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.
Wow. That was impressive. You’re right about the final 8 bars. This lady can sing. I liked that “Lonely hushed the ring off the phone” line. I’ll have to check out some more of her music.
Yes, this sounds like a classic!
So beautifully written and sung. Loved it and love ya cousin Jo
This is so beautiful. The lyrics, production, and of course her gorgeous voice. Such a breath of fresh (albeit heartbreaking) air.
In terms of females and the state of country music going more pop/rock, I found this perspective from Jewel interesting:
It’s funny, when I [first] got signed — when I was living in a car — I didn’t know a thing about the business. So I went to my label and said, “Can we get ‘You Were Meant for Me’ played on country radio?” It’s a country song. It’s a shuffle. I’m shocked it got played on pop radio. I thought it should be a natural fit for country, but Atlantic Records in New York didn’t have a relationship with country radio. It’s then that I learned there’s these completely separate systems.
When I first came out, country radio was Shania Twain and Faith Hill. It was a lot more pop than what I was. [But] as a singer-songwriter, I knew I had to get into the country business, because it was the only place I could tell stories. [So] it was an awesome experience for me. It’s felt like a great home. For the first time in my life I was asked, “Why did you write this lyric?” [by country] radio. [At pop radio], I was just asked, “What’s your favorite nail color?” I’m like, “Really? Did you ask Beck that?”