1 Oct 2023

Fast Favourites with country & rock 'n' roll’s most creative dresser Tami Neilson

From Culture 101, 12:10 pm on 1 October 2023


Tami Neilson

Tami Neilson Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

Every week on Culture 101 we invite a guest to share their love of culture and shout out to other artists. This week it's Tami Neilson, a beloved musical artist who has brought vividly alive the culture surrounding country, rock and roll and soul music. 

A Canadian-born New Zealander with eight studio albums under her sparkly belt, Neilson grew up as a member of The Neilsons, performing with her parents and two brothers across North America. 

As well as mining the rich musical and cultural heritage of Americana, Neilson can claim both Scottish and Native American ancestry, from the Ojibway people.

Salvation Mountain by Leonard Wright in the California desert.

Salvation Mountain by Leonard Wright in the California desert. Photo: Wikimedia commons

She has recently returned home to Aotearoa after taking her young family on the road across America, touring and exploring that heritage. 

One place she visited during that trip was Leonard Knight's enormous piece of folk art in the Californian desert, Salvation Mountain.

The sight of it, after driving for "hours and hours" through barren desert moved Neilson to tears, she says.

"All of a sudden, in the middle of nowhere, this kind of like Technicolour - it feels like a piece of the Wizard of Oz has just like, landed in the middle of the desert, It's just incredible."

Neilson says the story of Knight - who worked on his folk art creation for five years before it collapsed and he had to start again - really speaks to her as an artist.

"To build something, to create something in the middle of nowhere, where no one sees it, just because you feel compelled and that's your purpose."

Tami Neilson in new  J Boyne Western wear at the Rolling Stone Awards.

Tami Neilson in new J Boyne Western wear at the Rolling Stone Awards. Photo: supplied

Neilson is arguably the best, creatively-dressed Aotearoa musician by a ‘country mile’: from her 2022 studio album Kingmaker’s cover art by Maria Francesca Melis and the headdress worn singing with Willie Nelson, to last month's appearance at the Rolling Stone Awards in a commissioned ‘Nudie suit’ dress by Canada’s J Boyne.


Photo: supplied

The latter was a special commission for Neilson after she asked Boyne, who ordinarily does suits, whether she would do a dress instead, as "I'm not as much of a suit girl".

The tradition of elaborate Nudie suits began with suitmaker Nudie Cohn back in the '40s and '50s, Neilson says.

"His suits were very much flashy and gaudy and just covered in rhinestones and all this beautiful embroidery."

They became popular with country artists and many other designers have since carried on the tradition, she says.

Aside from the Boyne design, Neilson mainly uses New Zealand designers to create her outfits.

CurvyCouture by Judy Dee has created some dresses for her, she says, in collaboration with New Zealand artist Zoë Hall.

Neilson is about to hit the road to tour with rock’n’roll legend Dinah Lee, someone she says she has long been a fan of but never though she would get to work with because she lived in Australia.

But upon hearing Lee had moved back to New Zealand, Neilson immediately set about organising a tour together.

"I think artists that have paved the way for us, especially women in music, it's so important to acknowledge and celebrate the people whose shoulders we stand on today."

* Tami Neilson's Rock 'n' Roll Revue with Dinah Lee comes to Taranaki, Tāmaki Makaurau, Pōneke and Ōtautahi from October 5 to 13.