Tami Neilson (feat. Marlon Williams)
Written by Ron Neilson, Tami Neilson, and Jay Neilson
New Zealand’s Tami Neilson made some inroads with US country audiences with 2014’s extraordinary Dynamite!, and “Lonely,” the first single from her upcoming follow-up, Don’t Be Afraid, is an exquisite throwback of a record that mines a real sense of heartbreak from its subtlety and restraint.
The single’s aesthetic is established from its opening bars, with a simple electric guitar figure plucked over a lush string arrangement and brushed percussion: The style is pure Countrypolitan that Owen Bradley would have been proud of, but the track isn’t polished to the same degree of spit-shined perfection of a vintage Eddy Arnold or Patsy Cline single. Neilson’s contemporary POV is borne out by the use of modern, unfussy recording techniques, which gives the arrangement on “Lonely” ample room to breathe.
The song is a wonder of melancholy and despair, characterizing “Lonely” as a lingering ghost that imposes itself in the absence of a loved one. Neilson sings to that long-lost someone, reporting a list of offenses (“Lonely wears the clothes left in your drawer,” “Lonely stole your side of the bed,” “Lonely keeps the tank full in your car”) both egregious and mundane. A light echo of reverb runs through the track, heightening Neilson’s isolation and the haunted quality of the single’s palpable sense of loss. Guest vocalist Marlon Williams enters on the song’s bridge, using his wispy tenor to answer Neilson’s call and making the song’s personification of loneliness seem even more present and real.
While the song’s concept may want for originality, the specific images in the lyrics of “Lonely” resonate: The song works because its images remain accessible while still describing a realistic, fully-drawn relationship. Though “Lonely” comes with a deeply personal story for Neilson— her father, Ron, started writing the song back in the 1970s, and she and her brother, Jay, found his old demo tape a week after he passed away in February 2015 and finished the song— it also stands fully on its own merits as a strong piece of songwriting, rather than relying on a tragic backstory to provide emotional depth.
Neilson’s simply gorgeous performance only elevates “Lonely” further. While Dynamite! often showcased a strong Wanda Jackson-style rockabilly influence, “Lonely” highlights two of the other key influences that make Neilson such a tremendous vocalist. Combining the rich, full-bodied tone of Patsy Cline with the pitch-perfect clarity and power of Connie Smith, Neilson gives a performance that impresses for both its technical and its emotional ranges. Her ability to convey heartbreak and desperation with just a slight break or with a single, sustained note— the final eight bars of this song are just flawless— puts her firmly in league with the genre’s all-time greatest vocalists. Moreover, her willingness to transform personal heartbreak into such a captivating and genuinely lovely single reaffirms that Tami Neilson is one of the most exciting artists in country music today.