Roots in Tennessee’s music scene blow freely like the wind on an open road. Soothing and limitless, The Black Lillies mirror the journey ahead. The band exemplifies Americana at its finest, mixed with grass roots, country and a modern sentiment.
Frontman and founder Cruz Contreras is no stranger to the twist and turns of the open road.
After a 10-year stint with Robinella and the CCstringband, Contreras broke from the music scene and became a truck driver for a stone company.
Contreras acquired a Commercial Driver License (CDL), which he used to drive his tour bus from coast to coast. It allowed him to operate the bobcats, flatbeds and various machinery he used to work with as a truck driver. Life as a driver became something “different” for Contreras, allowing him to regroup personally and musically.
As each day passed, the music of the road resonated with Contreras and became his inspiration for The Black Lillies, which formed in 2008.
Music had never taken a backseat while driving the roads of east Tennessee, and, as it turns out, Contreras wouldn’t be surprised if he carried his guitar in the passenger seat of the 18-wheeler a few times.
“I write what is on my mind at any moment,” said Contreras.
Contreras and The Black Lillies keep on rolling with three studio albums, an extensive tour schedule of 200-odd performances and taking on the hectic life of independent musicians.
The Black Lillies’ authentic, down-to-earth tone has earned them a seat at The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, allowing them to establish a hearty relationship that spans more than 30 performances. Notably, the band’s 2013 performance of “Smokestack Lady” (live at the Opry) has swept up a wide demographic of loyal fans and new listeners.
Furthermore, The Black Lillies’ self-acclaimed success has attracted the attention of Country Music Television (CMT); four of their tunes appeared on CMT’s top 12 requested videos and also secured spots on Billboard and American Music Association’s (AMA) charts.
In their latest effort, “Runaway Freeway Blues” (2013), The Black Lillies have continued restlessly to push forward along their musical highway. According to the band, the beauties of this album are heavily rooted in the “mud-rutted switchbacks of Appalachia” and allow listeners to travel the musical peaks and valleys or the road ahead with its creator.
“Runaway Freeway Blues” debuted at number 43 on Billboard’s Country chart and number 21 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums.
The album begins with an earnest sentiment in “The Fall,” as Contreras and female vocalist Trisha Gene Brady share an intimate conversation of love, sorrow and dreams.
Contreras sings “I am not a rich man, I have no fortune to bear” to Brady’s “I am not a rich girl, I have no diamond to share,” behind the locomotive, strumming acoustic guitar and somber motion of the kick drum.
When Brady and Contreras join in harmony singing, “I am but a dreamer and I’ve seen you in between /The shadows and the sunshine falling down on me,” a sense of beauty, imagery and the open air fills our hearts with sounds of The Black Lillies.
The band’s roots become present in tunes like “Ramblin’ Boy,” where the band turns up with twangy country guitar (Tom Pryor), driving drums (Jamie Cook) and a wholesome bass (Robert Richards), supporting the effortless melody and harmony of Contreras and Brady.
By the time you reach “Smokestack Lady,” it is apparent that The Black Lillies cannot be overly defined. The upbeat Americana and rockabilly-style guitar licks paired with tasteful harmonica licks (Ian Thomas) make “Smokestack Lady” an instant favorite among fans.
“Smokestack Lady” pumps through the veins of its listeners like the gasoline from Contreras’ 18-wheeler, “running these roads up and down, L.A. to New Orleans.” Furthermore, the tune serves as inspiration for the title of the album “Runaway Freeway Blues,” because it captures the diverse palate that the audiences of The Black Lillies crave.
“The Black Lillies are the type of band that prefers a 90-minute set, opposed to features, because the band is so dynamic,” said Contreras.
Pedal steel, harmonies, duets and all the potent flavors in the mix make The Black Lillies a must see for any live performance. They remain humble, whether they are playing a small hometown gig in Knoxville Tenn., or exciting festivals like Bonnaroo or South by Southwest.
“The music you perform becomes less familiar,” said Contreras and over time “lots of different cultures come through.”
On Dec. 14, The Black Lillies with guest artist Ian Thomas will bring the sounds of the open Tennessee road to Fairfield Theatre Company’s StageOne at 7:45 p.m.
Performing in New England is a special treat for The Black Lillies because of “its tie to Appalachian music,” said Contreras.
“The Mountain chain goes north,” said Contreras.
In Tennessee, Contreras explains how everyone is rooted in bluegrass and country: “My aunt, cousin and grandpa play that,” said Contreras, so people think it is not big deal.
Contreras’ need to have a hand in all musical outlets opened his mind to the vast genres of music, which in turn helped to shape The Black Lillies.
Music has been an integral part of Contreras’ life, going back to his childhood where he began playing classical piano, bluegrass banjo and then jazz piano in college. He vividly recalls playing everything from gypsy jazz to Civil War reenactments with his brother.
This sense of family and loyalty has kept The Black Lillies humble, and could explain why they have been so committed to their roots, family and fans. Likewise, The Black Lillies have trusted Scott Minor of Sparklehorse with the production of all three studio albums.
Working as an independent label, The Black Lillies plan on entering pre-production for a fourth album this month. According to the band’s “timeline,” “to keep us musicians on track,” laughed Contreras, The Black Lillies will enter the studio sometime in February.
Contreras hopes to incorporate more of The Black Lillies live sound into the new album; more keys, pedals, solo material and more brilliant male/female harmonies. But don’t worry – Contreras assures that each live performance, including FTC’s StageOne, will be a balance of new, old and unheard material.
[also published in The Fairfield Mirror]
– Not Enough? check out the PBS “Up Close” interview Trisha Gene Brade and Cruz Contreras –