Country singer Tami Neilson shares the music that helped her through grief

Tami Neilson

Tami is a Canadian-born country singer and songwriter whose career began as a member of the Neilson Family Band, with her parents and brothers. Her performances and recordings have won international acclaim. Rolling Stone once called her “a fire-breathing belter”.

Lockdown was hard. As a musician, when you can’t do what you normally do, which is perform, there is a lot of soul-searching.

A song I turn to in times like this is one my dad wrote in the hospital days before he passed away called “Don’t Be Afraid” which I recorded as the title track of my album of that name. It always brings me comfort and encouragement. It’s like him speaking to me and having his voice there. He was facing death, the greatest human fear, and still managed to be creative. It shows incredible strength and resilience to face it with hope and be fearless – that’s my ultimate go-to song.

There are other artists I can always refer back to when I go: “What am I doing this for?” They are my true north – Dolly Parton and Mavis Staples. Although they are different artists, they embody the two sides to me: the soul and the country intertwined. Mavis is a newer favourite who has been a big influence on me in the last decade. I found her on my own, as an adult. Growing up in a family band I was influenced by the music of my parents.

People always talk about me as retro or throwback, but actually that was the music of my peers. Other kids grow up in high school and listen to that music, but my peers were my family, who I was in a tour bus with for 10 years. The Beatles and Dolly Parton and that golden age of music were brand new to me. It wasn’t retro at all. When I lost my dad, I started sifting through his old demos and songs and finding solace in that, and in writing and creating something for him.

I feel all creative people are fortunate in that we have a tangible way of processing grief. At the end, you have something you can hold in your hands and pass on to your children. When my dad was in hospital, Pops Staples’ album Don’t Lose This was due to be released. It was songs he had recorded in his later years but hadn’t released. He would ask Mavis to play it for him when he was sick, and he would say: “Don’t lose this.” After he died, they stripped all the 1980s production away and she added some vocals and it was so beautiful to have this testament of her father’s work.

I related to Pops and Mavis’s relationship – a co-worker and a colleague where there was also that fatherdaughter bond. I ordered that album for Dad and it arrived the day after he died, and when I got it I just broke down sobbing. But that album carried me through the years following – it is the number one album on my shelf.

If there was a style of music I’d like to get to know better, it’s probably hip-hop. I listen to some artists who are not so well-known – Mumu Fresh is one. She recently collaborated with Tobe Nwigwe, another ground-breaking hip-hop artist. She did a verse in one of his songs that stole the show.

Country music is the world’s most conservative genre and oppressive of women to the point where they choke out female opportunities for being played on the radio and getting signed. In hip-hop there is a lot of bravado and strut. That is such an integral part of the genre. You don’t find that in females in country music. I loved that verse by Mumu Fresh, and wondered what it would sound like if a country female wrote a song about it. And that became my song Big Boss Mama .

Tami’s favourite music to relax to

  • Don’t Lose This by Pops Staples
  • Greatest Hits by Dolly Parton
  • “Tundah Fiyah” by Tobe Nwigwe, featuring Nell and Mumu Fresh

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