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."
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.
"Our parents didn't have regular jobs," explained Amber-Dawn, so the family band, led by their bassist father, would travel from campsite to campsite, taking gigs on shows where admission typically was $1. The family's idea of hitting the big time was playing one of the upscale trailer parks where the cover charge was $5.
"That taught us so much playing for people mostly 55 and older," Scarlett said. "We'd go to jam sessions three times a week."
The response from the RV park dwellers, Frank recalled, ran from codgers who complained, "All you do is scream; when are you going to learn to sing?" to supporters who told them, 'You guys are great! You should be on the Grand Ole Opry.' "
Touring and more touring
WORD OF the group's talent reached veteran producer and songwriter Jack Clement, who became a booster and persuaded them to move to Nashville, where they hooked up with McGhee.
The strategy for breaking Jypsi now centers on the live shows. The group played the South by Southwest music conference in Austin in March, Stagecoach in Indio in May and the Bonnaroo festival in eastern Tennessee earlier this month.
After a recent promotional tour during which the four siblings visited various country radio stations, label chief Galante said, "Everybody loved the group, but we heard the same old thing you hear when you bring somebody new to the country or pop format: 'I didn't hear the hit.' "
That's partly because their digital-only debut album, produced by Dixie Chicks producer Blake Chancey, only hints at the heights the group hits live. Even some raw YouTube clips offer a better introduction.
"I think people really need something different right now," Scarlett said. "I think they're looking for it. Even if they're afraid to embrace it, they clearly need it . . . because everything is so straight right now and so in a rut."
For Galante, it's about creating positive word of mouth and finding that elusive magic song. "We're spending time building them on the road, building press and doing TV," he said. "In the meantime, we've found two or three songs we absolutely love and we plan to go in and cut them, add them to the record and relaunch the album probably at the end of the year."
That's just what radio programmers such as Go Country's Campos are looking for.
"I think it's a good time for basically anything new," she said. "Take Jessica Simpson being welcomed into the format -- you wouldn't have seen that 10 years ago. I think country radio is pretty much open to any good song. Today it's more about the song, less about who's singing the song. . . . I hope in the new year they find that song. I saw them in a small bar in Nashville with a full band and man, they sound good in a dusty bar with a cold beer."