The circumstances surrounding the release of Tami Neilson’s latest album, Don’t Be Afraid, are colored with sorrow—the passing of her father– but out of that sorrow an invisible thread emerges connecting the Canadian, who is now based out of her adopted home of New Zealand, to another musical dynasty. Young Tami cut her teeth as a performer in the Neilson Family band, which was led by her father, Ron Neilson, and gave her unbelievable opportunities opening for some of country’s biggest acts, including Johnny Cash himself. All these decades later, while her father was in the hospital, Tami found herself taking comfort in gospel, specifically the powerhouse voice of Mavis Staples. In fact, she ordered the 2015 Pops Staples release to play for him, but he passed before it arrived. Like Pops, Ron Neilson was performing until the end, and in his final days, he wrote a song, “Don’t Be Afraid,” which Tami took for her title track. Like Mavis, Tami has a knockout voice with the kind of range that turns heads. Together, they pulled off one final collaboration.
Neilson has racked up an impressive array of awards in her solo career, including New Zealand’s most prestigious music award for excellence in songwriting, the APRA Silver Scroll, for her song “Walk (Back to Your Arms),” as well as the award for “Best Female Artist” at the National Country Music Awards and APRA’s “Best Country Song” at the NZ Country Music Awards. Don’t Be Afraid was released last year in New Zealand, where it debuted at the top of the NZ Album Charts and the Independent Music Charts. The album will be released in the US on September 30th on the Outside Music label.
Today, Elmore is premiering the video for “Holy Moses,” Tami’s first single off her upcoming release. She says of the song’s origins, “I had to fly back to New Zealand, to studio time I had booked months in advance, not knowing I would be on this journey of grief and loss with my father’s death while trying to write for my new album. I had only two songs completed and recording was six weeks away. So before I left Canada, my brother Jay and I sat down one afternoon and he played bits of chords and melodies he’d been working on into my phone. Once we’d finish a verse and chorus, we’d move on to the next, leaving me with the raw material to go away and work on, write lyrics, etc. This was one of those snippets of ideas. I wrote it when I was in the midst of the angry stage of grief, frustrated and overwhelmed. When we got into the studio, it took on an aggressive Ike & Tina vibe.”
The song takes off like a shot with a rollicking, rockabilly groove, and Neilson’s vocals are indeed ferocious on the track, from her low, throaty growl to an impassioned wail– “have mercy on me!” The video is a stylish throwback to the ‘60s, from Neilson’s updo and glittery dress to the American bandstand set-up. She takes us into the making of the video: “The T.A.M.I (Teen Age Music International) show was a legendary 1964 concert held over two days in Santa Monica with an incredible line-up (Rolling Stones, James Brown, Supremes, etc.) and the highlights were made into a film. I wanted to give a little nod to it with the name-play. Me and my band were flying from New Zealand to do some showcases in Toronto and, because this album is a tribute to our Dad, I wanted to take the opportunity while I was back home to work with my brother Todd, who directed it (that’s he and my sister-in-law Lindsay behind-the-scenes at the very beginning), and my brother Jay (playing my Dad’s white telecaster. My bass player, Mike, is playing my Dad’s Kay bass he had as a teenager). If you look closely, Dad even gets a cameo- there’s a photo of him on Jay’s amp. He’s 15, playing a show with his teenage band, “The Volcanoes,” on a line-up that included Bobby Darin and the Supremes. Backstage, Diana Ross ruffled his hair and called him her little Beatle boy. He collected her lipstick-stained cigarette butts after she left. Who knows, maybe she was on her way to fly to the West coast afterwards to play that T.A.M.I show?”
If you’re lucky enough to be at this year’s Americana Music Festival in Nashville, catch Tami on September 23rd at 3rd & Lindsley at midnight and on the 24th at the Canadian Blast Show at InDo at 4:30 pm. Head to Tami’s website for a full list of tour dates, and watch “Holy Moses” below.