By LORIE LIEBIG
This story first ran in our sister paper the Nashville Scene.
Few have experienced as many of the ups, downs and in-betweens of navigating the ever-evolving Nashville music scene like Lillie Mae. She’s been a regular player at Layla’s Honky Tonk (formerly Layla’s Bluegrass Inn) on Lower Broadway since she began playing there at age 12, alongside her parents and siblings in their family band. Those years of playing to local barflies and eager tourists have given her a front-row seat to the major changes the area has seen in a short amount of time.
“It’s painful how loud the street is,” she tells the Scene. “It hurts, because you’ll be trying to play a song and you just hear the bashing of instruments coming from out the window. But if you’re in Layla’s, you’re safe.”
That safe space has been a constant in her life, as her career has expanded from playing covers of country, pop and jazz at the bar to doing a stint playing fiddle in Jack White’s band and, most recently, touring as a solo artist. Her 2017 debut solo LP Forever and Then Some, produced by White and released by Third Man Records, quickly solidified her as one of the town’s most impressive genre-bending talents. With her second album Other Girls, out Friday, she broadens her trademark sound with help from celebrated producer Dave Cobb. Mae says the record, made at the historic RCA Studio A, represents an organic meeting of the minds.
“[Cobb’s] studio atmosphere is really laid-back,” she says. “I just came in, played him my songs on guitar, and we went from there. It was easy and natural.”
The result of their collaboration is an engaging, mystical soundscape that perfectly accents Mae’s innate ability to tune into the most relatable parts of the human experience. Although she first put a major focus on songwriting at age 14, Mae says she’s been writing songs in some form throughout her entire life. Now 27, she’s cultivated a songwriting style that lets the listener see situations directly through her eyes. She wrote the Other Girls cut “Terlingua Girl” when she was 19, but it fits right in. The song is a look at a chance encounter Mae had while traveling through the legendary Texas ghost town.
“It’s such a unique and bizarre place,” she recalls. “When I was there, I met this very special girl, and she heavily influenced me. She was like a fairy. I was reading her, and I could tell she had a heaviness that she carried with her.”
That heaviness, anchored throughout the song by Mae’s resonant vocals, is cleverly echoed in the final engulfing crescendo of guitars and percussion. But not all of Other Girls’ songs are about experiences you’d want to revisit. With the sauntering “You’ve Got Other Girls for That,” Mae dives into the painful dynamic of pining after someone who’s not inclined to return the feeling. The kiss-off “I Came for the Band (For Show)” was inspired by a specific night at East Nashville’s American Legion Post 82.
“I usually went by myself, and there was one particular group of girls that were not cool with me,” says Mae. “We were not friends. One day, my old boss Jack [White] came in with some of his friends, and these girls came up and gave me big hugs like they knew me. But they were so caught up that they didn’t even realize that we had never spoken — even though I tried to say hi to them a million times.”
Mae’s been on a short leave of absence from her home turf at Layla’s, supporting another of White’s groups, The Raconteurs. And she’ll be gone again soon, touring in September and October with Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters. But despite the conflicts that close ties within Nashville’s music community can sometimes spark, there’s a well of inspiration here that Mae says she’s never experienced anywhere else.
“There’s an energy here that people are drawn to,” Mae says. “Nashville is rolling energy — a fusion of creativity — and we’re all a part of that. I’ve spent so much time downtown in the hustle and bustle of the tourists and all that new energy. The town hums and it never stops.”
Lillie Mae plays Sunday, Aug. 18, at Grimey’s; and Sunday, Oct. 13, at 3rd and Lindsley.