a guitar for pickin’… but she has no Southern drawl, no grits from Grandma, ‘cause she lives 8,000 miles south of Alabama. She gives us a glimpse of growing up in her family band, racing in a broken-down van to open a show for Kitty Wells or Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash in towns with no names.
God is in the garden, devil’s in the dirt / Eve is pickin’ apples, Adam’s blaming her / Daddy was a guitar, Mama was a gun / Could the king of country music / be the daughter, not the son?
Then, with a wink and a nod to where she’s been and where she’s heading, Ms. Tami Neilson borrows Loretta’s accent to tell you what’s coming: You can bet, (I’m the) most famous girl ain’t no one heard of yet / But I’m all set.
The third gem on Kingmaker is a total about-face called “I Can Forget.” I followed someone today, just a block or two / Could’ve bet that silhouette was you / It made my heart beat fast / It filled my eyes / Your memory takes me by surprise.
Suddenly the King of Country Music is shakin’ in her Jolene Tecovas. I heard a voice like yours in the grocery store / and watched my basket tumble to the floor. Somebody’s living in her head, bad. Set me free / I’m begging you, let me be / Give me a memory I can forget.
Such vulnerability, in such a powerhouse. Somehow that’s as sexy as it gets. If I heard a voice like Tami’s in the produce aisle at Whole Foods, I’d drop my avocados too. Set me free, I’m begging you, from the mediocre voices filling the airwaves. When I think I’ve moved on, you catch my breath. Kingmaker. Kingmaker. Dance me beyond the stars. Kingmaker. Kingmaker, out past Jupiter and Mars.
Songs by Tami Neilson.
“Beyond the Stars” written by Delaney Davidson and Tami Neilson.
“I Can Forget” written by Ron Neilson and Tami Neilson.
“Green Peaches” and “Baby, You’re a Gun” written by Jay Neilson and Tami Neilson.
Released 15 July 2022.
Total running time, 32:19.
Neilson Records NR005LP
Produced by Tami Neilson.
Mixed by Simon Gooding
Mastered by Chris Chetland
Bass — Chip Matthews
Drums — Tom Broome
Guitar — Brett Adams
Pedal Steel, Banjo — Neil Watson
String Arrangements — Victoria Kelly
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Tami Neilson’s “Chickaboom!” Has Grit and Plenty of Vitality