Years before crossing paths with Jack White, Lillie Mae toured the eastern half of the United States with her family band, earning her reputation as a frontwoman and fierce-playing fiddler at an early age. These days, her audience has broadened far beyond the bluegrass community that once fostered – and later rejected – the band she shared with her siblings. After logging several years as Jack White’s bandmate and duet partner, she’s thrown her weight behind a solo album, Forever and Then Some, which was produced by White and released by his label, Third Man Records.
During this week’s episode of Walking the Floor, Lillie Mae talks with Chris Shiflett about a childhood spent on the road, a decade’s worth of paying dues in the Nashville honky-tonks and the freedom that comes with a solo career. Listen to the episode’s premiere below. Here are some takeaways from the podcast.
She’s been a road warrior for decades.
“My brother Frank was born in a motorhome on the way to a gig,” says Mae, who spent nearly her entire youth touring with her parents and three siblings. “We didn’t make it out west growing up, but we hit everywhere else,” she explains. Later, the family’s younger generation settled in Nashville, where Mae, her brother and two siblings re-launched their career as members of the family band Jypsi.
Although raised on the road, Lillie Mae spent a good bit of time in church, too.
Thanks to her religious parents – including a father who was an ordained minister – a young Mae spent many Sundays in a string of cross-country churches. “We grew up super-strict Christian,” she explains. “We played a different church every Sunday. You play for a love offering and sit through the sermon. Play beforehand, play afterwards. . .[and] hopefully get a pot-luck dinner.”
Her biggest fiddle inspiration is Vassar Clements.
“He played on so many records,” she says of the legendary instrumentalist. “I guarantee you’ve heard him on a lot of stuff. He was super out there. His playing was half-jazz, but he played with all the bluegrass cats.” A dozen years after Clements’ death, Lillie Mae’s solo album – whose songs mix old-school country roots with influences that stretch across the full range of Americana – echoes the diversity of her hero’s music.
She earned her big record deal by playing daily shows in a Nashville honky-tonk.
“We were playing at Layla’s,” she says of Jypsi, the band she formed with her siblings. The band played six shows a week at Layla’s, turning traditional bluegrass music on its head thanks to an animated stage presence and flamboyant, flower-child attire. It was there, surrounded by tourists, that the group finally received its big break. “One day, we’re playing Layla’s and we get a record deal,” she remembers. “The head of Sony comes down, and they offered it to us on the spot.” Signed to Sony’s subsidiary, Artista Nashville, Jypsi charted a Top 40 single on country radio before being unceremoniously dropped from the label.
While playing in Jack White’s band, Lillie Mae was given a surprising amount of freedom.
“He was obviously the leader, but it felt like a band, as in. . .everyone was given opportunity to have a full day in whatever part [they] were playing,” she says of her days on tour with White, who first hired Mae as a session musician on his solo debut, Blunderbuss. “It was awesome. He gave everyone a platform to rise on. . .That’s why it was so unique and cool.” Later, while recording her first album as a solo artist, Mae hired White as her producer. She’d already toured with the world with him, so it felt natural to share the same studio space. “He’s just an ideas machine,’ she says.