Honest and True:
Lillie Mae Rische Fends Off Americana Fatigue, and Then Some
In some respects, Lillie Mae Rische represents bluegrass tradition. After being raised out of a motorhome as the youngest member of a family band, she kept on playing fiddle as a grown-up. As part of the Third Man roster alongside fellow country outcasts Margo Price and Joshua Hedley, she also represents young artists grounded in tradition yet capable and willing to expand old sounds’ creative boundaries.
Still in her 20s, Rische gained a lifetime of experience as a performer long before becoming Jack White’s go-to fiddler. “I’ve been in a full-time family band since I was three,” she says. “It has been a lifelong of gigging.”
The Rische kids’ dad, Forrest, played in a bluegrass band beforehand with his brothers and their spouses. The second generation of the family band, eventually billed as Jypsi, formed in the mid ’90s and featured Lillie Mae in her first high-profile fiddling gig, sharing stages with older siblings Amber-Dawn, Scarlett and Frank. Sister McKenna Grace also played in the band for a time. Together, the Illinois-based group played whatever bluegrass festivals and churches would have them.
This scenario makes Lillie Mae one of many roots-leaning lifers starting out at a young age alongside parents or siblings. In bluegrass alone, Del McCoury’s sons became his bandmates as young teens, and the sisters in Larkin Poe started playing in a family trio as children. If anything, training a younger sibling or child to fill in on bass or mandolin keeps a group from cycling through hired hands between tours.
“So many people start young in bluegrass as opposed to other music,” Lillie Mae says. “I don’t know if it’s because it’s kind of a cleaner environment. It’s really not. A couple of years in, and there’s drugs everywhere. But maybe it’s more hidden in bluegrass because it’s so linked to such a wholesome image. I think that people feel strongly and feel comfortable about starting their kids in it.”
Other bluegrass young’uns gravitate to older mentors. For example, Ralph Stanley took new Country Music Hall of Famer Ricky Skaggs and fellow Kentucky-born artist Keith Whitley on the road as Clinch Mountain Boys when they were just young teenagers. Although he isn’t a bluegrass musician, Third Man label mate Hedley also started playing fiddle at a young age. Since none of his family played music and no kids at school wanted to be like Ray Price, he found older mentors around his Florida hometown.
Although she sees the benefits for those lucky enough to have mentors, Lillie Mae is pleased to have come of age playing alongside her brother and sisters. “It’s a special and unique thing to play music with your family,” she says. “There’s a closeness and uniqueness that’s just on a different level.”
The Rische family didn’t need a mentor to make it as a touring act, but one did emerge when it came time to pursue stardom. Legendary producer and musician Cowboy Jack Clement discovered the group in the early-aughts, helping position them to sign with Arista Nashville in 2007.
As the story sometimes goes for promising young talents in Nashville, a big label deal created a holding pattern for a group then known for its sets at Layla’s Bluegrass Inn on Lower Broadway. That big single never came, despite 2008’s “I Don’t Love You Like That” cracking the top 50, so the label’s interest in its young signees waned.
It’s easy to blame Music Row for such a career stumble, but ultimately it was probably just bad timing for all parties involved. As the siblings got older, they progressed musically beyond traditional bluegrass, making them harder to market. Plus, as the sisters matured, they became thrift store fashionistas. Some of their more revealing outfits pretty much terrified the bluegrass establishment, drying up those surefire gigs at festivals. With a changing sound Nashville couldn’t easily package for new listeners and a look that turned away some older fans, the siblings more or less were like actual wayward gypsies despite the apparent promises of a big-label deal.
“They took us on for a reason,” Lillie Mae says. “They didn’t take us on to put us on the shelf. Lines just got blurred in between and honestly, they didn’t know what to do with us and put us on the shelf for six years. Six years is almost 10 years, and 10 years in the music business is basically your shot.”
Despite Jypsi’s mainstream run ending uneventfully when Frank quit the band, Lillie Mae isn’t completely dismissive of major labels.
“At a big label, there are both pluses and minuses,” she says. “Looking back now, we were so young. We kind of went along with a lot of things. We stood our ground on some things. What would we do different now? We’d not waste six years on it. I’m the youngest in the family, so it wasn’t quite so detrimental to me. My sister is 10 years older than me. By the time we were done with the label, she was like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ She played music for a few years and became a professor.”
Today, all four siblings still play music. Frank, for example, appears as a guitarist on Miranda Lambert’s Weight of These Wings album and added background vocals to releases by Lee Ann Womack, Aubrie Sellers and Charlie Worsham. Amber-Dawn went on to join husband-and-wife duo BAD Nicholas, and Scarlett has played mandolin on Third Man releases and co-wrote songs for her kid sister’s LP. A talented singer, sister McKenna Grace adds backup vocals to some of Lillie Mae’s songs.
As the family business shuttered its doors, other doors opened for Lillie Mae. Jack White just happened to need a fiddle player, and Hedley suggested the right woman for the job. “I never would have done that if Jypsi was still together,” she says. “If our family had still done the label thing, I never would’ve took a gig with someone else.”
In White’s inner-circle of studio and touring musicians, she played on numerous projects, including albums, singles, and soundtracks, with a wide array of players from different genres and walks of life. Just looking at the country material from her time there, she played on records with both Dwight Yoakam and Willie Nelson. Both look better on a discography than her lone big label-era team-up with Montgomery Gentry.
Through this role as a side player, Lillie Mae’s talents as a vocalist and songwriter first impressed her future label boss. “He just heard me dicking around, playing songs backstage for friends,” she says. “I was comfortable enough to pull out a guitar and play whatever, or maybe I was just younger.”
The mental image of Lillie Mae just spontaneously jamming while hanging around other musicians resembles what she might’ve seen at late-night picking sessions at bluegrass festivals. Perhaps a means of sharing songs she witnessed as a child is what gave her that boldness to unexpectedly break out in song.
Once the time came for Lillie Mae to record with White, she’d compiled the impressive body of songs that became 2017’s Forever and Then Some. From the more traditional-sounding “To Go Wrong” to blues-rocker “Over the Hill and Through the Woods,” she steps to the forefront as a promising singer and songwriter. It’s not a bluegrass album by any means. Instead, the youngest member of the traveling Rische family uses a lifelong education in old-fashioned picking to inform her developing talents as a writer of the sort of genre-defying, roots-inspired new sounds that’re fending off Americana fatigue.
Although it’s tempting to hone in on the more depressing themes on the album, the only specific reference point Lillie Mae makes regarding her songwriting goals is Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” of all things. She first heard it at Lucinda Williams’ house and was grabbed right away by its message. “We live in a crazy world, and those little positive glimpses are so important,” she says.
Having her name on the album spine changes things, even if the pressure is all internal. The spotlight isn’t something to fear or shun for Lillie Mae, as it comes along with having a means to share her own songs. “I’ll be doing that always,” she says of fronting a band. “It’s just a different thing. It’s a different project. I have to play my music. I have to write it and play it. It’s an obligation in my life. I’d never be happy as just a sideman. I was always an equal member of a band or whatever.”
Even if White comes calling with a touring project or someone else in Nashville needs a fiddler for lengthy road trip, that won’t stop the creation of new music released under the name Lillie Mae. “If I went out and played with somebody for a year or two years, by God I’d be writing my own songs on the side,” she says. “It doesn’t matter. I’d be doing it anyway because it’s the number one priority.”
Photo by Laura Partain.