LILLIE MAE GREW UP ON THE ROAD, between small towns and church halls across the USA. And while the singer/songwriter and in-demand fiddle player (for, among others, Jack White, Joshua Hedley, and some kid called Robert Plant), calls Nashville home these days, it’s on the road that we find her again.
This time it’s in Brisbane, on her tour manager’s phone, and itching – positively begging I tell you – to take the official Dutton You Try To Enter Australia Again Quiz, on this her fourth tour of the country.
But that will have to wait a bit as we first must negotiate some tricky off-road territory, beginning with a three-step question for the woman the passport office knows as Lillie Mae Rische and audience members know as the titular leader of Lillie Mae and Her Family Band.
That childhood on the move was as part of the original family band, led by her father, packed with her siblings (several of whom still play with her), and, as her father was religious, strict and musically traditional, full of the songs of gospel and bluegrass – or what I like to call fears and tears.
The youngest in the family and the band – she started singing at the age of three, took up the guitar at four, and was wielding the fiddle by seven - can mean everything feels like you’re on the path already, this is how the family does things and that’s that. But sometimes it can also mean a perversity kicks in and getting off that path seems imperative. Did she ever feel like taking a revolutionary step away, maybe develop a speed metal sideline?
“I do like metal. I used to go to a lot of metal shows when I was younger in this little punk club in Nashville, that shut down many years ago,” Rische says. “But I guess, in a communal mindset sometimes you go for a walk on your own, and I do a lot of things separately like recording sessions and stuff, but we [siblings] have a lot more fun when we are working together.”
Gospel and bluegrass share some roots in church music, does that still have a hold on her the way it did when she was very young and that was pretty much all she was hearing? Or did you have to divert from that path for a while too?
“In the early years of performing we did play a lot of gospel and traditional bluegrass, and my love for traditional country and bluegrass is still very thick. I enjoy listening to it a lot, at any time, and I think it comes through [in my own songs] whether we want it to or not. But I’ve always had ears for other things,” says Rische. “But you know, beliefs change when you get older and you start realising what things are really about. I play in a band with a girlfriend of mine – and she’s a wildcat; she is actually a metal head on the side too – and we do a gospel show on Sundays, and it’s still enjoyable to play.”
In the past she’s spoken about how a controlling boyfriend delayed, almost ended, her chance to work with Jack White, convincing her to knock back his original offer to record with White’s Third Man label. I’m not suggesting this louse was in any way like her father, but was there a point in her life when she had to break from dominant male voices to make hers the loudest voice in the room?
“I’m friends with my dad and my dad was not anything like that guy, at all. So no, I would never compare them, at all,” she says firmly. “My dad did the best he could and we grew up working a lot, like we were out, actively performing, and he tried so hard, and tried and tried and tried. And that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing today. Sure, he was controlling in ways but he is a good person.
“But honestly, I think the way we were raised had a lot to do with the reason why was in those situations in the first place. Because if you grow up being drilled into ‘you to put other people first, other people first, other people first’, you will always put the other person first. Even when you shouldn’t. And I think that’s a lot to do with why I got into that situation, because I wasn’t standing up for myself; I was trying to help this other person.”
As with local singer Sam Buckingham who has just released an album on this theme and spoke frankly about what it took to free herself , Rische talks about the lasting impact of that kind of thinking and that kind of behaviour.
“There is so much psychological damage and you don’t even realise it and two years turns to four years and then six years, and all of a sudden you are the person that you feel you are in your heart and your head,” she says, adding with a rueful chuckle. “Unfortunately, you learn that the hard way.”
Coming out of situations like that there is often a temptation for reckless moves just to show independence, but the musical and sonic move she’s made on her two most recent albums – 2017’s Forever And Then Some and 2019’s Other Girls – spreading into rock and some nameless area between roots and old school pop, feel less like rebellion and more like a natural exploration. Albeit too broadly interesting to be safely commercial.
“I could play something safe, but there’s no point, no reason. If I did do that, it’s not like I am going to get some more radio play,” she laughs. “That’s not going to happen. The few times that I’ve had the opportunity to get into the studio and record and release music, it’s been a blessing to even get to do that.”
That’s not the first time she’s referred to blessings in this conversation, so maybe as the final blessing, it’s time to see just how much attention Lillie Mae has paid so far to us.
“I would never raise my hand and call myself knowledgeable,” she says immediately, suddenly losing her confidence.
Well, there may not be a fifth visit if she doesn’t ace this, so no pressure.
“So everything relies on it? O… kay.”
Given where she is today, and where she will be on Tuesday (Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory), how long does it take to drive from Brisbane to Sydney.
“I’ve not made the drive yet but I think it’s about 10 hours.”
Good get. Impressive start. What’s the best and worst Australian bird song in the morning?
“You mean live, from the birds themselves, coming from the trees?”
Yes, indeed from the birds themselves. Unless she’s got some ornithological recording she travels with (hey, you wouldn’t rule it out would you?).
“I wouldn’t know which one was the worst because every time I hear them, it sounds good to me.”
Nice evasive answer.
“All the birds I’ve seen so far have been impressive, like the Bin Chicken.”
Bonus point to the visitor namedropping the Bin Chicken (even if its qualities are debatable), especially as I would have accepted the answer “I wouldn’t know because I’m not awake in the morning” as satisfactory.
“Oh, we’re awake, that’s for damn sure. I was up at five today, up at 5.30 yesterday.”
Final question, with triple points available. If you were to live in Australia where would it be, and why obviously would it not be Adelaide?
“Oh, I’ve not been to Adelaide yet but my husband has an old friend who lives in Adelaide, and I’ve enjoyed every part of Australia I’ve been to so far,” Rische says. “Bellingen was an unbelievable little town and there was such amazing thrift shopping and incredible music, and I met just the friendliest people, and had amazing food. And I’m enjoying being in Brisbane right now, and Melbourne as well.
“So how can I badmouth Adelaide when I haven’t been there yet. It’s got a lovely name, it sounds like an old folk song.”
Enough! Enough niceness already. Alright you can stay. You can come back.
“I’m glad I passed the test. It’s not every day I pass tests: I had to take my driving test three times.”
She sounds perfect for Sydney’s roads then. Lillie Mae, come on down!
Lillie Mae & Her Family Band play:
Oxford Art Factory, Gallery Bar, April 12
Boogie Festival, Tallarook, April 15-17
Tanswell Hotel, Beechworth, April 18
Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne, April 20
Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine, April 21
Archies Creek Hotel, April 23
Hotel Westwood, Melbourne, April 24