Photos by Chris Phelps
Last year, for the first time in what felt like an eternity, the Nashville singer-songwriter, fiddler, and guitarist Lillie Mae decided that she needed to slow down. So she took a break from her heavy touring schedule to encamp in RCA Studio A, one of a pair of recording studios behind the Nashville sound established by Chet Atkins and country and pop legends. Lillie Mae emerged with an excellent, left-of-center country album, Other Girls. It’s her third studio effort, and one that finds her stretching out in creative directions and playing plenty of fine steel-string guitar throughout.
It was unusual for Lillie Mae, whose surname is Rische, to have gone to this introspective place, as she had been playing out pretty much since she was a toddler. Lillie Mae and her five siblings all learned music very early on, under the tutelage of their father, Forrest Carter Rische. Beginning in the early 1990s, the family had an itinerant lifestyle as it traveled the southern United States in a motor home, performing its brand of rootsy music at any available venue, from theme parks to pig pickin’s. (For non-Southerners, the latter’s a get-together that involves barbecuing a whole hog.)
In 2000, the Rische family received a break of sorts when it was asked to audition for the singer-songwriter and producer Cowboy Jack Clement in Nashville. Clement sensed great potential in the family, and, in particular, Lillie Mae, who at the time was just nine. He acted as a mentor to the young musician until his passing, in 2013. Meanwhile, Lillie Mae, her brother, Frank, and her sisters, Scarlett, Amber-Dawn, and McKenna Grace, formed the band the Risches (later changed to Jypsi, pronounced gypsy) and became a fixture on the musical stretch of Lower Broadway, in Nashville.
While Jypsi achieved some level of success after it signed to Arista Nashville, in 2007, Lillie Mae began writing songs on her own. In 2012, she met Jack White, and White, feeling instant musical chemistry, asked her to join his band the Peacocks as a fiddler and mandolin player. But when White realized her originality as a songwriter, he supported her in pursuing that direction. White first produced Lillie Mae’s 2014 debut single, “Nobody’s” backed with “Same Eyes,” and then her 2017 full-length album, Forever and Then Some.
Though Lillie Mae is clearly steeped in the country tradition, the new album, Other Girls, is at once old-school and modern. In spots, it feels like textural music placed in an Americana context, with some of the instruments, particularly the electric guitars, receiving a bit of an ambient or even psychedelic treatment—unusual for a country record, and also a bit of a departure for the album’s producer, Dave Cobb.
While gearing up to tour in support of Other Girls, Lillie Mae called from Nashville, where she lives, as did her brother, who also plays guitar on the album. Both reflected on how their early life on the road shaped the musicians they would become. And though she considers herself a fiddler first and foremost, Lillie Mae explained why she would almost always rather play the guitar.
The new album, Other Girls, is packed with beautiful guitar sounds. What instruments are you playing?
Lillie Mae: I’ve had a few different guitars recently that I’ve gotten rid of, because they weren’t right for me. Right now I’m playing a Gibson LG with an L.R. Baggs [Anthem] pickup. I’m also playing an old Harmony—that was my first guitar, which my brother fixed up for me. And he was kind enough to loan me the nice Bourgeois [Vintage D] that I’ve also been playing.
What makes you get rid of a guitar—and what draws you to one?
Lillie Mae: The ones I’ve gotten rid of have been really nice guitars, but I really got them just because I got good deals on them. They were newer and they just didn’t speak to me. I wasn’t inspired to write on them or anything. I really have found that I just kind of lean towards older guitars. When I pick out my next guitar, I’m going to get just the right one. I really love early-’70s Guilds. I’ve never had one, but I’ve really enjoyed playing them. There were two down the street from me here at Carter Vintage, and I was drooling over them for a minute.
What kind of guitars did you use on the record, Frank?
Frank Rische: Well, I tell you what. I brought in a number of guitars. Also [producer], Dave Cobb has a pretty nice selection of guitars and amplifiers. Honestly, he’s probably got just about everything that you would want at the studio. I used Dave’s ’60s 12-string Rickenbacker, his killer ’60s Gibson ES-335 and also my own 335. And I played my Tele-style guitar and Gretsch Double Anniversary. We went through various amplifiers. I have an old Gretsch [6163 Executive] with a 15" speaker. I think it was made by Valco in the ’60s. I used that as well as my 1960s Fender Princeton, and assorted other amps that Dave had in the studio.
TIDBIT: Producer Dave Cobb set up Lillie Mae and her band in a circle and did the core of the recording live in his current roost, Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A.
I can hear a sparing amount of tasteful effects on the album. What did you use for the crunchy tones on tracks like “Whole Blue Heart” and “Terlingua Girl”?
Frank: That’s just a germanium fuzz pedal. I also used an MXR Phase 90 in spots on “Terlingua Girl” and other places on the album, and I know that Dave came back and [overdubbed] a few things—like the crazy electric parts at the end of the track.
What was growing up in a family band like?
Lillie Mae: Our family was on the road full-time. We lived in a motor home and we played anywhere we could. We played RV parks, recreation halls, fairs. We did a lot of gospel and we played a lot of churches, flea markets, and stuff in Texas. So, yes, my family has been in music my whole life, and I’m just a product of that. We’ve been living in Nashville for almost 20 years now, and I’ve never taken a break—just always gigging and recording at every opportunity. We still play together, record a lot, and have a lot of fun here.
Frank: Well, I’ll tell you, man, it was definitely an extremely different life and, playing at a young age, we were kind of just thrown into it. It was our family’s means of making a living and our everything. But I certainly loved playing from the very get-go, and I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t always around music.
We moved to Branson, Missouri, in the early ’90s, when I was about 6 and Lillie was 1. We would play a lot of theme parks and malls around in the area, and in the winters we would go down to South Texas and play for the winter Texans in their RV parks and churches. There would always be lots of people jamming and you’d just learn from them. So it was a little different.
We were kind of all over the place. We lived in Asheville, in the mountains of North Carolina, for a time, playing a lot of pig pickin’s and opries and fire halls. We never had a whole lot of scratch, and we ended up moving to Nashville and living with some people out in the country on their farm. Then we met a guy named Dave Ferguson [an engineer known for his work with Johnny Cash]—Fergie they, call him—who introduced us to Cowboy Jack Clement, and that’s how we ended up where we are.