Each year, the CMA Music Festival annexes seemingly every square foot of downtown Nashville, but only one of the eleven official festival stages is positioned on Lower Broadway, an area packed with kitschy honky-tonks and discount boot stores that caters to country-music tourists year round. Though Lillie Mae, the fiddle-playing singer and songwriter born Lillie Mae Rische, is still in her 20s, she's been plying her trade on this strip for a decade and a half.
Much of that time was spent with her former family band Jypsi. The clan began as a nomadic bluegrass outfit, led by the family patriarch, then landed in Nashville. A teenaged Rische eventually began fronting a four-piece string band composed of her siblings, and they powered through countless covers-heavy sets in Layla's Bluegrass Inn on Lower Broad — in the midst of it signing with a major country label, which never quite figured out what to do with them. Then the band broke up, and Jack White, launching his solo career, hired Rische as a sidewoman. By the Lazaretto era, she'd become his lilting vocal foil on stage.
This past April, White's assiduously curated indie label, Third Man Records, released Forever And Then Some, Lillie Mae's debut album under her own name. Her boss also produced the impetuous, inspired country-folk collection, balancing her nervy yet fracturable delivery against an indie-rock attack. When she performed roughly half of the material on a stage at Lower Broad's north end the Saturday of CMA Fest, Layla herself was there, swaying and gyrating in time — one of the many locals in the crowd who've been behind Rische for years. "I've got a good group of people, for sure, that I haven't ticked off yet," Rische laughed wryly after returning her fiddle to its case and retreating to air conditioning. She talked with World Cafe about a widening musical journey that continually returns her to her roots.
You've probably played this festival at different seasons of your career.
Lillie Mae Rische: You know it! I've played this stage before with Jypsi.
You've had so much experience playing to country-music tourists year-round. What did you learn about what it takes to prove to a crowd like that that you know your stuff, or that you're "authentic"?
A lot of that kinda comes with time. I never used to notice it. Whatever we were doing, we'd been doing the same thing for so long. It's like, "Oh, wow. It's actually been 15 years since we've began playing at Layla's?" ... People have said, "You've paid your dues."
It's not like there's one career path laid out for musicians in Nashville, but even so, yours has taken more turns than most.
You moved through first the bluegrass world, then the major-label country world with the family band, then worked as a sidewoman, then launched your solo stuff. Am I missing anything?
When I was traveling with Jack, I was just a side person. For a while, I was living in Alabama and I wasn't playing with my family because the family band had split up. There were a couple years of that where I was like, "What in the heck is going on? I'm so used to [playing with my siblings]."
Half of the band you have now is made up of your siblings, and there are even more on your album, right?
My sister Scarlett, on mandolin. We write together a lot. She just had a baby, so [she's not touring].
Her playing's very prominent on the album.
She's unbelievable. ... She would be a great bandleader or director.
You don't consider yourself a strong bandleader?
Well it's not that — I don't know the [Nashville] number system and I can't write charts. But she'll do all that. She's got a really unique rhythm. I love playing with her.
Since you started the way you did — being nudged into it by your dad, along with your siblings — when did music go from being something you were made to do to being something you chose for yourself?
Even though I didn't choose it, I have always loved it. From as young as I can remember, it's the only thing I ever wanted to do. ... It was work and we were the family's income. Three years old and on, forever on.
That definitely qualified as work.
It's funny, because for the last couple of years I've been really wanting to buy a couple of acres and put a camper on it and slowly build something, just have a little land for my dogs and me. I'd like to live a little outside of town. My whole life I've just been wanting a little bit of land. But I don't qualify for a loan. I don't qualify for anything because I don't have a steady work history. It's like, "Man, really? I've been working every freakin' day since I was 3 years old. What do you mean I have no work history?"
I went back and read some of the profiles of Jypsi, and it struck me how fixated people were on you and your sisters' appearances. Not so much your brother Frank, but the women in the group.
That's what killed us, I think.
In hindsight, what do you make of the fact that people were so fixated on your look and looks?
It's unfortunate that a lot of folks couldn't see past that. We had fun with clothes, mostly from thrift stores. Growing up, we were so strict Christian we wore dresses up to the neck. We were almost Amish. So I think when everyone [in the band] was [old enough to be] able to do what they wanted, they just had fun with it, finally. ... It's too bad, because we were always about the music.
What kinds of audiences have you drawn, with Jypsi or in your solo work, by putting your feel for musical tradition alongside wide-ranging, bohemian sensibilities?
... I think because of our music being acoustic previously, we had an older audience, or a mature audience. We never could get young people on board for some reason. I never knew what to do with that.
Timing-wise, you were ahead of the youthful, string-band, folk-rock boom.
I think if we'd have been five years later, we'd have been just fine. We always did well. We just reached a point where my brother was going in a different direction and he quit the band. ... Look at how quickly things changed. All the sudden everyone's got purple hair. My sister had pink hair, and that was a big issue. And look now: A gigantic percentage of people have tattoos and fuchsia hair.
What was unfamiliar about the world you were plunged into when you started playing with Jack White?
Probably it was the wide variety of people that I was spending time with: hip-hop drummers, crazy psychedelic keyboardists, classical, unbelievable [players]. If I didn't get that gig, I never would've met those people or been turned onto so much more music. It's just this huge, eclectic variety of musicians.
How seriously did you take the prospect of recording your own stuff when Jack White first floated the idea?
We were touring and I'd been playing my songs in the hallway before the gig or whatever. He always was very complimentary of my stuff. ... He asked me to record with him, and we did a blue series record, which is two songs, and they were two original songs. ... Then he offered to produce a record for me, but I was just going through some s*** in life. I wanted to do it so bad, but I was kind of lost in this other stuff that I couldn't quite get out of. ... Later, I wrote him a letter kind of asking for a second chance. I just explained the situation I'd been in, and he gave me a second chance. So I was so dedicated to the recording experience.
How did Jack White shape the way that the album sounds?
We recorded everything analog. In Jack's studio, if you screw up, you're doing it again. ... We recorded, like, 27 songs and we narrowed it down. Jack let me do whatever I wanted, let me try out just about anything I could've wanted to. For me, I'm all over the place, and I really needed and appreciated that freedom. The way I work best is I'll get it out when I'm comfortable. If I'm not comfortable, nothing's gonna happen.
A few of the tracks have a rugged rock edge, but a lot of the album feels more like the work of a singer-songwriter backed by a string band. You interspersed traditional licks and songwriting idioms with introspective impulses, psychedelic flourishes and alt-country leanings. What sort of musical portrait were you going for when you narrowed down the 27 songs?
The songs that came together for it, they were all very natural choices. ... Most of it was brand-new material. I freshly wrote a lot of that stuff. They were picked because they felt right. I wasn't going for a certain theme.
You saw what Third Man was able to do with Margo Price. Did that give you confidence that the label would be a good home for you too?
I always felt like that from day one, working with Jack over there. All the people that I met there, it always felt like home. I don't know if it's the big family aspect to Third Man Records. A lot of relatives of Jack's work there. The ways of doing things I'm on board with. I had no interest in going and pounding down other [labels'] doors. Here was an offer that I thought was great. Wonderful people doing really, really cool stuff, and all about music, music, music. That's all I care about.
What does having your siblings singing with you do for the vocal blend?
I love singing with them more than anything. I said, "OK, we're making a record. I could call so-and-so, or I could call my brother and sister, who — we sing so well together." It just feels so good. Why on earth wouldn't I?
At one point you were pretty immersed in the bluegrass scene. Have you maintained those ties at all?
We grew up doing that. We played any bluegrass festival that we could get into, basically. That's all we did for many years. And then we started dressing a little different, and we were, like, ousted from the bluegrass world. All the festivals we'd been playing for years, they don't want us back anymore — not because of the music, but because we had gotten too crazy. That was kind of a heartbreaker. I love bluegrass. But what is anything if you're closed-minded about it?