Two middle-aged women eyed Lillie Mae as she strolled into Rotier’s family restaurant in Nashville, her head shaved on both sides with a shock of short, dark hair on top, nose ring and tattoos on both arms easily visible.
“Well, aren’t you just darling?” one of the observers said gleefully on her way to the cashier to pay her bill.
Singer, songwriter and fiddler Lillie Mae smiled back and demurely thanked the woman for the remark.
“That’s better than what I get a lot of times,” she quietly told a visitor as they sat down for a late lunch on a recent afternoon in one of her favorite hangs, far removed from wherever the hip-and-trendy epicenter of the country music capital happens to be these days.
Lillie Mae has dazzled increasingly larger audiences over the last decade with her elastic and colorful vocal aplomb, her technical command of the fiddle and her charismatic presence as a performer.
Those traits take center stage in her biggest career step yet as Jack White’s Third Man Records releases the 26-year old musician’s new solo album, “Forever and Then Some,” on April 14.
As part of a trip west to tape an appearance that will run on Thursday’s episode of “Conan,” she’ll also play a showcase that evening in L.A. at the Monty Bar.
Lillie Mae doesn’t sound like most of the carefully groomed nascent stars roaming the streets of Nashville, but that’s one of the things that caught the attention of indie rock kingpin White — who recruited her for the all-female band that supported him on his Lazaretto tour in 2014
“What isn’t interesting about her?” asked Stacy Vee, director of festival talent for Goldenvoice who oversees the talent bookings for the promoter’s Stagecoach Country Music Festival, which Lillie Mae played in 2008 with her family band, Jypsi.
“Seriously, the way she’s singing, the way she presents her art, I haven’t seen it performed like that. …It’s completely fresh, it sounds way older and way newer, masculine and feminine at the same time. It’s going to be a really fun project to watch develop.”
In the beginning, there was little expectation attached to her venture into a recording studio last year with White at the helm.
“There was no plan to make a whole album,” said Lillie Mae. “He asked me to come in and record a few songs, and after we got done with three, he said, ‘You got any more?’ ”
That turned into a baker’s dozen tracks —11 on the album and two more that are slated as B-sides for singles.
They span the melancholic Americana breakup song “Over the Hill and Through the Woods” to the sprightly country two-step “Honky Tonks and Taverns.” Elsewhere, there’s the country-gospel lope of “Wash Me Clean” and the folk bluegrass sway of the title track. The album closes with the haunting mantra-like minor-key lament “Dance to the Beat of My Own Drum.”
Among the songwriters she most admires are Americana guiding lights Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark, both of whom she aims to emulate for at least one quality: “Their songs are just so honest — they write about life in ways that are so real. I really love that about them.”
Lillie Mae’s voice comes out of the Dolly Parton school of high, quavering emotionalism, bringing a tinge of sadness even to her more optimistic lyrics. One of the most distinctive facets of her singing is her ability to swoop up to some notes, gracefully fall off others and register hop with the ease of a great yodeler.
The album features instrumental and vocal contributions from several members of her large family: her brother, Frank, on guitar; older sister Scarlet on mandolin; and younger sister McKenna Grace on vocals. For years, they sang together as a family band that also included another older sister, Amber Dawn, who now lives in Canada.
Nearly a decade ago, they were making the rounds as Jypsi. They scored bookings at major festivals including Stagecoach and Bonnaroo in Tennessee, and for a time had major labels jockeying to sign them.
Lillie Mae was 16 at the time, and she quickly rose from her role supporting her older sisters and brother to the band’s lead vocalist.
But the group’s hippie-bohemian fashion sense, as well as a penchant for material that often veered to pop music’s fringes, scared off many would-be industry supporters.
Nevertheless, Jypsi persisted, mostly at Layla’s Bluegrass Inn on Broadway along Nashville’s central tourist thoroughfare. The band would play several nights a week, four hours a night for years, honing the siblings’ instrumental and vocal chops across a broad range of material from country and bluegrass to rock, soul and R&B.
That provided Lillie Mae with a richly diverse range of tools in her musical kit. As a songwriter, she leans toward tunes of heartbreak, which she concedes sometimes limits her opportunities to flash her expertise on the fiddle.
“I just don’t write those kinds of [uptempo bluegrass] songs,” she said. “I wish I did.”
When Lillie Mae and her family first settled in Tennessee, they were quickly taken under the wing of Jack Clement, a.k.a. Cowboy Jack Clement, the former associate of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, and one of roots music’s most revered producers, engineers and all around idiosyncratic musical geniuses and raconteurs. He mentored Lillie Mae and her siblings, helping nurture their maverick sensibilities.
She also credits the time spent in White’s band for opening her up to an even greater diversity of music. Now the big challenge is stepping up yet again: from frontwoman in a family band and featured support player to a bona fide rock star to focal point of her own show.
“I’ve never put my own band together,” she said. “It’s kind of scary, in a way. But I’m really ready to just get out there and play and play and play.”
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