There's nothing conventional about Tami Neilson. That includes her path to becoming a rockabilly, soul, gospel and country queen. Before the New Zealand-based, beehive-sporting, sequin-wearing vocal powerhouse was commanding international stages, she spent her childhood performing as part of the Canada-based Neilson Family Band and opening for country legends like Johnny Cash and Kitty Wells.
Neilson, who will release her new album Chickaboom! on Feb. 14, says she got a crash course in country music stardom at 11 years old at a gig where she and her family performed "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" onstage with Kitty Wells.
"The thing that I remember most about that show was beforehand. My dad had just came offstage. He pulled me over and was like 'Come follow me.' I followed him down the hallway and we looked down the corridor and there was Kitty Wells sitting on a chair in the hallway," Neilson tells Wide Open Country. "All these waiters were flying past with food flying off their trays and she's in this corridor, clutching her little handbag on her lap in full sequins -- looking totally glam. My dad said to me, 'That there is the queen of country music. This is the reality of the music business.' It was just this juxtaposition of her in full sequins, siting on this little rickety chair...Knowing from a very young age the reality of the music business, I didn't really have stars in my eyes."
The struggles of the music business, from life on the road to gender inequality on country radio, are explored in-depth on Chickaboom!
On "Queenie, Queenie," Neilson addresses how much harder female country artists have to work to make a living, particularly when they're so often denied radio play.
"Mama gotta hustle, do another show," she sings. "'Cause they won't play a lady-o on country radio."
"My experience is being a female country artist who's a mother, who's over 40, who lives on the bottom of the world. Those are a lot of hurdles to jump," Neilson says. "You've already ran an entire marathon just to get to the start."
The hurdles women artists face in country music go beyond radio play. Last September, Martina McBride made headlines when she called out Spotify for its skewed algorithms that limit recommendations for female country artists.
It's something Neilson herself noticed last summer, when she realized the first single from Chickaboom! wasn't listed in the country genre on Spotify.
"I noticed that my distributors had put it under the blues genre. And I thought, 'It's not blues, it's country.' So I changed it...not realizing that it was strategic on their behalf because they said 'If you put country, as a female artist, you won't get any traction with it. So they're having to put it under a genre that it's actually not to try to give it a chance to survive before it's kind of choked out," Neilson says. "It's insane to me that I can't list my songs under the genre that they are."
Neilson has a history of championing her heroes in song. Her 2018 album Sassafrass! included a tribute to soul and funk icon Sharon Jones ("Miss Jones"). On Chickaboom!, Neilson honors the legendary Mavis Staples with "Sister Mavis." ("She just radiates joy and love, that woman," Neilson says.)
"That was one song that I questioned including on the album because it's such a 'fan girl' song," Neilson says. "The more I thought about it, I had to get past that vulnerability of coming across as a fan girl, because I think it's really, really important that we hear songs sung by women that express -- it's a love song of admiration. It's a different kind of love that women share. There aren't enough songs that are about women singing about their admiration and love for another woman who has inspired them."
The fiery, vibrant Chickaboom!, which features Neilson's brother Jay on bass and rhythm guitar, is Neilson at her best: bold, honest, unapologetically fierce -- and doing it all in sequins and fringe.
"There's always the underlying current for me of uplifting women and empowering women," Neilson says. "Sometimes it's not even the words you're singing. It's the fact that they're seeing a 42-year-old mother onstage touring, shaking her sequined ass, that gives them the boldness to go, 'Hold on. She's keeping her identity intact. I can do that too. I don't need to feel guilty about being a mother and keeping my identity and what I'm passionate about.'"
Chickaboom! is available for pre-order here.
'Chickaboom!' Track List:
1. Call Your Mama
2. Hey Bus Driver!
3. Ten Tonne Truck
4. Queenie, Queenie
5. You Were Mine
6. 16 Miles of Chain
7. Tell Me That You Love Me
8. Any Fool with a Heart
9. Sister Mavis