Band of Jypsies 

Is conservative country ready for a band of flamboyantly eclectic siblings?

It’s 5 p.m. on a rainy weekday afternoon, and the four siblings known as Jypsi are roaring through “Minor Swing,” a rollicking jazz tune written in the 1930s by gypsy guitar legend Django Reinhardt.

It’s 5 p.m. on a rainy weekday afternoon, and the four siblings known as Jypsi are roaring through “Minor Swing,” a rollicking jazz tune written in the 1930s by gypsy guitar legend Django Reinhardt. If it seems strange that they’re playing it on the tiny window-front stage of the Lower Broadway honky-tonk Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, you can’t tell it by scanning the crowd, a mix of tourists and locals caught up in the moment. Backed by drummer Gregg Stocki, whose touring gig is with Tracy Lawrence, and bassist Darren Theriault, who’s backed several charted country acts, Jypsi are producing their acoustic wall of sound amid a whirlwind of color and motion. They look like nothing so much as four manifestations of a single entity. Amber-Dawn, at 26, is vibrant and tomboyish, bouncing in place like a punkster with an aerobics instructor’s physique, her fiddle technique clean, crisp and classic, reflecting the band’s bluegrass origins. Scarlett, a model-pretty 24-year-old, tosses sheets of long hair back and forth across her face as she sways over her mandolin, picking out the song’s melodic theme and finding the improvisational sweet spot, as she does on everything from the Louvin Brothers to The Beatles. Frank, who’s 20 and looks like an unkempt desert mendicant or a member of Big Brother & the Holding Company, joins the rhythm section in anchoring the sound with his well-worn Martin between lightning-quick leads.

All three are superb musicians with deft touches and a great collective stage presence, but if there is an element that takes Jypsi from wonderful to jaw dropping, it is their youngest sister, Lillie Mae. Even at 16, she has a distinctive fiddle style, a bluesy and sensual counterpoint to Amber-Dawn’s more solidly traditional approach. And, she’s a captivating physical presence, slinky and sinuous, her legs and shoulders churning as she plays, her body moving like a candle flame in a drafty house. She is, at the moment, channeling pure gypsy soul.

A Jypsi show is an adventure, a wide-ranging tour through an open landscape of popular music. They’re versatile enough to cover Gram Parsons and George Jones, The Band and Billie Holiday, Del Shannon and Waylon Jennings. If their musical eclecticism makes them noteworthy, it’s the look that makes them one of a kind. Their calling card is a fashion sense that is unique and, in country music at least, not for the faint of heart, looking something like a cross between the Pussycat Dolls and the Mamas and Papas. Miniskirted, wrists laden with bracelets, wearing scarves, bandanas, big earrings and footwear that ranges from towering heels to green gumboots, the girls are a symphony of color and movement swirling around Frank, the slightly disheveled anchor of their sound.

No one familiar with country music would doubt that the combination might be a hard sell, particularly when it comes to radio, but Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville and one of the music industry’s most pragmatic balancers of art and commerce, is gladly taking on the challenge. But in a conservative genre that considered the Dixie Chicks “out there,” it won’t be an easy task.

For much of the past five years, Amber-Dawn, Scarlett, Frank and Lillie Mae Rische have spent four hours a day, six days a week on the stage at Layla’s, honing prodigious childhood talent into one of the most impressive combinations of sight and sound the street’s fabled honky-tonks have ever known.

They began the period as Silk ’N Saddle, when Lillie Mae was just 11 and the four of them looked like not much more than street urchins. Their parents had just divorced and the family band they had grown up with—led by their bass-playing father—was history. Lillie Mae, Frank and another sister, McKenna Grace, who had dropped out of the band, were living with their mother; Scarlett and Amber-Dawn were in their own apartment.

“They had nothing,” says Galante. “Their vehicle had broken down. They were really living off their tips. But they did what you’re supposed to do—they came to this town to play music and that’s what they were doing.”

Label A&R head Renee Bell took Galante to Layla’s on a weekday afternoon more than three years ago to watch them perform. They listened for a while, then walked outside.

“Why don’t we just go back in there and tell them we want to sign them?” said Galante. The excitement the siblings felt about the offer was muted by the fact that they had seen their share of promises and contracts over the years, and the end result was that they were broke and playing on Lower Broad. A friend had told them someone from RCA was coming, but they had no idea who Galante was, or that he and Bell were two of the most powerful and astute executives in the industry. They learned soon enough, landing on the label group’s Arista Nashville subsidiary along with Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Brad Paisley and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood, who had just been signed.

Galante, Bell and the rest of the label knew they had a world of work to do to get the quartet ready for the country marketplace, but they had no doubt as to the level of talent, dedication and showmanship. Even at that age, the four had been performing together for eight years, amassing an impressively wide knowledge of music and supplementing their bluegrass core with anything that caught their fancy. Vocally, they were superb. Frank and Amber-Dawn had handled leads in the early days, but in recent years, Lillie Mae had become lead singer, displaying power, subtlety and the ability to wring heart-wrenching emotion out of any lyric.

The challenges, for the label and management, were to capture their fiery eclecticism on record and then to break them at radio. For the former, they brought in producer Blake Chancey, whose work with the Dixie Chicks helped define that trio and sell tens of millions of records. The latter has proven more problematic. Jypsi has been wowing them live, from Don Imus’ radio show to South by Southwest, and their appearance at Stagecoach, the California desert country festival, caused Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times to call them “a major find” and say they had “charisma and instrumental and vocal chops to burn.” Still, their first fully worked single, “I Don’t Love You Like That,” a poignant look at unrequited love with a searing Lillie Mae vocal, flirted only briefly with the lower reaches of the Top 40.

The sound seems radio-ready, but the medium is at this point resisting. There are several factors—playlists are tight, programmers can say truthfully that they’re already playing Arista’s roster heavily, and even the best new artists can have a tough time breaking in. It’s possible, though, that one real hurdle to radio play may be one of their chief attractions elsewhere—their look.

“There are a lot of radio folks resistant to embracing a band this left of center,” says Arista Nashville vice president of promotion Skip Bishop with a good degree of understatement.

One is John Shomby, director of programming and operations for Max Media of Virginia, who says, “Their music is very good, but I think people would look at them and go, ‘Huh?’ I’ve got to ask, ‘How is this going to translate to the country audience?’ Knowing what I know about that audience, it doesn’t adjust very well to stuff like that. The Dixie Chicks were kind of out there, but not like this.”

Scarlett, who, along with her siblings, resisted pressure to tone it down from their parents in the old days and from management and the label more recently, simply wishes their fashion proclivities would stop being an issue. She is particularly nonplussed by the view that perhaps the look is a gimmick.

“People have asked us, ‘Who came up with this concept?’ ” she says, “as if we’re something put together. I think what people don’t understand about us is that there is no concept. It’s just us being ourselves, and I think people should be more like that. I think music needs that right now, needs more originality.”

Galante knows the razor’s edge they walk.

“Just cutting through is important,” he says, “and nobody out there is going to confuse Jypsi’s image, their look, with anybody else. That’s half the damn battle.”

Still, he says, “It can be difficult when you’re trying to make your own statement and trying to fit in a very conservative format. They could have been on an independent label and sold 5, 10, 15,000 units and completely missed the impact they could have when they break. Sometimes you have to morph to some degree to be more mainstream and compromise on a couple of things—not musically, but from a marketing and imaging standpoint. There is an easier way to get there, and this is not about violating what makes them intrinsically unique.”

There are plenty of attractive young women in the modern country marketplace, although very few have broken through to an appreciable degree. One, Carrie Underwood, carried the massive exposure that has classically gone with American Idol. Another is Taylor Swift, who rode a perfect storm that began with her own online savvy, nurtured through years of MySpace activity she developed herself as she connected with an ever-widening circle of friends and fans. Her appearance on GAC’s “Short Cuts” just as her first single hit the radio offered “instant recognizability,” according to John Zarling, senior director of new media and national promotion strategy at Big Machine Records, and tied in perfectly with her online efforts.

“That summer,” says Zarling, “we took her around to the other major online music portals including AOL and Yahoo!, and that laid the groundwork for awareness as we went to the album release. Those early relationships paid off many times over.”

The world of Lower Broad is, of course, a far cry from the media hothouse that is American Idol, and the Risches’ often hardscrabble existence in a traveling family band had little room for the Internet or, for that matter, malls, cell phones or many of the other accoutrements of modern living.

Given that, it may be no surprise that the label and their management are turning to the one surefire element this band brings to the table—its stage show.

“We just need to put them in front of as many people as possible,” says their manager, Scott McGhee. “It’s what works best.” Their appearance June 14 at Bonnaroo kicks off a summer designed to do just that, even as they continue to play regularly at Layla’s when they are in town.

“If we continue to commit to the business model we’ve known for the last 50 years, we’re just wasting our time,” says Bishop. “We’ve found a band that we know and whose audience knows has roots beyond what is typical in country, and it’s up to us to experiment and find ways to break their music in new ways. Let them go where the people are—maybe colleges or jam circuits—and build the buzz from there.”

“We’re used to these battles on new acts taking a long time,” adds Galante. “It’s not always the first single rocketing up the charts like Carrie Underwood’s. Putting them on the road is a great way to build a fan base. Every time they go into a new market, they come away with more fans.”

They are bolstering the approach with a growing online presence, something Bishop says even radio gets.

“Radio stations are quick to offer up space on their websites to Jypsi, I think because they’re so intriguing and visual,” he says, “and even when they’re reluctant to play them, stations have hosted the EPK and videos because they think it makes good content on their website.”

It is also gathering them some early believers. Among them is Victor Sansone, president and general manager of KSCS in Dallas.

“I am on board with them,” he says. “Our music director and our people are as well. You look at a group like them and you have a choice. Do you want to mold them to fit what’s out there now, or look at them as part of our future and buy into them? We chose to look at them as part of our future.”

The Risches’ father, Forrest, is the 10th of 13 children born to a Chicago-area high-rise construction worker. When his older brother Scott needed a bass player for his string band, Forrest put together a washtub bass, which served the purpose until he bought a real one. He studied to be a farrier, and spent time as a carpenter, a cowboy in New Mexico, a farmer in North Carolina and, finally, a musician. He and his wife Linda’s five children all showed an interest in music that he nurtured, teaching each of them to play fiddle.

“He was maybe a little too strong in making them work at it,” says Forrest’s father, Frank Rische. “He stayed on their butt and kept at it, but every time I would hear them, they would sound better and better.”

He taught them bluegrass and gospel songs and, realizing that four fiddles and a bass wasn’t going to work, gave Frank a guitar and Scarlett—known at the time by her birth name of Bethany—a mandolin. He found work at Silver Dollar City, a theme park in Branson, Mo., and the children’s first real gig was playing for tips in front of the Branson Mall. Not long afterward, he heard of work playing RV parks in the Rio Grande Valley, provided he could come up with a band.

“We were the band,” says Amber-Dawn. “We knew enough for about half a show, and since it was Christmas, we sang the carols we knew and that was enough to get us through.”

Forrest and Linda bought a rickety 35-foot motor home, the first of several, and the new family band took gigs where they could find them, from churches to bars, with festivals, fairs and theme parks thrown in.

Friends and family describe Forrest as a handsome and charming man, a great raconteur who knew much more about making music than about making money. Poverty was a near-constant, whether the family was on the road or settled, as they were now and then, in towns where they found steady work.

“Once Amber-Dawn and I were in a youth group,” says Scarlett, laughing at the memory, “and the leader said, ‘Next Sunday we’re going to make gift baskets for all the underprivileged families in the church,’ and Amber-Dawn and I wanted to do it, and then we found out we were one of the families on the list and we backed out.”

McKenna Grace recalls a bar where they played during a short stay in North Carolina.

“I remember going in there and feeling like, ‘Wow. This is not fun at all,’ ” she says. “It wasn’t like somewhere where people were playing and having fun. It was doing what you have to, to get money to keep a house.”

A second reality was their parents’ religious fervor, which waxed and waned and often charged the home atmosphere with a great deal of tension.

“Sometimes whatever the preacher said on Sunday was what our parents believed,” says Scarlett, “and so we would just sit and cross our fingers in church and pray to God that he wouldn’t preach about secular music or television or short hair or sleeveless dresses.”

Amid the tough times those two factors could engender, the Rische children found joy and stability in the music and in each other, developing a bond that to this day strikes outsiders as unbelievably tight.

“Even when they would take away the records or the radio,” says Scarlett, “they never stopped us from playing our instruments—never—and as long as we were playing music there was never a bedtime, so all our life we were up until 4 in the morning just playing music with each other. That’s what we did.”

When they hit Nashville in the late ’90s, their parents’ marriage was showing signs of strain, but Forrest was ready to go after the big time. It wasn’t long before they caught the attention of Cowboy Jack Clement, an industry legend who produced the first Jerry Lee Lewis tracks at Sun Records (as well as albums by Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt), discovered Charley Pride and wrote hits for artists including his friend Johnny Cash. He rented a house for the Risches in Green Hills and began working with them. Clement wanted to position them as a clean-cut family band that could do bluegrass, country and popular standards. He bought McKenna Grace a drum kit, lined up acting and piano lessons for Lillie Mae, took the bling out of Amber-Dawn’s recently pierced eyebrow, and began shooting video and arranging showcases.

Clement, as he had done many times before, had spied what he knew was tremendous potential.

“Frankie was just 13,” says guitarist, producer and videographer Thom Bresh, brought in to work with them, “and he was like a strobe going off in the middle of all these girls. He was like a little miniature Tony Rice, burning that guitar up.”

Though Frank and Amber-Dawn were doing most of the singing, Clement saw what those around him didn’t—the depth of talent in 8-year-old Lillie Mae.

“I’m telling you, she’s a major voice, right there,” Clement told Bresh.

It was during that period that Amber-Dawn and Scarlett, then in their late teens, began in earnest to move away from the conservative outfits they’d been wearing on- and offstage.

“It was a search for personal and artistic expression in fashion,” says McKenna Grace, who recalls the early days of tank and halter tops, makeup and, eventually, hair dye, piercings and tattoos that led on occasion to “screaming fights.”

Bresh saw the restlessness, particularly with Scarlett, who was still called Bethany.

“I could see what was trying to come out,” Bresh says. “Beth was this shy girl with a Scarlett trying to emerge. I used to think, ‘If that ever gets out, there’s a tiger in there,’ and when it did, you could just see how happy it made her.”

After differences in approach between Clement and the Rische parents ended their relationship, the family signed a management deal that helped get them better dates and pay for a time, and recorded an album’s worth of material that showcased them as a highly competent bluegrass/gospel band displaying hints of the musical liberation to come. Their parents’ difficulties increased, and Linda found a house in Murfreesboro. Finally she and Forrest divorced. Amber-Dawn picked up some work playing fiddle with bands on the road and then on Lower Broad, where she met Layla and told her that she and her siblings would love to play at her club. Layla hired them—first one night a week, then two, and, within a year, six—and acted as a protective aunt, giving them the chance to flower as independent musicians.

“They were mature in some ways and naive in others,” Layla says. They brought stuffed animals to the club even as their music and their experimentation with hair, makeup and clothing reached new heights. They learned to handle the come-ons and dodge the seediness that can inhabit Lower Broad. Still, there was and is something fragile and otherworldly about them. They are clearly not cut out for ordinary lives—their non-musical work history consists of a few weeks of waitressing by Scarlett and Amber-Dawn. Something in the hothouse closeness of their childhood, in the strength of their parents’ personalities and convictions, and in the constriction that went with their parents’ religious sensibilities, made their liberation a profound one. Their natural curiosity and extraordinary musicality gave them an outlet. Their bottomless love for, and acceptance of, each other gave them strength. The divorce gave them the freedom of birds caged in their youth, then released into open air.

On a chilly late afternoon, the three girls and McGhee are on a tour bus the label rented for them and are parked in front of Kansas City’s Quarterage Hotel. It’s just around the corner from the Beaumont club, where Jypsi will open a four-act show celebrating the 15th anniversary of a local radio station. Sound check is scheduled to start in 20 minutes. Amber-Dawn, wearing a long cotton tank shirt and shorts, is in the front lounge putting bronzer on her legs.

“Wear your short shirt,” says Scarlett, lobbying for more skin in the form of bared midriff.

“I gained five pounds,” says Amber-Dawn, “and I’m not wearing it ’til I lose it.”

“Most of our dresses are shirts,” says Scarlett. “We buy a lot of medium or large shirts because the style is like that tunic thing to go over leggings, but we wear them as dresses...”—she pauses and her smile widens to a grin as she moves from conversation to mini-manifesto—“…because they don’t make dresses short enough for us! We think everything should be ’60s-length skirts.”

The four of them are, in fact, a walking time warp. Jypsi are drawn to the ’60s fashion era, the way some bands are drawn to 1957 Memphis or 1972 L.A. They are fond of—crazy about would be closer to the mark—joyously brilliant color, offbeat styles and generous exposure of the attractive real estate they’ve been granted by genetics, youth and fitness. They are tailor-made for London, New York or California circa 1967, when fashion was part of a musician’s artistic statement, but they’re coming of age in the first decade of the 21st century in a music world whose standard operating procedure is in the paroxysms of death. No one is sure what form any rebirth will take, and in radio, the cornerstone of the old system, a sense of adventure seems in short supply.

The first exposure most radio people had to Jypsi was a publicity photo with Scarlett, Lillie Mae and Amber-Dawn on a sofa, showing plenty of leg and wearing a good deal of makeup, with Frank sitting on the floor in front of them. It looked to many like it was taken on dress-up day in a New Orleans cathouse, with Frank as the piano player on break.

It is an arresting look, and it has drawn many passersby in through the door of Layla’s; the quality of the music has kept them there.

It happened to McGhee, of McGhee Entertainment, a well-established management firm that has guided the careers of Kiss, Mötley Crüe, Hootie & the Blowfish, Chris Cagle and country newcomer Crystal Shawanda, another longtime denizen of Lower Broad.

“I had just come from watching Crystal at Tootsie’s,” McGhee says, “when somebody texted me and I stopped. I looked to my left and saw Scarlett, kind of looking out the window, playing her mandolin, with drawing all over her face, and I thought, ‘What the heck is that?’ ” He walked in and was, he says, “absolutely blown away” by the music. He has since embraced the challenge of getting others to fall in love with them the way he has.

Lillie Mae walks into the lounge in form-fitting pants with a black shirt tucked into them.

“How does this look?” she says.

“The shirt needs to be tighter,” says Scarlett.

Lillie Mae studies herself in the mirror and says, “I look like a businesswoman.” She goes back inside and comes out a minute later wearing a knit halter the size and shape of a bra. She does not look like a businesswoman. She and her sisters walk out into the cool air, with McGhee behind them. Between them, there is enough material for one good outfit.

We are approaching the rear of a long line of people stretching along the sidewalk from the club door, which will not open until after four sound checks. Jypsi’s is supposed to be the last.

“Walk on the other side of the buses,” McGhee says, referring to a line of them parked on the street. “And don’t get hit by a car.”

Skipping onto the street, they are joy and color on a chilly late afternoon. The girls draw immediate and nearly universal looks ranging from the deeply intrigued to the honestly flummoxed. Any one of them would be unlikely to create commotion. Three of them together can’t be ignored.

“You don’t slip them in somewhere,” says McGhee. “It’s like a circus parade.”

Sound check, it turns out, is running more than an hour late. The girls gather in a private area near the stage door, where they’re joined by some relatives. Frank, who arrived earlier, goes off for pizza with their uncle David, a bearish and affable outdoorsman, and his family. Lillie Mae puts on a knit cap McGhee has handed her.

“They’ve got to be cold,” says an aunt in weather-appropriate dress. “I know I am.”

A family friend, also female, nods.

“Yeah, but they look so cute.”

Much of radio first heard Jypsi live on this year’s Sony BMG Boat Show, the annual Country Radio Seminar extravaganza that puts some of the label’s biggest and newest artists in front of 600 or so radio people from all over the country. This year’s close spoke volumes about the interests and proclivities of many modern-day country executives and artists—Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Gretchen Wilson, Montgomery Gentry, Phil Vassar, Sara Evans and others wailing on the Rolling Stones’ “Honky-Tonk Women.” Jypsi opened the evening with two songs. The first was Frank’s “Kandi Kitchen,” an instrumental barnburner he wrote when he was 11 that has “country” written all over it.

Radio legend Bob Kingsley, whose syndicated countdown show is a running synopsis of what has made it to radio, was standing in the back when they finished the song.

“That’s perfect,” he told a colleague. “Looking like they do, they’ve got to prove they can play country, and they just did.”

They followed it with their then-current single, “I Don’t Love You Like That,” a descending-note waltz distinguishable for its well-crafted and melancholy nature, and for Lillie Mae’s lovely and plaintive voice. The appearance was designed to convince enough of the attending program directors to play it. It swayed some, but not nearly enough.

If a two-song set is not enough to get across the essence of Jypsi, a full-length CD offers a better opportunity. Their Arista Nashville debut, released as a download in April, has both melodic mainstream country and surprises like a compelling version of “House of the Rising Sun,” a cut that points up the compromises necessary when a band like Jypsi meets the world of corporate music. Their live version of the folk classic is achingly slow and laden with melancholy; it can take 10 or 12 minutes. The album version, at the urging of the label, is faster and leaves out verses to bring it in at around five minutes. In a town that lives by compression, they have been squeezed to some degree.

Still, for a new recording act in a town where new acts don’t get to call the shots, and where the tales of people forced to modify the very things that got them signed are legion, they haven’t done badly. In 1967, they might well have gotten to cover both The Beatles and Django Reinhardt, to bring their free-flowing improvisational work to the project, and to let “House of the Rising Sun” run its course, but this is 2008 and they are happy with their first label effort. They were involved in the song selection, they played on the record and, summing it up for the others, Amber-Dawn says, “Everything we recorded, we loved. It’s commercial but not stupid.”

It is also waiting to find an audience. The digital release is moving slowly, and the physical release, originally scheduled for May, has been postponed as the label rethinks its approach. Amber-Dawn, Scarlett, Frank and Lillie Mae are doing what they have done since they were small. They realize now that the stakes are higher, and that in wanting to take their music to a wider audience they are testing the limits of corporate country.

“It’s really hard because we really want to help change the format,” says Scarlett. “It’s like a game you’re playing because you have to conform somewhat. Otherwise you’re not accepted. But you can’t change too much or you lose who you are.”

McGhee, who admits to encouraging the siblings to tone down their look at times, is on board precisely because of the way their talent and look come together.

“We like things that are left of center,” he says, “because they’re the ones that make the biggest difference. And I think they’re going to have an important place in music if we just do this right.”

For Galante, the four outrageously dressed kids he first saw at Layla’s are worth the work it is taking to break them.

“You’re with them, and there’s joy all around them,” he says. “The format, when it figures this out, will adore them.”

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