Six years ago, Jack White performed at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles with “The Peacocks,” his all-female backing band. Two thousand miles away, legendary Sun Records alumni, producer, and songwriter “Cowboy” Jack Clement was watching in Nashville, but he wasn’t interested in one of Nashville’s biggest rock stars. He was tuning in to to see White’s fiddle player, Lillie Mae.
“Cowboy’s girlfriend, Aleene, told me he watched the awards ceremony and cried because he was so proud me,” Lillie Mae says. “This was just a few months before he passed away, and it touched me so much. Even though it wasn’t me winning the Grammy, he was still proud of me and proud to know the time he invested in me wasn’t a failure.”
If you’re cynically-minded and your only exposure to Lillie Mae and her music is a casual viewing of the video for her new single, “You’ve Got Other Girls for That,” you might assume she’s simply the newest rock star ingénue. The video abounds with punk rock chic, sexy emo detachment, and a generous spicing of alt-country cool, just what one might expect from an indie rock label attempting to grab a slice of the Americana pie. You might also assume there’s no way she could be a torch bearer for authentic Nashville musical traditions.
But you’d be dead wrong.
A careful listen to “You’ve Got Other Girls for That” reveals a young woman standing her ground, refusing to let a man determine her identity and sense of worth. The accompanying songs on her latest album, Other Girls, reveal constant twists, turns, and surprises, demonstrating a depth of musical experience and knowledge uncommon for a 28-year-old. In both her life and recordings, Lillie Mae’s roots run deep, spanning the folk traditions that commercial country music was first built upon in the early 20th century to the stylistic mixmaster of 21st century Americana and indie rock.
“I was born in northern Illinois,” Lillie Mae says. “When I was one year old, my dad got a gig playing bass in Branson, Missouri, and the family moved. He was a bluegrass musician and had been in a band with some of his 13 siblings.”
Lillie Mae’s father, Forrest Carter Rische, was more than just a bass player searching for a gig. A devout but unorthodox Christian minister, he spent time in a series of professions — farrier, carpenter, cowboy, and farmer — before embracing music as his ministry. Along with his wife Linda, he espoused a strict philosophy prohibiting many worldly influences. The couple reared their five children — Amber-Dawn, Scarlett, McKenna Grace, Frank, and Lillie Mae — to live the same philosophy, while drafting each succeeding sibling into the family band as soon as they were old enough to perform.
Lillie Mae received her first fiddle at the age of three, and soon found herself performing gospel and bluegrass classics with her father and siblings on the Texas RV park circuit, along with gigs at flea markets and fairgrounds. The family’s itinerate existence kept them barely one step ahead of poverty, while their religion and lifestyle led to an unusual mix of hippy bohemianism and cloistered fundamentalism.
“We were only allowed to listen to certain music — gospel and bluegrass, and some country, but not everything,” Lillie Mae says. “Certain songs were always excluded. I was maybe seven or eight when I met this girl at a bluegrass festival, and we went back to her motor home. It was a big, nice one and seemed super futuristic to me. She turned on an Eminem song and said, ‘Check this out.’ I’d never heard anything like it. I was very uneasy, thinking about the trouble I’d be in if someone found out. I finally asked her to turn it down because I couldn’t deal with the guilt.”
Not long after her first brush with the sinful sound of hip-hop, the Rische family band caught the attention of Cowboy Jack Clement, who immediately recognized talent in the rough, just as he had decades earlier when a wild-ass Louisiana youth with his own religious conflicts, Jerry Lee Lewis, walked through the door of Sun Studios in Memphis.
“Cowboy took us in, and he was so incredibly supportive,” Lillie Mae says. “He paid to move my family to Nashville, rented us a house to live in, paid for instrument lessons, and recorded us. He invested in the family and believed in me and my talent. I didn’t know who he was or that he’d had this amazing career [working with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, and dozens of other artists]. He was tough and would get on you if he didn’t think you were doing your best, but we loved him so much.”
Creative differences between Clement and Lillie Mae’s parents eventually ended their association, and the Rische’s ended their troubled marriage shortly thereafter. With their father out of the picture, the children found unbridled musical and personal freedom. To support themselves, Lillie Mae and her siblings stuck with the only profession they knew — music.
“Dad left when I was 11,” Lillie Mae says. “We’d been in Nashville three or four years at that point. I was 12 by the time we started playing regularly at Layla’s [Honky Tonk on Lower Broadway].”
Billing themselves initially as “Silk N’ Saddle” and then simply as “The Risches,” Amber-Dawn, Scarlett, Frank, and Lillie Mae (McKenna Grace had dropped out of the band by this point) quickly made a reputation for themselves with astounding, marathon sets of traditional bluegrass and country tunes, and an eye-grabbing stage appearance. Out from under the fundamentalist thumb of their father, the siblings’ repertoire expanded quickly as they began to absorb previously verboten musical influences, and the Rische girls’ clothing became skimpier, hairstyles wilder and more colorful, and piercings and tattoos proliferated.
With the explosion of colorful outfits, bare skin, an astounding degree of musical talent, and a seemingly endless catalog of country classics, the Risches quickly attracted attention from Music Row executives, who began calculating how to corral the group into a potential cash cow. Renamed “Jypsi,” the group signed with Arista in 2007. The next year, the single, “I Don’t Love You Like That,” featuring Lillie Mae on lead vocals, scored a No. 38 hit on the country chart. A digital-only album, along with a string of highly-praised performances followed, including an appearance at Bonnaroo 2008. A second hit single, “Mister Officer” scraped the country chart at No. 52 a year later, but the big label demands of conformity proved too restrictive.
“Frank finally said, ‘What are we doing? This is bullshit,’” Lillie Mae says. “He had no desire to do anything fake. He quit and the band fell apart. None of us knew what to do next. I was still playing at Layla’s by myself just to make money. I moved to Alabama for a while and then started playing with Jack White a little less than a year after the family band broke up. I’d been doing some session work for Third Man, but I wasn’t looking for a sideman position. People had to talk me into it. I was terrified at first. I’ve always been a singer first, and I’ve never been super confident about my fiddle playing, but suddenly I was playing every night with some incredibly talented people.”
Despite her apprehensions, Lillie Mae quickly caught the groove of playing with non-sibling band members and backed White on both his 2012 Blunderbuss tour and his 2014 Lazaretto tour.
“Jack is a rock star for sure,” Lillie Mae says, “but the back stage scene was very laid back, like family. People were always playing music for fun. Even though I wasn’t singing on the tour, he heard me backstage and asked me to make a record.”
Released in April 2017, Lillie Mae’s debut album, Forever and Then Some, was an impressive return to her traditional country roots, demonstrating her years of experience on the road and in honky tonks. Produced by White and recorded at Third Man Records’ in-house studio, the album featured contributions from her brother Frank and her sister Scarlett, as Lillie Mae stepped forward to take the spotlight.
“I’ve always written songs of my own,” she says. “I probably started writing not long after I joined the family band, but I just started finishing my songs when I was about 14. I never thought, ‘I want to be a solo artist.’ With the family band everyone had their ideas and everyone had their parts, but it’s a completely different thing from going solo. Jack White had to convince me. I was super comfortable recording at Third Man because I had been recording sessions over there for some time. We had a great time recording, and I’ll always be grateful. I don’t think those songs would have been recorded any other way.”
For her second album, the soon to be released (August 16) Other Girls, a change in producer and recording venue was in order. The decision for a change led to the historic RCA Studio A on Music Row and Grammy-award winning producer Dave Cobb, who’s worked with such boundary-pushing artists as Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson, John Prine, and Sturgill Simpson.
“My manager, Ian Montone, suggested Dave,” Lillie Mae says. “The experience was totally different from working with Jack White. Dave works really fast and Jack likes to take his time. I played a bunch of demos from my telephone for Dave, and we mutually agreed on the songs. I had worked in Studio A before on some projects and it’s a beautiful studio. It was easy to be myself in there.”
The resulting album reconciles the hardcore country and gospel roots of Lillie Mae’s upbringing with a multitude of musical influences. Whether it’s the ethereal swirling indie rock soundscape of the album’s opener, “You Got Other Girls for That,” the gentle country heartache swing of “Whole Blue Heart,” the moody hillbilly rock of “Some Gamble,” or the sorrowful pych-folk sonic cyclone of “Love Dilly Love,” it’s a showcase for a powerful and singular talent.
“There was no conscious decision to go in different musical directions,” Lillie Mae says of the varied sounds and textures of Other Girls. “I’m a fiddle player and I’ll probably always enjoy playing fiddle tunes, but I don’t aim for a particular style or sound like bluegrass. But if I write a song that naturally heads in that direction, I have to follow it.”
Other Girls also supplies ample evidence of Lillie Mae’s ability to re-fit archetypal heartsong themes for the complicated landscape of relationships in the 21st century. One example is the lilting bluegrass-tinged lament (co-written with her sister, Scarlett), “At Least 3 in This Room,” which calls out a male heartbreaker with the grace and aplomb of a Kitty Wells classic through the realization of a shared bond with other women.
“That song came about because I was sitting talking with two other girls, and I realized we’d all been with the same dude, who was also in the room. It’s rare for any of my songs to come from just one place, so the last verse, ‘How many miles would you drive for a friend?’ was inspired by a good friend who I had just driven to rehab in Pennsylvania.”
Consistent with her first record, were contributions from her brother Frank and her sister Scarlett, who play guitar and mandolin respectively, along with several co-writes with Scarlett. The familial collaborations have continued thriving as various configurations of the Rische siblings play regular shifts at Layla’s.
“I’m comfortable playing with my siblings, and my brother Frank is one of the best guitar players out there,” Lillie Mae says. “I’m lucky to have him, and my sister Scarlett and I have a special connection.”
For the immediate future, Lillie Mae will be joining her labelmates the Raconteurs for a two-week run of opening dates through July and then joining Robert Plant’s tour as both an opening act and member of his band through October. As a veteran road warrior, she’s looking forward to the tours, but she also notes the discovery of a new love.
“I love touring, I mean, I grew up in a motor home, but I really love working in the studio. I’m ready to record another album anytime. You start with blank canvas and just seeing where it goes is so cool. I’m more excited about the studio now because my boyfriend, Misael Arriaga has a studio and we can take the time to try things. I’ve gotten to record more music for fun in the last year than ever before.”
Whether working with her boyfriend in his studio, Dave Cobb at the historic RCA Studio A, or with Jack White at the ultra-hip Third Man Records, much of Lillie Mae’s love for studios and the music made in them is influenced by her musical “grandfather,” Cowboy Jack Clement. No matter what the future holds for her career, Lillie Mae will be making music with family — whether the ties are genetic or through the shared musical DNA that has formed ad hoc “family” bands in Nashville for decades.
“When I first signed with Third Man, Jack White gave me a framed check from Sun Studios to Cowboy Jack,” Lillie Mae says. “That meant so much to me. I was at the Country Music Hall of Fame recently. I’ve performed there a few times before, but I’d never toured the museum before. Everything made me cry, but when I got to the exhibit on Cowboy Jack, I just lost it. His guitar was hanging there, and it’s the same guitar he had hanging above him in his office.”
“The town is not the same since he passed away,” she continues. “He always had an open door at his house. You could go there anytime and be around the coolest and most talented people. I just hope one day I can own a house and create a place where talented people want to hang out and make music.”
She will be on tour with both The Racounteurs and Robert Plant later this summer.