Tami Neilson: The F:Word - Review

A review by Rob Harbers

In the latest episode of an occasional series bemoaning the sometimes difficult job of being a reviewer, sometimes the really hard questions arise, such as: how do I even begin to conjure up words that can do justice to a show such as this? How can what I put down add to the experience, or be adequate to the task of conveying the sheer skill on display, the joy and exuberance of the performance, or the collective enjoyment of the audience?

But, that’s what I’m here to do, and why you’re reading this, so I’ll give it a try: Inspired by an online comment that attending one of her shows was like attending a lecture, country chanteuse Tami Neilson, in conjunction with Musicology professor Dr Jada Watson, has created a show that, in a sense, is just that, while being a lot more besides. Nothing like using the haters to inspire a massive “Fuck You”!

Given its debut at ToiToi as part of the Harcourts Hawkes Bay Arts Festival, “The F word: Feminism In Country Music”, is a show that delivers a scathing indictment of the Country Music industry’s marginalisation of women, POC, and LGBTQ+ individuals, while not forgetting the other F word… Fun!

Taking the form of the presentation of various facts collated by Dr Watson, interspersed with performances of pertinent songs by Tami and her band, this show covers over 90 years of Country Music history, from 1926 (“Single Girl, Married Girl”, originally performed by the Carter Family) to 2020 (“What are You Gonna Tell Her”, sung by Mickey Guyton), with many stops along the way.

But this is anything but a dry dissertation, with Tami and crew bringing each song to life in ways that are respectful to the originals, while exploring many lost byways of the country ouevre. And we learned stuff too! I’d be very surprised if there was anyone in the audience that didn’t come away without any information they’d previously been ignorant of, and probably at least 2 or 3 new-to-them artists as well. THIS is the stuff that deserves to be described as “info-tainment”, rather than much of the rubbish that parades across our screens on the nightly, and pretends to the title.

A show such as this demands consideration in its entirety, and as such, for me to reel off a setlist wouldn’t tell even half of the story – it’s the choice, placement and delivery of the material that gives it it’s power, alongside the context given to the songs by the information presented. Having said that however, a particular highlight of the evening was the song “Fancy”, penned by Bobbie Gentry (better known for “Ode to Billie Joe”), with Tami letting rip in a hugely impassioned vocal performance that reflected the raw emotional content of the lyrics. Considering that this is the first airing of this show, for which the band had to learn 20 new songs, the playing was hugely impressive, with no song being disgraced by its rendition. As the show is performed more throughout the country and the songs bed in, this is bound to get even better.

For all that the show discusses the Country Music industry specifically, its themes also extrapolate to a wider picture, given that similar power structures still permeate through far too much of society in general. The attitudes that marginalise aren’t always that far below the surface, if they’re not immediately obvious underneath orange hair, fake tan and an insecure ego. As such, there is still a long way to go before exposition such as this becomes superfluous, and as long as it remains necessary, this must surely be a winning formula in the task of changing hearts and minds. Free your ass and your mind will follow is the hope!

As the Festival enters the home stretch, this has definitely been one of the highlights. Another example of the principle of not having to seek far from home to find the treasure.

And now I’ve come to the end of this rainbow, having nothing more to say that won’t be so much gilding on the lily. Probably not enough words to keep my editor happy, but so be it – a show such as this deserves to speak for itself. If you enjoy a barnstormin’, shit-kickin’, rollicking good time, catch this show – and you just might learn a thing or two as well!

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