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Third Man's Lillie Mae Is Carving Her Solo Path, With Jack White's Help

Lillie Mae
Laura E. Partain

Lillie Mae

"The best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women," said musician Steve Earle in a recent interview with The Guardian, echoing a thought that has been expressed often in recent months. While he didn’t specifically name any artists, one who certainly fits that description is Lillie Mae.

Signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records, Lillie Mae released her excellent White-produced album, Forever and Then Some, in April. While she’s not yet a household name, she will no doubt be familiar to anyone who has been in the country music business for a little while. As a member of her family band, Jypsi -- which also included her brother and two of her sisters -- Lillie Mae was signed to Arista Nashville when she was just 14 years old.

With its bohemian fashion style, Jypsi was visually different from anything else being worked to radio at the time. The group remained signed for about five years, according to Lillie Mae, but the label only managed to chart two singles, one each in 2008 and 2009. Neither was a hit, and the act released just one digital-only album in that time.

As a solo artist, Lillie Mae’s current label is taking her music in an Americana direction, although she’s not closing any doors. Earlier in June she played both the CMA Music Festival and Bonnaroo in the same week, the latter as part of a bluegrass show with one of her heroes, Bobby Osborne.

Lillie Mae prefers not to categorize her music, saying, "I don’t know what the brand is [but] I know that it’s not contrived." She says she doesn’t care where or how people find her songs, "I just want to play music and reach people." Whoever wants to listen, she says, she’s happy to have onboard.

While she has been reaching potential new fans with some high-profile TV bookings in recent weeks, including Conan and CBS This Morning, one group she’s decidedly not reaching there is members of her own family, none of whom own a TV. The singer and her siblings (their family name is Rische) were home-schooled, and on the road performing since she was 3.

She met White when she was recommended to play fiddle on some studio sessions he was working on several years ago. They discovered a mutual respect and musical common ground, and she ultimately joined his band and toured with him. Having a friendship already established, she says, helped White bring out her best in the studio. “There’s so many situations where you’ve gone in to record and you don’t get your best product because you’re not comfortable,” she says. “[But] I’ve worked in Jack’s studio before so many times. It’s an incredibly creative space. He gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do. He listened to all my ideas. For the type of person I am, that’s the best-case scenario.”

That type of person, she says, is someone who “can be really bold at times, really cocky at times. But generally, I’m pretty shy. If I’m uncomfortable, I won’t speak.”

Despite her lifetime of performing experience, she says that shyness translates to the stage. When she’s singing or playing, she’s fearless. But when it comes time to chat up the audience, that’s where “I have a lot to work on,” she says. “I’m horrible at talking onstage.”

Yet that’s another area where working with White has helped her out. “He’s a master at that,” she says, noting that she has tried to learn from his onstage banter techniques. “He just storms in and takes over. I admire that.”

While she largely remembers Jypsi’s country record deal as a good experience, Lillie Mae says there were frustrations. “We recorded numerous projects that never got released, so that’s discouraging [and] kind of bullshit,” she says. On the plus side, “We made a lot of contacts and met a lot of cool people. How negative could it have been? They paid for me to go to the dentist.”

She’s still a bit disappointed that the band wasn’t more warmly embraced, and she thinks she knows why. “We struggled because, unfortunately, there are a lot of closed-minded people that just look at you and make up their minds and judge you on the way you look,” she says.

These days, however, Lillie Mae’s striking grown-up look is almost certainly an asset.

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