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10 Apr 2018

Always on a Stage: Stagecoach Performer Lillie Mae Is Known for Playing With Jack White—but She's a Country Star on Her Own

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Lillie Mae. Lillie Mae. Laura Partain

If you saw Jack White perform at Coachella in 2015, you couldn’t miss his violinist, Lillie Mae.

Well, Lillie Mae is an accomplished musician in her own right; she has released two country albums on Jack White’s Third Man Records, her most recent being last year’s Forever and Then Some.

She’ll be performing at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival on Sunday, April 29.

During a recent phone interview, Lillie Mae—her full name is Lillie Mae Rische—talked about her humble beginnings growing up, including busking around the country with her family, traveling in an old RV.

“You can’t set the bar too high,” Rische said with a laugh. “I’ve had a very unique life, growing up and traveling in a motorhome. We were playing music in new places every day. I’ve been steadily gigging forever. … I’ve done the same thing in different forms. I’ve had a lucky layout. Our family band—it was my father’s dream, and it was the family’s income. It was no picnic, and it was rough. But as time has gone on, I’ve become truly grateful for it, and I love that way of life so much. I still prefer to sleep in the car—and I sleep better in the car. When you grow up traveling in a motorhome, you’re willing to accept such things later on.”

Rische learned how to write songs at an early age by performing—but it wasn’t until her teenage years that she truly discovered she was a songwriter.

“I knew that it was always in me, because I remember coming up with melodies when I was like 4, 5 and 6,” she said. “I didn’t know then it was writing and that I would later do something with that. … I didn’t start finishing songs until I was about 14. It didn’t click until then.”

When Jack White came to Nashville to open Third Man Records’ physical location in 2009, Rische didn’t even know who he was.

“It took me a long time to find out who he was. I was out of the loop like I still am now, and even when I was playing music with him,” she said. “I hadn’t been turned on to his music yet at the time.

“My sister worked at a hot dog restaurant called Hot Dog Diggity Dogs, and I was over there all the time; I also worked there for a very short time. Jack White had bought a building on the street over from there. It was in a rough part of town, and so was the hot dog stand. It was a big deal when he came to town, because it was going to clean up the neighborhood. That’s how I first knew who he was—by buying that building.

“They called me in when they were recording, and I did a bunch of session work over there, and when it came time for him to go on tour, he asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. My family band had broken up not long before that, and so I went out with them, and I’m so glad that I did. I had the time of my life. It was a very special gig.”

Working with Jack White has also given Lillie Mae a sense of artistic freedom, she said.

“I love working with him so much. I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she said. “People have a tendency to walk into a studio and be like, ‘I’m going to do this, this and this,’ but then you realize you don’t work so well with people. For instance, with my personality, if you tell me to do something and be like, ‘Hey, can you play this?’—I can’t do it. I’ll say that ahead of time: If you ask me for a specific thing, I can’t do it. I do what I do, and it’s a comfort thing. Jack has created this atmosphere where he lets you be yourself. It’s so important. There’s a room full of instruments, and you have the freedom to play them.”

Lillie Mae’s songs are emotional and hard-hitting; there’s no way to describe with words how well the vintage bluegrass and gospel sound comes through her lyrics. She talked about her songwriting process.

“I don’t see what the point is in hiding something or sugarcoating it,” he said. “We’re sugarcoating all over the place, and it’s everywhere. When I write music—I’m blessed to have grown up in a creative atmosphere, and the way that my brain works, I’m grateful for it. It’s an emotional thing. I saw a friend of mine where a situation happened with a relationship. They aren’t together anymore. I just saw this girl heartbroken; it hit me like a freight train. Within two minutes, I’m writing something about this. I had to leave and write this thing down. All these words came pouring out. It’s our obligation as writers to bare all.”

After being onstage most of her life, Lillie Mae said it’s one of the few places she feels totally comfortable.

“I’m playing constantly. I can’t not play,” she said. “If there’s a gig happening, I’m there. Am I going to sit at home? No! The people I play with are very influential to me, and I always look forward to it—every song, every day, I look forward to it. I’m constantly influenced by people who are around me, and that’s why I’m here.”

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