Tami Neilson is a name that isn't nearly as familiar to audiences in the United States as in her native Canada or New Zealand. Canada is where she was part of the popular country group The Neilsons and in New Zealand, she won the prestigious ARPA Silver Scroll in 2014. But that may be about to change with her new album, Sassafrass!, releasing June 1.
While best known for country and Americana, Neilson pivots heavily toward rockabilly and soul on Sassafrass!, with a heavy emphasis on the “sass” portion of that title. Across the album's 11 tracks, Neilson takes on sexism, double standards, consent, and even Hollywood's current sexual harassment scandals with a sly humor that only serves to drive her points home more effectively.
The album comes roaring out of the gate with the opener “Stay Outta My Business,” which is also the first single. Sounding like what would happen if Wanda Jackson and Tina Turner had a go at rewriting the Hank Williams classic “Mind Your Own Business,” “Stay Outta My Business” is a horn-laden rockabilly barnburner with smart lyrics like “a woman stays home to raise the babies, must be nice to do nothing, must be lazy. So she goes out to make the money. How can you leave your babies alone? You're a bad, bad mommy!”
“Smoking Gun” is a song that is likely to find a lot of interest in the wake of the #MeToo movement. A smoky jazz number, it tells the tale of “a predator creeping in the pool. The king of the casting couch where he rules.” As he gets his comeuppance, Neilson croons “the judgment day has finally come, for the man who holds the smoking gun.”
“Miss Jones” is the album's most overt move toward soul. An ode to the late soul legend Sharon Jones, Neilson and her band seem possessed by the spirit of Jones and her longtime backing group The Dap Kings. Horns, guitar, and heavy percussion build to a frenzy and Neilson's soaring vocals keep pace the entire way.
For fans of Tami Neilson who might be mourning her move away from country, never fear. There is still plenty of country amongst the soul numbers. “A Woman's Pain” sounds like it could have come straight out of the '60s, but with much more of a bite than Bobbie Gentry or Skeeter Davis were ever allowed by record executives of their era. “Manitoba Sunrise Motel 6” was written by Neilson as an ode to Glen Campbell but vocally resembles early Rosanne Cash.
If Sassafrass! is intended to be Tami Neilson's coming out party to American audiences, it's one that will likely score. It hits all of the right buttons to find success on an Americana scene that values blurred genre lines and smart, socially conscious lyrics.