Tami Neilson
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Tami Neilson

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..Tami Neilson has the looks and the voice to get any song across to any audience." -Randy Bachman of "THE GUESS WHO" - Randy Bachman

"Three Chords and the Truth"

Three Chords and the Truth [- Hide]
Otago Daily Times
As the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards reach their ...
As the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards reach their business end in Gore this weekend, Shane Gilchrist asks a couple of songwriters to define the essence of a country music song.

Acclaimed American songwriter Harlan Howard has provided words, music and inspiration to a long and influential list of country music artists.

Those who have sung his songs include Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles and Dolly Parton. Despite the many words he has given to others to perform, those from his own lips also echo loudly.

Howard, who died in 2002 at the age of 74, was once asked what made a great country song.

His reply: "Three chords and the truth."

With the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards culminating in the senior finals at Gore's Town and Country Club tomorrow, it's timely, then, to explore Howard's words further.

And who better to ask than one of the awards' judges, Canadian-born singer-songwriter Tami Neilson, and Jackie Bristow, one of three finalists for Best New Zealand Country Music Album.

A re-reading of Howard's answer might be, "simple and honest".

However, to categorise all country music as such is to risk a woefully inadequate generalisation of a genre that has within it many subsets.

For instance, how could you lump a strident gunfighter anthem such as Marty Robbins' El Paso with the swing-time lilt and tender lyrics of, say, Lyle Lovett's The Waltzing Fool? Neilson agrees.

On the road for a series of gigs before her arrival in Gore earlier this week, she believes "emotional resonance" is a better definition for what makes country music such an abiding attraction, both to herself and others.

It is the connection between lyric and listener that's all-important, she says.

"I think the reason there is always a love for country music is because they are songs that people can instantly relate to.

"Everything that is written is normally by real people, people who are just trying to express their hurt or their love . . .

"Country music is one of those genres where you could read out the lyrics and it is actually a story."

Pain and love aside, other well-trodden metaphors include those of revenge and redemption, the metamorphosis from underdog to overlord (and, sometimes, back again), the numerous narratives of blue-collar battlers and the desperation of the dirt-poor.

Neilson explores the latter in her recent album, Red Dirt Angel, the title track evoking more than a sprinkling of the dust so prevalent in the opening paragraphs of literary giant John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath.

Neilson co-wrote the song with Dennis Morgan, a professional lyricist who has been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame on the back of tracks such as Sleeping Single In A Double Bed and I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool, both performed by Barbara Mandrell.

"I had this idea kicking around in my head," Neilson explains.

"I had this image of a Red Dirt Angel.

I guess it was the two opposites combined in one; you think 'angel equals pure', and the red dirt coming from a poor background."

From Toronto, Neilson (31) followed her heart (and a man) and moved to Auckland two and a-half years ago (she got married last year).

She was immersed in music from an early age, performing with parents Ron and Betty and younger brothers Todd and Jay in The Neilsons.

The family band had full-time commitments, travelling throughout Canada and the United States.

"We actually did a full variety show; we grew up doing the music of the '40s, '50s and '60s, country music . . . old rock 'n' roll and old country music are not that dissimilar," Neilson says.

"There are so many genres within country music. You've got bluegrass, alt-country, swing, rock-country, pop-country . . . I just find people think country music is all the same thing.

"That's like saying all rock music sounds like Nickelback, or all pop music sounds like Justin Timberlake. It's just not true."

Neilson continues the family's country music connection, working with Jay.

He co-produced Red Dirt Angel, released in April, as well as playing bass, ukulele, guitar and singing backing vocals.

Jay flew from Canada to accompany his sister on a national tour that finished earlier this week in Gore.

"My dad and my brother are some of the best guitar players I've met in my life - and I've had the privilege to meet a few.

But even though my dad can play every chord known to man, he used to always say to me, 'Tami, the simpler the better.

If you can write a song with three chords or two chords . . .' "It's actually a lot harder to write a simple song and make it sound really great," Neilson says.

"For instance, probably my favourite song on the album is Cigarette . . . Really, that song has four chords and there's not a lot of movement either - it's just that same chord playing over and over.

"But I find the simpler the music, the more the lyrics resound."

Though Neilson has visited Gore before ("I opened their new country music centre last year and have done quite a few concerts there"), this is the first time she has been a judge at the Gold Guitar Awards.

"I was quite surprised when they asked me. I was asked to be a judge and that is quite an honour . . . I don't know yet which categories I'll be judging."

A tip for entrants: she likes the banjo.

"I need to learn how to play it," Neilson says.

"I love it when it is used in a moody, percussive way."

- Otago Daily Times, New Zealand


"The Neilsons" (1996), "Red Dirt Angel" (2008), "The Kitchen Table Sessions" (2009)



"TRULY TOP SHELF..Tami Neilson has the looks and the voice to get any song across to any audience." -Randy Bachman of "THE GUESS WHO"

She was raised in Canada, by parents with a closet full of sequined stage costumes and platform shoes.

She grew up in a house where amplifiers and guitar cases were just as much a part of the furniture as chairs and tables, and when most kids are still singing nursery rhymes in the bathtub, she was travelling across North America in a 34 foot motor home, performing professionally in their family band (No, no- not the Partridge Family- next guess.) The Neilsons.

Sharing the stage with the likes of Johnny Cash, Tami appeared regularly on television and radio, and at fairs and festivals, promoting The Neilsons independent CD, releasing 2 top 40 singles on the Canadian music charts. She also managed to score an award-winning music video for their single "Windows to The Past", which aired regularly on CMT.

Then Tami met a boy.

Not just any boy, mind you, but a Kiwi that lived on the other side of the world.

She arrived in New Zealand, performing at Parachute Music Festival, showcasing as the support act on numerous NZ and Australian tours, making television appearances on the "Good Morning Show" and as Amy Winehouse on TVNZ "Stars in Their Eyes".

After headlining "The Canadian Invasion" Tour to promote the release of her debut solo album, "Red Dirt Angel", which included the single "Sister Cash", a duet with Joanne Cash, Tami is back in 2009 with her 2nd CD, "The Kitchen Table Sessions", releasing and touring the project in both NZ and Canada.

Reuniting to perform with her are family members Jay Neilson (aka "Johnny Confidence", a successful pop/rock artist in his own right) and Ron Neilson. Their show is guaranteed to be great, high-energy night full of crazy stories, a wacky sense of humour and amazing musical performances! Watch Tami on YouTube!: http://nz.youtube.com/watch?v=ijLXDlWZbyI&feature=channel_page