Jypsi

TOGETHERNESS: The Rische clan, lead singer-fiddler Lillie Mae, left, guitarist-singer Frank, mandolinist Scarlett and fiddler-singer Amber-Dawn. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

THE STAR-MAKING machine in Nashville does a lot of things well, but nurturing musicians who work outside the box isn't one of them. In the 1950s, Buddy Holly was rebuffed when he first recorded there, and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings spent most of the '60s struggling to fit into Music City's square holes before going home to Texas to record their songs the way they envisioned them.

That tradition lives on for Jypsi, a brash young family bluegrass band with a punk-ish edge that's shaking up the country music status quo. Sisters Lillie Mae, Amber-Dawn and Scarlett Rische and their brother, Frank, create a first impression as Dixie Chicks after a rampage through Hollywood's thrift stores, their latter-day-hippie brother along for the ride. They both embrace and flaunt country convention with a sound strongly rooted in old-time bluegrass, country, gospel and folk music, something they learned from their staunchly religious parents while nomadically traveling through the South, stopping only long enough to play gigs in RV parks and wherever else they could earn a few dollars.

Since settling in Nashville in recent years, they've been regulars at Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, where they've played four hours a night, up to six nights a week, dazzling audiences with their instrumental and vocal chops, sex appeal and artistic chutzpah. They attack bluegrass and country with energy and sass. Lillie Mae and Amber-Dawn challenge one another with fiery fiddle licks, Scarlett spins out blazing mandolin runs, all the more impressive given her 1 1/2 -inch-long fingernails, and Frank rips off dazzling flat-picked solos on his acoustic guitar.

Except for Scarlett -- who doesn't sing -- all intertwine voices in roller-coaster-like ascents, drops and barrel rolls. Lead singer and fiddler Lillie Mae, just 16, evokes comparisons to Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss and Iris DeMent for her dramatic vocal swoops and dives.

"I was downtown seeing another client I had signed," says Scott McGhee, now Jypsi's manager, of his first experience with the band. "When I walked out, I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, looked to my left and I see this girl in the window -- they're all absolutely stunning-looking -- and thought, 'What the heck is this?' And when I saw these kids play, I was just floored."

At the time, Jypsi had other management, but when they parted ways, McGhee jumped at the chance to sign on. Much like Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville, who offered them a recording contract after seeing the group perform for all of 30 minutes.

In the two years since that happened, Galante and McGhee have been working steadily to find a way to put Jypsi across to audiences outside of Nashville's Lower Broadway club district. But it's not an easy sell.

Noted Galante: "Bands are difficult to break in this format, and it takes time. Sugarland is the most recent example of a group that broke through in significant amounts, before that it was Dixie Chicks, and before that we might have to go back to Alabama. But when they do break, they can break huge."

Layla’s Bluegrass Inn"It's the same with anybody new that comes out that's a little eclectic-sounding and looking: People don't quite know where to put them," added Tonya Campos, program director at L.A.'s Go Country-FM (105) radio, who was at the group's Go Country-sponsored performance last month at the Morongo Casino in Cabazon.

That's exactly what the group encountered when it began meeting with producers about making an album.

"We had a meeting with this one guy, he was like, 'Who do you want to sound like?' " said Amber-Dawn. Then Lillie Mae jumped in: "No, it was, 'What band do you want to sound like and what are we going to do to create that sound?' " To which Amber-Dawn responded: "We were so confused because we're already what we are."

A colorful crew

GETTING ready for the Morongo Casino performance, 24-year-old Scarlett applied dark polish to her toenails to complement a pistachio short-shorts jumpsuit open to the navel, revealing her leopard-print bra. During the sound check, Amber-Dawn, 26, attempted to keep her mini-dress from turning into a tank top as she bent down to adjust pedal controls for her fiddle.

As her sisters fine-tuned their hair and makeup, Lillie Mae, candy-apple-red gloss on her full lips, sat quietly knitting, projecting the image of someone far beyond her years, while Frank, 20, his reddish, shoulder-length hair falling out from under a Rastafarian-style beret, sported something akin to a Deadhead Nation refugee look.

Although they've consented at times to toning down their appearance, such as on a recent promotional tour to several country radio stations, Amber-Dawn noted: "It's such a fine line: How far do you compromise without losing who you are?"

Said Scarlett: "There are some people who come in and tell us, 'You have to stop doing this' and 'You have to change that about your looks.' But then they come down to hear us on a Sunday night when we're just ourselves and they love it."

That's a reflection of Jypsi's fascinating blend of innocence and brashness, instrumental accomplishment and artistic fearlessness. They are conversant in the repertoire of country gospel artist Vern Gosdin, but largely unaware of contemporary musicians. "We were not allowed to listen to the radio or watch television," Scarlett said. During a conversation in which they brought up a song by Edie Brickell they'd heard recently, they could identify her only as "that singer who's Paul Simon's wife."

Lillie Mae has a much easier time chatting about the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and nonchalantly pairs Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin as her favorite female singers.

Such influences developed while the Rische family migrated from town to town through the South. They lived in the country tourism hot-spot Branson, Mo., plied the live music circuit in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and cruised from one end of the Rio Grande Valley in southeastern Texas to the other looking for work.