‘I don’t feel like a little Chittlin’ anymore’

Timothy Magaw

Although she’s only 18, Jessica Lea Mayfield has played music for more than 10 years, performing solo and touring with her family’s band

Eighteen-year-old Jessica Lea Mayfield, also known as Chittlin’, performs for a crowd at Europe Gyro. Mayfield has been playing music since she was 8. Sam Twarek | KentNewsNet.com

Credit: DKS Editors

A weathered black guitar case sits propped open in front of a single microphone on the foot-high stage at the Europe Gyro in Kent. An intense portrait from the cover of Johnny Cash’s last album rests in the instrument’s shell.

An 18-year-old woman with short hair, fair skin and a pink nose ring adjusts the microphone’s stand and speaks with an almost sarcastic snarl.

“All right. They call me Chittlin’,” says Jessica Lea Mayfield, referring to the nickname that’s been attached to her since she was about 11 years old, when her brother’s friend warned others to watch what they say, “There’s a little chittlin’ around.” She says the name is a southern phrase, basically “a term for a little kid.”

Jessica points to the open guitar case at her feet.

“I will keep harassing you until you give me money,” Jessica says. She needs every dollar she can get. In a few days, she has a show nearly 165 miles away in Nelsonville where she’ll be performing with The Avett Brothers for a 500-person crowd, one much larger than the 20-person audience at the Gyro.

She sparingly strums her guitar, checking the tuning before she starts her weekly gig at the dark, poorly ventilated and seedy bar nestled on Depeyster Street. But before she can sing her first note, an obviously inebriated man storms into the bar and yells obscenities. He bolts out and slams the door in his alcohol-scented wake.

Jessica promises to play louder to cover up the turmoil, acting as if she’s not fazed by the sudden onslaught of disorder that brought a few police officers into the establishment.

She begins to play and her warm, country-tinged vocals soar over the simplicity of her acoustic guitar, often overpowering the Gyro’s muffled PA system and the constant commotion of the crowd. The music serves as a stark contrast to the very bar scene it’s accompanying.

But the stage isn’t something new for this young singer who blends indie rock, folk and bluegrass, as she’s been on the stage since she was 8 years old, performing with her family’s bluegrass band One Way Rider.

Hey, Mommy, can I sing that?

When Jessica was about 8 years old, she was observing her family’s band practice.

“Hey, Mommy, can I sing that?” the young Jessica asked.

Valerie Fay, her mother, says she was absolutely blown away when she heard what sounded like a “full-grown” woman singing.

Jessica, her older brother and sister, David Ray and Amanda Lynn, and her parents, Valerie Fay and David Lee, placed music at the core of their very existence – even to the point that the whole family uprooted from Newton Falls, Ohio, and moved to Tennessee.

“Living here in Ohio and playing country bluegrass, it isn’t the place to be,” Jessica says. “If you’re a bluegrass band in Ohio, you’re probably not going to make it that far.”

But the family members didn’t just dig their feet into the Tennessee soil. Instead, they packed their lives onto a robin’s egg blue 1956 Flxible vl-100 bus, the place the family would call home for three years as they endlessly toured, playing sometimes four shows a day. Because of the intense touring schedule, the Mayfield family homeschooled its children.

“Our parents really wanted to try to get out there and promote us,” Jessica says. “They made a big step in trying to help us out.”

But even before the Mayfield family boarded the bus for the first time, the vehicle’s long cabin had heard its fair share of country-bluegrass music. Bill Monroe, the man commonly referred to as the father of bluegrass, used the bus for about 10 years. Its cabin has held other greats, including Kitty Wells and Ferlin Husky.

When the Mayfields purchased the bus, they didn’t know it had belonged to Monroe until those who boarded noticed that it was the same coach that housed the famed country legend.

Valerie says the family toured intensely in the bus, sharing bluegrass, country and gospel shows with the masses. Sometimes the money was there, and other times the band would perform for nothing. At times, it would take a little extra effort to scrounge up money to eat.

You need to go through the hard times to appreciate the good times

Jessica and David would often stand outside the Fiddler’s Inn in Nashville wearing country western apparel. The 8-year-old girl would belt Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man,” hoping to make a few bucks from the tourists passing through.

David, at six years older than Jessica, says it was also a trying experience, especially when their parents got sick and they were trying to feed the family.

“It was really tough,” he says. “There were times that if we didn’t play long enough we couldn’t eat – not even off of the 99-cent menu.”

Jessica says it was a difficult lifestyle and not one some might consider average for a girl not even 10 years old.

“I lived on the bus for a long time,” she says, adding that the family moved back to Ohio when her grandparents’ health declined. “For a good three years I lived on a bus, which is what probably gives me that weird disposition with people.”

That weird disposition is what Jessica describes as her view of others. She doesn’t need people to help her out as she’s used to fending for herself. She didn’t have the same interaction many children have when they were younger because she spent her early years touring instead of reading, writing and practicing arithmetic in a traditional elementary school. And the few short stints she spent in school were not her fondest memories.

“I was picked on so terribly,” she says, adding that those years in Tennessee were some of the hardest of her life. “It was insane. I used to walk home from school, and the kids would chase me with their belts.”

Valerie also says the experience was important for her children’s education, saying, “You need to go through the hard times to appreciate the good times.”

She says her children were prepared for the difficult experience because they would constantly read about the successes and tragedies of famous musicians.

“When it happened to us, we were fairly prepared for it,” Valerie says, stressing that many musicians don’t suddenly walk into a record deal. “How many people knew Billy Joel slept in a Laundromat?”

But despite the trying times, David says it was still worth it.

“Me and Chittlin’ definitely got a different education,” he says. “But for the careers we’ve chosen, I don’t think we could have had a better education.”

I’ll blast my Foo Fighters over your Ralph Stanley

The music had been ingrained in the Mayfield family for generations as Valerie’s parents came from the hills of Kentucky and Virginia. Her husband’s parents were from West Virginia. The couple met at a bluegrass festival, and David Lee even gave Valerie a 1960s Gibson LG acoustic guitar as an engagement gift – the same guitar Jessica plays on stage.

Although she was raised in a bluegrass-loving family, Jessica wasn’t the biggest fan of the genre when she was younger.

“When I was a kid, I was really rebellious in that sense. I was like ‘I’m gonna blast my Foo Fighters on top of your Ralph Stanley,'” Jessica says. “Now I’ll be in my car blasting bluegrass bands just to get other people’s reactions because I love it so much.”

And it wasn’t the pluckings of Bill Monroe or the down-home vocals of Loretta Lynn that sparked her desire to play music for a living. At 7 years old, Jessica saw the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl scream into the microphone in the video for “My Hero.”

“I said, ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a rockstar. I want to be Dave Grohl,'” she says. “I liked music, but that’s really when I got into music.”

By 11 years old, Jessica was performing weekly gigs at Brady’s, a small café at the corner of Lincoln and Main streets, which has since been replaced by a Starbucks. Her sets consisted mainly of Foo Fighters songs, but as she matured, originals started to seep into her repertoire.

As she grew older, Jessica and David found themselves constantly recording on a multi-track recorder, eventually leading to her first album White Lies, which encompasses elements of her bluegrass roots with an indie-rock flair.

“Everything I do is always so intensely different just because of my two backgrounds,” Jessica says. “A lot of people really don’t grow up listening to bluegrass and rock, and I mix my influences together.”

It’s a connection you can’t have with a stranger

Although she’s performed solo and with other musicians, Jessica says there’s nothing quite like playing with her family. Because she and David were raised the same way, she says there’s a deeper connection.

“You know if you’re playing with your friends or band or whatever, they can’t get what you’re trying to do. You have an idea, but they’re not quite catching on,” she says. “Especially with my brother, if I have an idea, or if I have a thought, or I can’t finish a song or something, I can come to him and he already knows.”

David recently moved to Nashville and is touring with country star Andy Griggs. The separation has been hard for Jessica.

“We talk all the time. He’ll call me from the thrift store and explain the pants he’s about to buy,” Jessica says. “It’s that weird. I miss him that much. We used to do everything together.”

David agrees.

“It’s been tough,” he says. “She’s easily my best friend.”

Although David is living more than 500 miles away in Nashville and touring the country, Jessica isn’t alone. Her sister Amanda eyes Jessica with a smile on her face from the side of the stage at the Gyro. As Jessica jokes with the crowd, Amanda bursts into laughter. Jessica turns to her sister and starts to strum her Gibson guitar and sings, “Old McDonald had a farm – E-I-E-I-O. And on this farm he had a cow – E-I-E-I-O.”

“What are you doing?” Amanda asks while laughing at Jessica who is swaying and playfully strumming the guitar.

“I love this girl,” Jessica says to the crowd about Amanda. “No matter what I do, she has a heart attack.”

I don’t feel like a little Chittlin’ anymore

Although Jessica doesn’t foresee finishing her education anytime soon, she does see more shows and recording sessions.

“I’m really concentrating on my music,” Jessica says. “I don’t have any reason to get my GED. There’s nothing else I really want to do. I don’t want to be stuck doing something I don’t want to do for the rest of my life just for a paycheck.

“I just want to be able to make a really good living on what I do. Just be able to have more people hear my music. If I spend the rest of my life doing this, I’d be happy.”

Jessica has publicly performed for thousands of people for more than 10 years. She’s lived on Bill Monroe’s tour bus and even performed on the streets of Nashville for money.

“A lot of people can’t really say they paid their dues when they were a kid,” Jessica says. “A lot of people look at me now and say ‘She’s 18. She’s only a kid. She’s the last to pay her dues.’ That’s one thing that really bothers me. The people who say this – I’ve done more than they’ve done or could probably ever do.”

But even so, Jessica still has trouble escaping that childhood nickname.

“I’ve got a lot of stuff going on right now, and I guess you could say I don’t feel like a little Chittlin’ anymore,” she says with a smile.

Contact managing editor Timothy Magaw at [email protected].