Lillie Mae plays by her own rules

Lillie Mae
Lillie Mae’s musical resumé starts with her becoming a live performer from age three and has included a rich and varied career working with people like Jack White, Robert Plant, Cowboy ‘Jack’ Clemens and many more. She was effectively schooled in a Nashville Honky Tonk called Layla’s and now she’s bringing her unique mix of country, bluegrass and alternative music around Oz. Les Thomas caught up with her between bites at a Sydney pizza joint.

Edited transcript

Where are you at the moment, Lillie Mae?

I’m outside of Tonino’s Pizza in Penhurst [Sydney] run by a guy named Tony Perrenti and he played on AC/DC’s first album, so we come here when we’re in Sydney. Tony came to the show the other day. We’ve been chatting with him for the last few hours. It’s because of my bandmate and recent husband Craig. He’s the AC/DC guy, but Tony’s awesome. He’s really cool

Have you had much of a chance to develop much of a connection to Australia in your four visits so far?

Absolutely. Yes, it’s our fourth trip. Definitely, from the first time here, we weren’t here for long, so I got a phone card, called home, played some shows, met some cool people, but really didn’t do a whole lot the first time. I think we were here three days or something. The other trips we’ve been here for two weeks and three weeks, so we’ve made a lot of connections and met a lot of wonderful people and have a lot of friends here, so it’s pretty cool. We do feel rather connected here. There are a lot of things I connect with here on different levels, like it seems like most people are very environmentally conscious, a lot more so than where we live in Nashville. That’s the reality. So I can get on board with that. And I’ve said this before, but I’m an animal lover and I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life, animal product free. I feel like that’s a lot easier to find here than it is back home. I can identify with it on a lot of levels. [laughs]

Tofu’s easier to find than BBQ. I’m hearing ya.

Exactly! [laughs]

How have the shows been? What sort of company have you been keeping out there on the road?

It’s been great. All the shows have been wonderful. Last night was a lot of fun. We played with Harry Foxton, and this girl Grace who’s in his band who’s wonderful, and with Zane Banks and Jy-Perry Banks (Steelin’ Hearts). All those guys are just so nice. We played some shows with Pete Cullen and a band called Hillsborough before then and just had a great time. We’ve been in good company just like every other time we’ve been here, so we feel really blessed

All your press mentions your very young starting age as a performing musician. I don’t need to go over that ad nauseum because it’s been well covered out there. Would you say there have been clear phases of development in your musical life?

It certainly hasn’t been the last two or three years. [laughs] It can depend on a musician that you’re playing with in a band for certain time period. Or it could be, ‘Oh I discovered this album in that year’, so yeah absolutely. I think a big time for me was listening to Jim Croce albums or that style of guitar playing. I really grew to love that. And that was a big, influential time period. But I think mostly, just honestly it would be years of playing Layla’s with the family playing six days a week, four to eight hours a day. We did that for 15 years, unless we were out of town and we did tour a lot, but those years had a huge impact musically because of course you’re gonna get better.

Was there a lot of improvisation in what you were doing there?

Completely. It was always mixed up. We never quite did the same thing and I think that’s such a huge part of it. You throw in new songs; you learn new songs. We still have fun down there. We play on Saturday’s with Layla. It’s a good time with my sisters and Craig usually plays. It’s fun. We jump around. I wouldn’t wanna be down town six days a week, by all means, but we always got to do something different. That was the cool thing about working at Layla’s too. She’s an artist herself and she always gave you free reign to do what you wanted. Whereas at other clubs it not no much. “You have to play this”. But we just didn’t. We didn’t work at those places.

Yeah. Fair enough. I mean, listening to your album ‘Other Girls’ I think it’s such a powerful statement of your music identity and it sounds like you’ve come up against significant resistance in your lifetime. Can you talk about how you’ve formed your own identity over the year?

[Laughs] Well, I guess to me it doesn’t seem like that. It just feels like the next thing. You’re just going in to record new music. I doesn’t feel like such a leap or such a win. With each album I’ve been able to make, I’ve been extremely grateful for the opportunity because to do so, including the new music that’s coming out now. Every time I get the opportunity to record I feel super grateful, because how many people are there out there that don’t get to do that? So of course we a working fervently and we’re in a around the places where it’s happening regularly. It’s not like I’m out living in the sticks. I’m up in it and working in the midst of it. But I still feel grateful to have the opportunity to record that because I can’t record myself. I don’t have a computer or a recording device. I’m completely reliant on another party to so so. But I feel like with the albums that we’ve made, every time it’s just like, well it’s been two years since the last one, so it’s just like a natural progression [inaudible]

I guess if you grow that much in a time period, by the time you’re able to put the next project together, you’ve been honing it that much more I guess. I just feel the same from the last one to the next one.

I suppose part of that question is about seeing so much politics around music, musical conservatism. You know, “You gotta play this sort of music if it’s gonna be called country/bluegrass” or whatever given category. But it seems that at some stage you’ve made the choice you’re not going to play by the rules.

I get what you’re saying now. I’ve had a Music Row record deal with my family. I’ve had the indie deal, you know? And with each of those came wonderful things. We had a typical Nashville experience. We got signed early and promises of bug things and, you know what? We just didn’t fit the mold, so you get put on a shelf and that type of thing happens a lot. Oh! And there goes your youth, you know?

Our dad used to be like “You should just sell out! Make some money and sell out!” And I’d be like “As if!”I feels like “Here, flick this switch. Sell out or don’t sell out. Make a million or don’t, you know. But it’s not that easy. I could still completely sell out, whatever that means, or go a different route. And it still might never happen, you know? You’re just following the path, I guess.

But it is wild being in and around Nashville for so long. We don’t really fit in anywhere. We never did. We were ousted from bluegrass. We were ousted from country. It’s like, OK cool.

I love a good old-fashioned country song as much as anybody’s ever loved one, and the same for bluegrass. We can play that shit all day long and we love it, but then you go to write songs and they turn out a little different just because of the way they come out of you. We don’t try to be different. It is what it is. I guess all in all it’s a good thing because you’ll never be lumped into a certain group, because I might not have beautiful country star hair but we’re still here doing our thing. [Laughs] We’re still gonna be here at the end of the day and next year and the year after.


Mon April 18 – TANSWELL HOTEL, BEECHWORTH – TIX (on sale March 18 at 8am) 
Wed April 20 – BRUNSWICK BALLROOM, MELBOURNE – TIX  (on sale March 18 at 8am) 
Thu April 21 – BRIDGE HOTEL, CASTLEMAINE – TIX (on sale March 18 at 8am)
 Sat April 23 – ARCHIE’S CREEK HOTEL – TIX (announcing March 16 at 8am, on sale March 18 at 8am) 
Sun April 24 – HOTEL WESTWOOD, MELBOURNE – TIX  (on sale March 18 at 8am)

About Les Thomas 106 Articles
Narrm/Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor