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Striking a cord

No longer about thigh-slapping hoedowns to Dolly Parton covers, Kiwi country music is officially cool. Nicola Russell talks to the artists at the forefront of this music revolution.
Tami Neilson is responsible for the new wave of Kiwi country music.

In a popular music venue, an arresting looking woman with glossy beehived hair, heavy winged eyes and a sequinned gold frock takes to the stage, her voice lifting off in a raw, powerful mix of country, gospel and soul.

A suburb away in a dimly lit bar, a young woman, guitar in hand, croons a folk-country number with a haunting vulnerability that hits you right in the heart.

In a neighbourhood inn, a man wearing a suit, guitar and face lined with experience, takes to the stage and sings the familiar sound of Kiwi country.

All three acts, Tami Neilson (pictured above), Ebony Lamb and Barry Saunders, are part of a group of songwriters and musicians reviving country music in New Zealand and taking their unique sound to the world. They work alongside other trailblazers in the Kiwi country genre – such as multi-award-winning artists Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson.

Markedly, this month Marlon is a nominee for five awards at the Vodafone Music Awards – the most of any artist. Delaney is a well-known artist on the European tour circuit, and is also building a name for himself in the United States.

The cluster of artists has their own distinct take on the country sound, while keeping its storytelling soul. They’ve brought it to the urban centres, away from its traditional home in rural clubs. Most remarkably, in a culture where the genre has long been associated with hay bales and hoedowns, they have made it popular.

From humble roots in dingy venues and self-promoted shows, these singers are finding their feet in the mainstream – notably, the recent nationwide Church Tour featured solely country artists this year. The tour, which in the past has showcased national treasures like Dave Dobbyn, Don McGlashan and Bic Runga, has been a hit.

Campbell Smith, a music manager and promotor who launched the Church Tour in 2004 and has run it annually since, says headlining artists are chosen for their talent and merit – not genre. “They are incredible songwriters and performers,” he says of this year’s line-up, which included Tami, Delaney, Barry and Marlon. “They are bringing something unique and real to music in New Zealand, not just the country genre.”

Campbell says he has seen a significant shift in the country genre in the past decade. “It has broadened in scope in terms of what is loosely defined as country, and accordingly it’s broadened its reach and appeal. But for the past five years it’s been dominated by so-called ‘bro country’ in the United States – tattooed, truck driving, white males singing derivative singalong party anthems. What we are experiencing right now is a backlash to that and a more interesting and thoughtful version of country developing in response, fuelled by great songwriting and artists with integrity.”

We met three of those contemporary Kiwi country artists to discover how they’ve achieved success.

Barry Saunders a pioneer in country music

The Pioneer: Barry Saunders

If anyone has observed the changes in New Zealand’s country music, it’s Barry Saunders.

He first strode onto the stage with his band The Warratahs in 1984. Thirty years later he is still writing music, releasing albums and headlining shows with three of his four original band members.

The Warratahs brought with them a new, unmistakably Kiwi sound and paved the way for other songwriters in the genre to do the same.

Recently returned from playing the Church Tour with the new wave of country musicians, Barry is chuffed to see the tradition get a new lease of life. “It’s great. For a long time I didn’t think there was going to be anyone else come along. Particularly people like Eb [Lamb] – she is so creative. People have discovered country in the same way they discovered the blues when I was a youngster.

“Country music has always had an ebb and flow – it is popular for long periods, then it goes away, but it always comes back again. It is really heartening, and it is good that people are keeping what we might loosely call a tradition alive.”

Three decades on, The Warratahs and Barry’s solo shows continue to attract new fans. “It’s evolved. We have a lot of the older people who have always come to see us and bought our records, and we are seeing new, younger people as well.”

Young people who are well aware of old hits like 1988’s Maureen. “Yeah, they go crazy!” Barry says with a laugh. “A lot of it refers back to the Cricketers. People say, ‘My parents met there.’” He’s referring to the band’s three days a week residency at the Cricketers Arms in Wellington, which launched The Warratahs’ career in the early 1980s. Barry had just returned from doing the folk circuit in London and Ireland and then playing with rock band The Tigers in Sydney. “I got to the stage where I thought, ‘It’s time to formulate my own thing.’ I already had the sound in my head. I had been listening to the music of my parents – that old 1950s blueprint of music – and I really wanted to put my own songs to that, which is what we did.”

Kiwi listeners embraced the result.

“My voice, Nik [Brown’s] fiddle and the accordion… nobody else had that sound,” Barry reflects. “It was a big breath of fresh air, particularly during the 80s when there was so much pompous pop music around. We cut through the middle of it.

“We got the residency at the Cricketers and it grew and grew – it was just a little idea, but its time had come. Country music is people’s music and that really brought people together – it was a social scene. People met and divorced and had babies and came out of the closet, and somehow we were at the centre of it – it was an exciting time.”

It was when they recorded the hit tune Hands of my Heart in 1988 that things really took off. “That got airplay – God knows how, but it did – so we started touring. We had no idea we were popular until people turned up in their droves, and in various ways they always have.”

Tami Neilson is just one of the flamboyant artists responsible for the new wave of Kiwi country music.

Woman of the moment: Tami Neilson

Ten years ago this month, Tami Neilson arrived in New Zealand from Canada with her daddy’s guitar, a suitcase full of glamorous stage frocks, and a lifetime of country, gospel and soul in her bones.

She came to Auckland to follow love, farewelling mother Betty, father Ron and her two brothers Jay and Todd, who were more than just her family – they were the band she’d sung with since she was 12 years old. The Neilsons were entertainers who toured frequently around North America and opened for the likes of Johnny Cash.

Since stepping off that plane a decade ago, Tami has made an indelible mark on our country music scene. She’s recorded four albums, each taking out a Tui Award for the genre, and become the first country artist to win the prestigious Silver Scroll songwriting award. Her newly released album Don’t be Afraid, written in the grief-stricken weeks following her father’s death, has received consistently glowing reviews both here and abroad and hit number one in the charts in its second week of release.

Her sound was described recently in internationally influential Mojo magazine as a combination of Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson. “The ballads come tearful and twangful; the up-tempo fare tumbles out in pure rockabilly mode,” said the reviewer. In the UK, The Guardian voted her album Dynamite one of 2014’s top 10 in country music.

The sassy mother of two sons – Charlie, three, and Sam, one – is now on an upward trajectory to fame, but when she came to New Zealand she was perplexed by a country music scene dominated by singing competitions of American pop-country as opposed to original songwriting.

“When I first arrived and told people what I did, they would say things like, ‘Oh, my mum won the country music award; she was singing Jolene by Dolly Parton.’ I was so confused. It was a totally different culture.”

Tami’s first tours here were alongside other artists, performing country music that was a wild departure from her own. “They were people in the era of [TV show] That’s Country and they performed predominantly American covers. There were mostly older people in the audience and I thought, ‘What have I done? Where are all the people my age, playing my kind of music?’”

She was also taken aback by the treatment of country by the music industry and mainstream media. “The first Tui award I won, we were seated at the back of the Vector Arena next to the toilets, not up with the other nominees,” she recalls. “And every time I saw a news article on country music it was always poking fun at it – the reporter would have a piece of straw coming out of their mouth and be wearing a cowboy hat.”

It took some time and some hustling – attending open mic nights and typing the likes of ‘banjo player Auckland’ into Google – but eventually Tami found her ‘musical family’ in frontmen like Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson and multi-instrumentalist Dave Khan. They were of a similar age and playing the music she was after – most commonly known as ‘alt country’ or ‘Americana’.

“I have always been drawn to old-school classics like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. With modern country music I lean towards the stuff not played on radio – the grittier, edgy country music, which pays homage to those artists.”

It is credit to Tami that the fans she gathered in those original tours have remained loyal, her shows now a motley crew of young and old.

She is heartened to see a shift in attitudes towards country music, and for artists in her genre to have their time in the limelight. “Brett Eckles and Campbell Smith are New Zealand’s leading promoters and for them to take a punt on an all alt country/Americana line-up in the Church Tour says a lot about the genre, she says. “It’s a huge statement in itself and it was massively encouraging and exciting to see the progress of country music in the mainstream.

“There’s been a huge shift in the past five years. It’s not that people are all of a sudden saying, ‘Now I like country music’ – they are just becoming more educated and realising that the Neil Young or Steve Earle record they love is actually a country album.”

Tami Neilson has given New Zealand country music a welcome boost, but she says Kiwi artists have also given her something very special.

“Barry [Saunders] was the pioneer of this movement; we are the upstarts following in his wake. When he and The Warratahs started it in the 1980s, people were performing schmaltzy American covers, then along they came performing original Kiwi country.

“Artists like Delaney and Marlon don’t sound like American country music, they sound like Kiwis who are not afraid to throw generous doses of other genres into their music – it is not the music of the Southern States, it is the music of this country. New Zealand has hugely influenced the performer I am.”

Ebony Lamb from Wellington has become a rising star in country music.

The Rising Star: Ebony Lamb

Ebony Lamb is a latecomer to playing music but her rise as a songwriter has been rapid. The 36-year-old began just six years ago and is now receiving rave reviews for her second album, Sun/Son.

The Wellington resident, who has just finished a 17-date national tour with her five-piece band Eb and Sparrow, first learned guitar during a challenging time in her late 20s. Her dad was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and her relationship was on the rocks. “I just really hit a place where my creativity needed a channel,” she explains.

“I learned some basic chords and I haven’t stopped since. I was prolific, and wrote a song a day for a long time. I started listening to old soul singers – Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin – and then more country style singers like Gillian Welch, Eva Cassidy and Bonnie Raitt.”

And while the mum-of-one says it was melancholy that first attracted her to country (“When my heart was broken, suddenly Hank Williams made so much more sense”), she says the genre is about much more than that. “It doesn’t have to be heavy; it can also be quite chipper in its delivery of this terribly sad news!” she says with a laugh.

“It is really contemporary soul – it is about life. Even though we call it Americana sometimes, it is actually all about New Zealand. We have owned our sound.”

Her decision to make a career out of her music, which she describes as country folk, came by chance. “I went and watched a band called The Eastern [an alt country group] at Paekakariki Bowling Club and it just changed my life,” says Ebony, whose daughter Arabella is 14. “I thought, ‘Oh wow, people are actually doing this, they are living and breathing this in New Zealand.’ I didn’t know if I was good enough but I’d been singing at home and I knew I had a voice.”

After joining forces with guitarist and vocalist Bryn Heveldt, the duo began recording – not for fame or fortune, but so her songs would not be forgotten.

“I wasn’t proficient at writing down what I was doing technically so there was a lot in my head.”

But as word of the duo spread, they were asked to play more live shows and the EPs started flying out the door. “We’ve sold hundreds. We pretty quickly got a reputation for being someone you want to listen to.”

Ebony soon began performing with others playing music like hers. “We played a show club with The Unfaithful Ways [Marlon William’s former band] and Delaney [Davidson] and that changed things. We felt like we were on the same track, and we became part of this resurgence about five years ago. It pushed me to want to get better.

“It felt like a really creative, interesting, exciting time, with a culmination of incredible talent.”

Asked about country stereotypes, Ebony says they’re changing. “We have been converting people one gig at a time,” she says with a laugh. “Word of mouth is your greatest friend. People say, ‘I didn’t think I liked country, but l love your band.’”

It’s fair to say music has become the centre of Ebony’s world. “My guitar is the most expensive thing I own. My dad passed away four years ago and I got my inheritance and bought a pair of boots, a banjo and a guitar!

“Before Dad died he said to me, ‘I just love you and don’t stop singing,’ because he watched me change into something he’d always hoped.”

Words by

Photos by Sally Tagg and Mike Rooke

Ebony photographed at Freida Margolis wine bar, Auckland

Hair and Make-up by Luisa Petch and Claudia Rodrigues

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