There’s a spectacular ballad toward the end of Kingmaker called “I Can Forget,” and it’s a window into what Tami Neilson’s career might have been. It’s a heartbreaker about a woman being haunted by the memory of someone she loves. It captures the cruelty of grief as well as any song I’ve ever heard: that we are allowed to forget our loss, which only makes it that much harder when we remember it again. Neilson’s vocal soars and breaks and cries in all the right places, and because her performance is coupled with a classic Nashville Sound arrangement, “I Can Forget” sounds like a lost Patsy Cline record. Yes, Neilson is that powerful as a singer, and because she writes most of her own material, she’s that capable as a songwriter. She could have stayed in that groove, mining country music’s fondness for nostalgia and making excellent albums that show reverence for the form without ever interrogating it.
It’s important to acknowledge that before discussing Kingmaker, a landmark album that goes beyond just interrogating country music. It fully diagnoses its ailment while embodying the cure. It’s a fierce and fearless feminist statement, explicitly calling out the gender inequities in a way that no country artist before her has ever done. The legacy of the legends that came before her are all over this record: Wynonna’s moral authority, Dolly Parton’s playful wit, Jeannie C. Riley’s plainspoken sass, Rosanne Cash’s philosophical lyricism. An entire Women’s Issues in Country Music course could be taught with Kingmaker as its syllabus.
But the woman who kept coming into my mind while listening to Kingmaker isn’t a singer at all, though she shares New Zealand roots with Neilson: comedienne Hannah Gadsby. In her special Nanette, she used her mastery over the form and function of standup comedy to subvert its inherent misogyny and speak her full truth with soul-shattering honesty. Nanette wouldn’t have worked if Gadsby wasn’t an exceptional standup comedienne. Kingmaker wouldn’t work if Neilson wasn’t a brilliant country singer and songwriter in full command of those talents. She loves country music, and she can make it as well as anyone of her generation, but she knows it has to change. She’s explored why in all of her work leading up to Kingmaker, but this is the album that is her manifesto.
Kingmaker works as a unified whole by combining two different narrative threads: the inequities faced by women in country music and society as a whole is one; the multigenerational journey of Neilson’s own family is the other. Both stories are told in parallel, but they regularly intertwine, and both threads are equally important because one diagnoses the problem and the other lays out its solution. Neilson is merciless in her depiction of sexism, simply by presenting the unvarnished truth with no sweeteners. In the album’s opening title track, she laments how her talents have been overlooked and underutilized: “I’m waiting, years fading, one by one like pearls you throw to the swine.” “Green Peaches” tells the devastating story of a young woman who is exploited by a manager who makes a quick buck off of her talent, while she’s left pushing a stroller and pretending to strangers that she isn’t that girl that they once heard on the radio.
She pays homage to Dolly Parton on “Baby, You’re a Gun,” acknowledging the gentle and soft image Parton had to project to garner enough success to take control of her own narrative, which is itself a reminder that the woman who is perhaps the greatest songwriter in American history was a late night punchline for decades, defined by her figure and not her peerless songcraft. And she tells about her own struggles as a young woman in Nashville, sharing a small living space with her family while “slipping demo tapes in laundry bags of stars. You don’t get far.”
That line comes from “King of Country Music,” which also features the line, “Daddy was a guitar, Mama was a gun.” Yes, Neilson had her own gun as a mother, and had both of her parents in her corner from the start. How did she become the “Careless Woman” who can brush off mediocre men with a deservedly contemptuous grin on “Ain’t My Job” and “Mama’s Talkin’,” instead of being one of those “green peaches” that get stolen “right off the tree?” Because she was valued, supported, and encouraged to be her true self, and taught from day one that she had the right to take up space and have her voice heard.
“The Grudge” is the album’s keystone, telling the story of her maternal great grandfather disowning her grandfather for marrying her grandmother. It’s the most powerful track on the album, tracing how one family’s journey from tragedy to grace. And what a tragedy it was. Her great grandfather was “unleavened bread in a town with a portrait of the Pope hanging over every door.” This man escaped persecution, changed his name, started a business and a family, but went to his grave not speaking to his middle child because of who he chose to marry:
But his son was wed so he dеclared him dead
And they nеver again did speak
And that son had a daughter and that daughter was my mother
Passin’ grudges down the family tree
Her great grandfather survived genocide but was defeated by pride, and that pride was borne of toxic patriarchy: the idea that a man gets to control the choices of his children and determine the worthiness of a woman joining his family. But as Kingmaker documents, that vicious mindset was broken, and Neilson was raised by a mother and father who saw their daughter as a gift to be encouraged, not a possession to be directed. Three generations later, this is how that daughter speaks to her own son:
Baby boy with your face full of joy
And a hand so small in mine
There might come a day we regret what we say
But I promise there won’t come a time
When anything you say could ever navigate
Any part of my heart from love
We’ll make a new tradition, love with no conditions
And a heart too full to ever hold that grudge
Neilson’s got a voice that can make the rafters shake, but her delivery of that verse is her finest moment on record, and it’s barely more than a whisper. The unconditional love radiates through every line. That moment is also beautifully complemented by “Beyond the Stars,” a gorgeous eulogy for her father with Willie Nelson as his stand-in. The depth of her loss resonates, but it’s a loss untainted by a grudge. Her father loved her, she loved her father, and their separation will be an open wound for both of them until they are together again. It’s a reminder that some forces are beyond our control, but all of the choices that we make impact ourselves and those we love, even as we move beyond the earthly plane. So we must choose wisely.
The positive forces that came together to help Neilson fully realize her talent and cultivated her confidence are instructive for what ails country music today. Kingmaker is easily the best country album of the decade, and one of the seminal recordings of the 21st century. It’s finding its audience, too, especially in Australia and New Zealand, where Olivia Newton-John and Kasey Chambers have previously demonstrated how grace and grit can power a female artist to iconic status. But even more so than those two ladies who contributed so much to the format, country music really needs Tami Neilson, who has the potential to be a transformative figure for the genre if given the platform to do so.
Much of Kingmaker documents why that platform is unlikely to be given by the powers that be, who seem incapable of distinguishing the poison from the antidote. But it doesn’t matter what they think or who they choose to anoint as the next big thing. Kingmaker is a career-defining statement from an artist who realizes the crown has been hers all along, and it should serve as both inspiration and roadmap for aspiring artists who don’t fit within the narrow conventions that are suffocating the genre. Claim your crowns, y’all. Tami has shown you how.
Really loving “The Grudge”. Not sure the overall sound of the album is for me, but that song is stunning. Definitely going to listen more. Thanks for the recommendation!