A New Voice Callin'
Lillie Mae Rische's critically acclaimed new LP Forever and Then Some on Third Man Records shines a long-overdue national spotlight on a string band virtuoso known to most music fans as one of two such masters (the other being Epiphone's Fats Kaplin) working in Jack White's band. But Lillie Mae's story—and her artistry—goes much deeper. Those lucky fans who heard Lillie Mae preview the new album in the Blue Room at Third Man Records' HQ in Nashville are now hip to what the rest of the world is about to find out.
For the first hour (while TMRs King Records cutting lathe captured the performance for posterity) Lillie Mae stuck to songs from her album, which White produced. Lillie Mae's writing is informed by classic country, blues, and honky tonk, but she infuses everything with a personal vision of roots music that most (so-called) Americana acts lack. Then, Lillie Mae invited her sister Scarlett to the stage to play mandolin while the star of the show picked up her fiddle, which she had played only sparingly throughout the set. The two sisters locked eyes with brother Frank on guitar, and then—as Aretha Franklin described seeing Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers for the first time—the trio turned the room out with 30 minutes of supersonic stringboard arrangements from their family band Jypsy. The drummer and bassist stayed on stage but they were all but invisible as the three leaders turned the Blue Room red.
Jypsy honed their chops in the honky tonk dives on Lower Broadway in Nashville when they weren't up all night playing and recording with their Music City sponsor and patron, the late great Cowboy Jack Clement. In 2000, "Cowboy" (as his friends called him) saw something special in the band and 8 year old Lillie Mae and brought them all to Nashville to make friends with the city's best musicians and to prepare them for a life in the arts. Clement began his own career as the one and only right-hand man of Sam Phillips at Sun Records so you won't find cooler or better rock 'n' roll street cred than a line that runs from Sun Records to Cowboy Jack to Lillie Mae to Jack White.
Lillie Mae wrote most of Forever and Then Some using a pal's classic Epiphone Masterbilt DR-500M. And now that she has her own Masterbilt Century Zenith Classic to start writing the next batch. Epiphone.com spoke with Lillie Mae about being a first time bandleader, new recording artist, and if the old Nashville that Jypsy and Jack Clement knew can be saved.
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone.com, Lillie Mae. Is Forever and A Day your first formal album?
It is. I did make a record in Alabama some time ago. I was running around with this guy and he had access to a studio. He said 'you might as well record some stuff.' It wasn't supposed to be an album. It was just me with my brother—I wasn't aiming to make a record. So this new record now feels like the first to me.
You have worked with Jack White as a musician for a long time. What did you want to ask of him as a producer? What did you feel you needed?
He showed interest in making a record. At first I ran the opposite way—so far! (Laughs). I had some personal stuff going on in a bad way at the time. But he gave me a second chance. By the time the second chance rolled around, I was ready. But I really wanted to work with him to make this record happen. To start, Jack said let's try three songs and see what happens—see if we want to go in this direction and if it feels right on either side.
You had made a single for Third Man some time ago, "Nobody's" and "Same Eyes."
Right—it had been a couple years since we had recorded the two songs for the (Third Man Record) Blue Series. This time, we recorded three songs and then Jack said: "Ok, you got any more?" (Laughs) And so we just kept going that day. We ended up recording 27 songs. And then we ended up narrowing them down. So I didn't have a specific sound I was going for. Getting to play with the people that I'm comfortable with really brings out the best in me and I think brings out the best in people.
Stringband artists are like classical artists—they create their sound purely with the personal touch they bring to their instruments whereas a lot of rock bands depend on the studio.
You're right. Tone is a big thing. It's interesting to think that. Whatever vibe the album has, it wasn't as if we said "I'm going for this kind of thing" at all. It felt very natural when we were recording. My thought was—here are some songs I wrote. And for them to actually come about—I was very happy. We tracked me, bass, drums, and my sister Scarlett on mandolin because she's a driving force. She's really good with the number system, structural things, and she's really good at explaining and helping out the musicians. She wouldn't call herself a bandleader but she'd be the greatest bandleader! It was just four of us tracking because we weren't sure with Jack on that first day what would happen. I was prepared to go in and do three songs, not 12 or 13 or whatever we did that day.
When you heard the playback for the first time, were you surprised at the sound that you were getting? At some point you must have realized you were discovering your own album.
Completely. I was very surprised. And me being the songwriter! Also, just that there was somebody who believed in me right now and is letting me record for free at their studio. All this shit's on the line so there was a lot of pressure, in my mind. I don't want to let people down. I wanted it to be good so bad. I didn't want to turn in a flop. I didn't want to go in and not do as well as I knew we were capable of doing. But I had a great time recording—I really did.
And now, you're a bandleader!
I'm the worst bandleader... (laughs)
The record is out and you're on tour. You've played festivals; you've been on television. How do the songs sound to you now? Are they starting to shift and grow?
They have for sure. For one thing, my brother Frank (guitar) is in this band touring with us. He's on a different planet (laughs). We played together for years and years but it has been a couple of years since we played together. And he's never played electric on a gig before and that's something he wanted to do for a long time. So, he's a first time electric guitar player, I'm a first time bandleader, first album—we're getting to know stuff even just playing. It's funny how the songs change. We've barely been touring and I'm ready to start throwing in new songs.
I first saw you playing downtown many years ago with your brother and sisters as the band Jypsy. How did you get to Nashville?
We moved here in January 2000. Cowboy Jack Clement moved our family here, paid for us to record. We had been living in North Carolina before that. My father met him and my oldest siblings at an after-IBMA bluegrass event—a house party—and they met Fergie (David Ferguson) his engineer and Fergie said, "Y'all gotta come to Nashville and meet Cowboy." Fergie set up a meeting. I think my older siblings came first, you know, 'bring the older ones first' (laughs). They met Jack and then we all came a week later. So we're playing in Cowboy's office, just drove in from North Carolina. My brother—poor thing—was so sick he threw up in his guitar. Puked in the sound hole flipped it up, kept playing—didn't stop the song.
That's very rock 'n' roll for someone who recorded Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Cowboy was a character. He asked us: "You guys know any twin fiddle parts?" And we said, "yup." We didn't do any twin fiddles at that point (laughs). Cowboy left the room, went to the kitchen, probably to roast a marshmallow over the stove, and came back and we had worked up a harmony to whatever instrumental we were doing. So, 30 seconds later, yup, we know twin fiddles.
He moved us here immediately. We had some incredible experiences over there. I was 8 or 9 and being over at Cowboy Jack's every day, meeting all those cats that were hanging out over there—wow. We recorded tons. We made movies. He put me in acting classes—he invested a lot in us. And we stayed in touch with him as much as possible until he died. The door was always open. He's so missed. And the atmosphere he created! When you went to Cowboy's, you saw everybody. It was such a unique group. Since Cowboy passed away, I haven't seen 90% of those people. That's the sad thing. Where did they go? I don't know.
What's your life like in Nashville now? Do you get that sense of closeness among musicians?
Sure do. It's dwindled a little bit. We had a house down the road for years. It was an open door policy. People came over every day unannounced and we had jams there daily for years. And that's where I'm trying to get back to. I hadn't had a house here for years. You have to have a spot where people can come. That's still huge. Just yesterday, I drove up to Virginia to play with a group of people up there that is often visiting here. It does still exist in my life for sure.
It was interesting to see the crowd react to the bluegrass part of your show. Although it's so much more than that. But that is a very different sound than the album. Will you put those two things together?
I think there's no way not to. We recorded so many songs and then afterwards I was thinking: "Well I tracked everything on guitar, that's different."
What's your favorite instrument to play?
Guitar. Always. I've played fiddle since I was 7 but I played guitar before that. You can't accompany yourself on fiddle. Some people can (laughs). I love guitar—I'll sit and play guitar for hours. I seldom pick up the fiddle.
What have you been listening to?
I've been driving my brother's van around and he has a cd player—so a lot of George Jones. I'm really horrible—I'm the worst at putting on music because I'm back and forth—in between apartments. I have a record player but it's not set up. I don't have any speakers. I don't have a computer. I have five things downloaded on my phone. I'm composing all the time. I'm always humming. On the drive home last night, I started writing three different songs. You can't produce anything if it's all just bam bam. So I'm trying to keep up.
While it's coming I'm doing everything I can to jot it down. No matter what's going on with your life, you get inspired. I'm always humming something. I think if I wasn't what would I do? My mind never shuts off.
Are your siblings writers, too?
They are all composers. I'm doing more currently but my brother has been a great songwriter his whole life. Unforgettable songs. I'm waiting for his record. I can't wait until he gets to that spot where he jots it all down. I know he's being storing up for years. He needs to reach whatever spot that he's comfortable in.
You must be an inspiration. Many young artists have come to Nashville with high hopes and have found it very hard to follow through.
Succeeding at something you've worked for your whole life and self sabotage—it's a fine line (laughs). I feel really blessed. Not to say I haven't worked hard. I have. I've been nonstop working my whole life at this—whatever it is. But I do feel lucky that I landed this gig (with Jack). It was a big gig. For somebody like me, I didn't know Jack's music. I don't seek out new music. I can't get myself together enough to set up a freakin' cd player. I just landed in the right spots, around the right people. Those tours were incredibly inspiring. And then Jack wanted to work with me. It felt so natural. We work so well together. I have a lot of respect for him. I love playing with him, singing with him. He listened to me—that's everything. For instance, I'm singing in the hallway and he stops and listens and wants to make a record? I feel very lucky because there are people who are pounding on doors. Or people who get into music and it's just you and you don't have your family and you don't have all this back experience. In my life, it was just set up. I've just been showing up.
During SXSW you picked up a new Masterbilt Century Zentih Classic. How do you like it?
I love that guitar!
Did you grow up playing archtops?
They weren't around the house. A few years ago when I was in Alabama, I was dating this guy who would buy them and fix them up. They never stayed around. But hanging out with him—he was a big jazz cat—and I got to play them. I love archtops. Completely different tone. I'm really excited to work with the Zenith more. It really just rings out. It longs to be played. And it will be! Also, to let you know, I wrote about 75% of this record on a Masterbilt (DR-500M). I'm very comfortable playing an Epiphone!