Canadian-born, New Zealand-based soul country crooner Tami Neilson played her one and only major show in the United States in recent memory during AmericanaFest, or at least since her previous album Dynamite! blew up in underground channels. Though the entire set was fabulous, including her original material and her backing band that had traveled from New Zealand and Canada just for this one show, it was when Tami covered the old Otis Rush song recorded with Duane Allman called “Reap What You Sow” that the room was awash in one of those moments you only get to experience a few times in your entire musical life.
I remember experiencing a similar moment in 2011 at the Pickathon Festival in Portland, OR. A young, hungry band nobody had heard of called Sunday Valley took the stage in the steamy Galaxy Barn. Maybe half a dozen people had purposely made sure to be there, if that. But the crowd would soon begin to swell, ultimately packing the room as a songwriter and guitar player named Sturgill Simpson seemed to evoke some musical magic from beyond, performing feats that seemed to be above the human capacity, just like Tami did at AmericanFest.
In both circumstances, mere enjoyment of the music was not what was going on. It was shock. It was witnessing a singular gift on display that one must behold personally to comprehend the sheer power of. It was like discovering a new planet or some important physics breakthrough. People weren’t just swept up in the moment, they were looking at each other in bewilderment.
Tami Neilson is the greatest singer of any genre I have ever witnessed, and if there’s any justice in this crooked world, soon the rest of humanity will at least be given a chance to behold this for themselves. But just like it took Sturgill Simpson many years before his talents were recognized beyond a few dedicated fans and studious bloggers, it may still take a while for Tami Neilson to come into her own. But she is not going to wait. She’s going to continue to refine her music, record her songs, and perform them when and where she can. And if the right people pay attention and want to help, even better.
Dynamite! was so spectacular, it might have been a wise move to just let it ride until she landed some big representation that could spread her seed beyond New Zealand. Truth be known, I enjoyed Dynamite! even more than Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds, which ultimately beat Dynamite! for Saving Country Music’s 2014 Album of the Year, only for the impact Sturgill’s record had on the industry.
Don’t Be Afraid has also been saddled by stutter stepped release dates across multiple countries, with folks in New Zealand having now spun the record for months, hurting the release’s ability to gain any cohesive buzz. But Tami had something to say, and no matter what the adversity, she was going to get it out to everyone and everywhere eventually. She did not record this album for you, me, or anyone else. She recorded it for herself, and so whatever challenges were presented, she figured out how to slay them.
Tami Neilson is a strange bird even for a music environment full of odd-fitting pieces. It’s understandable why there may be some trepidation from the industry to lend their name to her. A Canadian from New Zealand? But Tami has an incredible country music story that starts off as a member of a family band from an early age, touring the United States and Canada with Johnny Cash and others, and logging years on the road at a tender age paying dues and improving her chops. Neilson grew up in the business, and her every pore exudes music and performance. It’s not just her passion, it’s her pedigree.
Tragically, the patriarch of her musical family, her father Ron Neilson, passed away recently, clearly leaving Tami reeling and working through the pain and heartbreak via music and composition. Don’t Be Afraid is Tami’s therapy through a trying time, and the death of her father runs like a thread through this record, including the title track which was the last song her father ever wrote. Another song, “Lonely,” which is the closest thing you will hear to Patsy Cline in the modern era, was a song originally composed by Tami’s father and finished by Tami and her brother Jay in the aftermath of their father’s death.
Dynamite! was and is a masterpiece of music, but it was a collection of songs in various roots music styles about different subjects collected together under a single title. Tami wasn’t attempting to express something deeper, she was just trying to present herself to the world. Don’t Be Afraid—though not as immediately gripping as Dynamite!—tells a very deep story and is bred through personal grief and inspiration. There are songs that stray from this narrative, but Tami never lets you lose sight who this album is in tribute to.
Songs like “If Love Were Enough” and “The First Man” only increase in impact when you understand the story of loss behind Don’t Be Afraid. Throughout this record, heartbreak looms heavy, and even if Tami happens to be talking about her father, anyone with a broken heart, or pining for another, or feeling alone will find the music speaking to them.
But Don’t Be Afraid is not all about loss and depression. In one of the album’s singles “Holy Moses,” Tami shows her command of the microphone and the ability to communicate energy in her voice like few others, while still holding onto her timeless lounge-like suave and grace that is both classic and all her own. “Loco Mama” and “Laugh Laugh Laugh” also stray a bit from the record’s narrative, and sometimes in these moments it feels like Tami is pushing maybe a little bit too hard instead of letting the pocket form around the song, possibly because she was worried too many tearjerkers would result in a boring record.
For all the adjectives you could find for Don’t Be Afraid, boring would not be one of them though. This album shows much more depth of songwriting and attention to message than previous efforts, even if it doesn’t reach out and grab you by the gruff like Dynamite! did. Tami had to make this album, and she had to make it now. I would still recommend listeners start with Dynamite! if they’ve never heard Tami Neilson before, but Don’t Be Afraid adds a new dimension to Tami Nelison—one that’s brave enough to get deeply personal and put her emotions on display through top-shelf composition.
Like an incredibly talented individual who allows their gifts to fritter away from apathy or boredom, it is a sin of humanity to not push our best and brightest individuals forward. Luckily the living will always be here to remember the contributions of those who never got their due in the mortal coil, just like Tami does for her father on this record. But the name “Neilson” has been niche for too long. It’s time the world knew this name, because it needs it, and before it’s only remembered in reflection.
Two Guns Up (9/10)
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