By Steve Wildsmith, The Daily Times
Those familiar with the background of Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras are often struck with a single question when the man opens his mouth to sing:
Why, given the rich baritone that can range from languid to intense, from reverently hushed to brashly bombastic, did it take so long?
Obviously, he’s no stranger to music. He is the man who loaned out his initials to Robinella and the CCstringband, which flirted with national fame a few years ago with a hit (“Man Over”) on Country Music Television and an appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in 2003. Maybe it took a while for him to find his voice – not the literal one, the one that makes you think of Randy Travis or Dan Tyminski or even the great Ralph Stanley in his prime. We’re talking about that other voice – the one steeped in regret, seasoned with pain and tempered in the fires of hard times.
You see, Cruz almost gave it all up. After records on Sony and Dualtone, Robinella and the CCstringband split – figuratively and literally. Cruz lost his wife, his home, his way. It’s a funny thing, though, the way music takes hold of a man. He spent the summer of 2008 driving a truck, and by the end of that year had the skeleton of an album ready to go.
Whiskey Angel was born from the ashes of one career, and shortly after its release, the East Tennessee music scene learned quickly that Cruz was as much of a bandleader as his ex-wife was when he stood in her shadow. In fact, Whiskey Angel made you forget there was ever anything for Cruz Contreras before The Black Lillies – the band that he brought together to record an entire album over the course of a weekend in his living room.
The Black Lillies take their name from a song on that first record. After filtering through several lineup changes, Cruz assembled a crackerjack team of pickers, players and singers who have what it takes to put meat on those songs. Tom Pryor made a name for himself playing pedal steel for damn near any band that could talk him into it; drummer Jamie Cook anchored the rhythm section for Americana darlings the everybodyfields; harmony vocalist Trisha Gene Brady can wail like a hellcat or purr like a wildcat, and everybody who’s heard her sing agrees it only makes sense that someone with her pipes can provide the perfect counter-balance to Cruz. Bassist Robert Richards is the latest addition to the band, and under his steely-eyed gaze, no bass, stand-up or electric, stands a chance.
And then there’s the bandleader himself. Standing in front of the pack, he guides his team with the dignified aplomb of those greats of old – Buck Owens with the Buckaroos, or Bob Wills commanding his Texas Playboys. He knows how to work the crowd, at ease behind the mic, in front of a piano or caressing the necks of a mandolin or guitar. In fact, it’s rare for Cruz to be presented with an instrument he doesn’t play, and everything he does finds its way gently worked into The Black Lillies’ aesthetic with all the swirls and flourishes of brush strokes on canvas laid down by a master painter.
With Whiskey Angel, The Black Lillies established themselves, and it didn’t take long for them to make their mark on the national scene. They kicked off their first national tour at the Ryman Auditorium, the hallowed mother church of country music, and have since labored through three cross-country treks, with a fourth planned for the summer of 2011. They’ve performed on the Grand Ole Opry, National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage and on two episodes of PBS’s Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s, and they’ve conquered numerous festivals – Pickathon, the Country Music Association Festival and Fan Fair, Americana Music Association Festival, Four Corners Folk Festival, Bristol Rhythm and Roots, even Bonnaroo.
Along the way, the scribes who keep tabs on what’s worth listening to in this day and age have taken quite a shine to Whiskey Angel. It topped 2009 best-of lists across the country and is currently nominated for Best Americana Album by the Independent Music Awards. It isn’t uncommon for listeners to say that the music has taken hold of their soul. It’s earthy and gritty and melancholy in a way old mountain music was a century ago, speaking of pain and love and revenge and revelry with such spirit, such genuine celebration and sorrow, that it seems to be an album carved out of the planks of a backwoods cabin abandoned during the Great Depression more than a thing recorded in a living room studio by one man.
And as good as it is … as great as it is … it’s a drop in the bucket, because 100 Miles of Wreckage is here. The sophomore record takes what Cruz built in Whiskey Angel and fortifies it, a rustic sound without name and place, unbeholden to geographic region or easy classification. It’s an album crafted with precision and care by musicians who are masters of their trade, who believe in The Black Lillies’ vision and who hold fast to the notion that good music – music with heart and purpose and purity of spirit — is still a valued commodity.
It goes out to nationwide radio and brick-and-mortar CIMS stores this spring, and without a doubt, The Black Lillies will be touring to support it in a town near you. That’s a relative term, of course, but trust us on this – they’re worth the drive, however far it is, because you’ll leave feeling like you’ve witnessed an old-fashion Southern tent revival. These songs will haunt your thoughts long after the curtain closes, rattling through your head like a crooked screen door slaps against its frame when a storm is coming.
It’s that music. It’s that heart. It’s that voice. Why did it take so long, you might ask? Who cares? He did find it, and in the end, we’re grateful. And we think you will be too.
Cruz Contreras - Vocals, Guitar, Piano, mandolin
Trisha Gene Brady - Vocals, Guitar, Ukelele, Hand Percussion
Tom Pryor - Electric Guitar, Pedal Steel, Dobro
Jamie Cook - Drums
Robert Richards - Bass
Debut album: Whiskey Angel
CURRENT NOMINEE: 10th Annual Independent Music Awards, Best Album (Americana)
Singles receiving radio airplay:
There's Only One
Where the Black Lillies Grow
Goodbye Mama Blues
New album released January 22, 2011:
100 Miles of Wreckage
Singles receiving radio airplay:
Two Hearts Down
Ain't My Fault
Go to Sleep
The Same Mistakes
National radio and press campaign hitting April 4, 2011 (12 week campaign)
Album available via CIMS stores nationwide April 28, 2011
Now This is Country
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Now this is country: The Black Lillies come straight out of Tennessee with all the country trappings...Now this is country: The Black Lillies come straight out of Tennessee with all the country trappings. Fiddle and steel guitar punctuate the occasional sad lyric with extra heart-punching melancholy, Jamie Cook's drums keep the ballads loping forward, and the beats grab the barn burners by the nose and drag them out to the dance floor for a kicky little two-step. Like all outstanding country acts, though, the real charm of the Black Lillies' work comes in the harmonies: Male-female vocals intertwine beautifully for a moment before going their separate ways, and everything blends together like a dream featuring Hank Williams and Dolly Parton doing duets. PAUL CONSTANT
Cruz Contreras Steps Into the Spotlight with The Black Lillies
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Cruz Contreras, the singer and songwriter for the new band the Black Lillies, recently devoted a cou...Cruz Contreras, the singer and songwriter for the new band the Black Lillies, recently devoted a couple of years to finding his voice—both literally and figuratively—by pulling from a wide range of musical influences. If the Black Lillies’ new album Whiskey Angel is any indication, it was time well spent.
Contreras spent the late 1990s and early ’00s performing with his now ex-wife, Robinella, and the CCstringband. After the marriage and band ended, he took a couple of years off from music before emerging last year as leader and frontman of the Cruz Contreras Band. That fledgling solo project led to the formation last fall of the Black Lillies.
“I led a band for someone who did their own thing, so those were the parameters,” he says. “Now there’s no rules. I’ve just been in a real intense period in my life where I’ve got to do this, I want to do it, I know I can do it, and everyone’s really trusted and supported me.”
For the Black Lillies, Contreras joined a group of Knoxville music veterans: vocalist Leah Gardner (Maid Rite String Band), drummer Jamie Cook (the everybodyfields) and electric and pedal steel guitar player Tom Pryor (the everybodyfields and Whiskey Scars), and bassist Jeff Woods (Dark Mountain Orchid), as well as Cruz’s brother Billy Contreras sitting in on fiddle.
Whiskey Angel can best be described as Americana, “but Americana in the broadest sense,” Woods says. “It touches on most everything that Americana is. I don’t think there’s a lot left out as far as the canons of what popular music’s been for the last 50 years.”
A close listen to Whiskey Angel reveals significant rock, bluegrass, folk and blues influences, ranging from Hazel Dickens and Merle Haggard to less-obvious artists like Ray Charles, Gogol Bordello, and the Grateful Dead. “It’s not twangy country or anything,” Cook says. “It’s more introspective than pop country is today; the themes run a little bit deeper than pickup trucks. I prefer to think of it in terms of Southern music, that tradition of whiskey-steeped balance. Like Hank Williams, it’s the dichotomy of Saturday night and Sunday morning: You can do what you want on Saturday as long as you can support it on Sunday. And I think there’s definitely both sides of that on the album.”
Whiskey Angel was written in a living room in North Knoxville and recorded there virtually live over a single weekend. The album’s highlight is the impressive vocal harmonies between Contreras and Gardner, especially considering Contreras’ relative inexperience singing. “Yes I Know” is a rhythmic, sincere ballad from parent to child. (Cruz has a son, Cash, with his ex-wife) “Midnight” is a heart-wrenching examination of how easily a man’s life can collapse; the chorus finds him at midnight under a Knoxville bridge, sorrowfully accepting the blame for his decisions but lamenting that “I never thought life would turn out this way.” Listen to it in the right (or wrong) mood and it might bring tears to your eyes.
The title track, along with “There’s Only One,” shows the band’s “more rowdy” side, as Gardner puts it. The vocal interplay between her and Contreras on “Little Darlin’” calls to mind the old-school exchanges of June Carter and Johnny Cash, while “Goodbye Mama Blues” is unapologetically funky in its ode to good times, good luck, and the wisdom that can come with hard living.
A standing-room-only crowd attended the Black Lillies’ premiere performance and CD-release party in April at the Square Room, and the band just finished a performance at Bonnaroo.
“In my gut I really feel like this is the beginning of something that’s going to be around for a while,” Contreras says. “We’ve all got the mentality to really grow, and there are no rules on this—no label, no A&R, no publicist, no manager, no nothing. I like high-energy and intense music; I like the song that just makes you stop and listen to it. Even if it’s an old mountain ballad, I want it to make you stop in your tracks.”
Everything Old is New Again
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Standing in downtown Maryville on a cold Monday afternoon, Cruz Contreras is hit with a metaphysical...Standing in downtown Maryville on a cold Monday afternoon, Cruz Contreras is hit with a metaphysical moment.
It comes on fast, out of nowhere, and for a second, he seems overwhelmed. He looks around in a sort of quasi-daze, as if he's looking for something on the edge of his vision that he knows should be there but can't quite bring into focus.
"We bought a house over there," he says to no one in particular, pointing toward the Maryville College campus. He turns toward the vacant storefront that as once Roy's Record Shop, the sign in the window the only remnants of the place it used to be.
"We played a lot in here," he says softly.
He allows himself to reminisce for a moment -- things that used to be, things that will never come to pass ... changes both good and bad ... a new direction and a new life that some days seems a thousand years removed from the days when he called Blount County home, only a couple of years ago.
It is what it is, he will say later. Most of the time, he sees it as a blessing -- after all, he's making some of the finest music of his life, showcasing a voice that's sounds like it belongs to a young Randy Travis, using it to drive a new album with a new band. But every once in a while, it can be baffling, trying to piece together the journey he's found himself on and the choices he's made along the way.
"It all kind of sneaks up on you," he says, staring into the old store where, a few years ago, he and his then-wife -- local country-jazz chanteuse Robinella -- traded licks and entertained patrons on the final day of business. "Sometimes, I think that nothing lasts. This place was always kind of cool, and Roy and Alma (Garrett, the owners) ... they were good examples of longevity. They knew how to co-exist, and they were good role models.
"I don't know," he adds. "That sort of makes it a little extra sad, because sometimes I feel like I let them down."
And just like that, the wistfulness is gone. He begins to sing, that rich and powerful tenor bouncing off of the Palace and Capitol marquees across the street.
His fingers keep playing. For the few moments he allowed himself to indulge in melancholy, they never stopped.
That, at least, is the constant for Cruz Contreras that does not change.
The Cruz Contreras of 2009 is a very different man from the same guy who shared his name a few year ago. Then, he was a crackling power line of intensity, always keeping an eye on what was going on around him and the other on what needed to be done to prepare for the next day, or the next week, or the next year.
Life, however, had other plans, and fate's trump card scattered his like a jailhouse spades game slap-down. Marriage ... the studio he helped build on his in-laws property out in Blount County's Lanier community ... a respected place as half of a musical power couple with label options and a sunny future ... all those things were swept away.
He doesn't go into the details, gently deflecting any questions about his ex-wife and the dissolution of their marriage with quiet tact. But he's open about his experiences, his thoughts, his emotions in the wake of those life-altering events; they're as much a part of the new record as anything else.
"I was living in Blount County, off of Indiana Avenue, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," he says, choosing his words with care. He's fighting off spring allergies and the sluggish shadow of a night out in downtown Knoxville -- since becoming single, he's popped up at concerts and shows all over town on nights when he doesn't have his son, Cash.
"I was driving a truck and thinking about taking some time off," he adds. "Over that summer, I purposefully did a jazz trio thing every couple of weeks; just something to go out and get some free beer. Getting back into it was a gradual thing, and I had a few people who gave me some really good support."
One of those friends was local musician Leah Gardner, who also plays with the Maid Rite String Band. Contreras first met her as a student at the University of Tennessee; in the fall of 2007, after his divorce, they hooked up to perform at a memorial service. It sparked a partnership that soon developed into a friendship, and when she heard him sing, she encouraged him to do it more often.
"I had booked a date at Preservation Pub for a J.J. Cale tribute band I wanted to put together," he says. "That was my plan. But driving a truck that summer and listening to the radio, especially WDVX, I remember that what gets me pumped up is great songs. On the first gig with Leah, I sang or four songs. It was more of a jam, really, but right away, she and I came up with a direction for a band.
"At the time, I was leaning in two directions -- ether going for a jam-out, high-energy bluegrass sort of thing, or to make it about the songs. Leah wanted to play music with emotional impact, and so we tweaked the band to fit that."
Inspiration came from some strange sources -- the film "Sling Blade," for one. Admittedly not much of a movie buff, Contreras found himself drawn to the story behind the movie -- how it was written, directed and acted by Billy Bob Thornton. The concept and the plot are simple, he points out, but when everything comes together, it's a moving piece of work. Simplicity, he decided, wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
Before long, he was gathering a collection of local artists who wanted to play with him -- Jamie Cook, drummer for The Everybodyfields; Jeff Woods, formerly of Dark Mountain Orchid, on bass; Mike Seal on guitar; and Gardner. Local pedal steel wizard Tom Pryor would become a member of the band over time, and by early 2008, Cruz Contreras and Friends were performing regularly around East Tennessee.
Billing the project under his name, however, was just a stopgap. Before he quit his job as a truck driver, he rolled around East Tennessee's roads mulling band names over in his head. Finally, after penning a song called "Where the Black Lillies Grow," he called Gardner and pitched the name to her.
"She's a horticulture major, so she told me right away, 'There's no such thing as a black lily," he says with a laugh. "But I was just in love with the image, ad it felt right to me. That song was different from the other songs, and it opened things up musically for me.
"And besides, this album sounds like it was made by a band. Everybody's a creative force in this band, and it's a good mentality. Everybody can sing and write, and everybody could make their own record. For a while, I forgot that's what I wanted, but once we decided to call ourselves this, it was like a weight had been lifted. It's tough going under your own name.
"The whole band concept is kind of like an umbrella -- it gives you a lot of freedom," he adds. "When you go under your own name, you worry if people like you, and if you do something dumb if they're going to come out and support you."
With the musicians in place, he turned to the songwriting. As part of the CCstringband, he had written a song here and there over the years, but for "Whiskey Angel," the task was all his. Tapping into the emotion and vulnerability and uncertainty of his new path in life, he embraced the challenge and found, as so many songwriters do, a therapeutic outlet in putting words to music.
When it came time to record, the band members gathered for a long weekend at his North Knoxville home, cutting the songs live to tape without overdubs. Each song went through no more than four takes, he says, which makes the final product all the more amazing.
From the romanticism of the title track to the soul overtones of "Cruel" to the reggae-inflected groove of "Yes I Know," the album easily qualifies as a masterpiece -- and not just by local standards. The instrumental work alone by the band's various talents would catapult it into the upper tier of local releases; Contreras's songwriting elevates it even higher.
His voice, however, is a sucker-punch to the solar plexus. It's not just good; it's very good -- reminiscent of country singer Randy Travis, it's both soothing and troubling, evoking images of loneliness and melancholy that seem to take that classic James Dean poster "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and set it to music.
"I feel like I finally got old enough to play country music," he says, chuckling. "Over the years, people have told me that I sound old, like I have a country voice. I remember even in the eighth grade, a friend of mine and I were over at his house and were actually playing a Poison song. I remember singing it, and he recorded it, and when he listened to it, he just laughed his ass off. He said, 'Dude! You sound like an old man!'
"It all kind of came together on this record. Before, I never sang entire songs because I didn't know them. I didn't know them because I never performed them -- as a bandleader, I would throw the singer a line if they happened to forget, but I just assumed that I wasn't even capable of memorizing lyrics. Now, if I write a song that I know I can relate to because it's true, it's easy to remember."
Gift of grace
If there's a high point on "Whiskey Angel," it might very well be the song "Midnight." It's a tale of heartbreak and poverty that's semi-biographical, and it was inspired by a homeless guy familiar to many who frequent downtown Knoxville. Contreras encountered the man, known as Rodney, during a late-night walk home. The two talked, and Contreras was struck by how, but for a little bit of grace, his situation and story wasn't all that different.
"I'm not sure what the difference is between me and guys like him," he says. "We've both lost a lot, and a lot of the things the guy in the song goes through, I've gone through. Like the song says, I never thought my life would turn out this way. That speaks to a lot of things that I'm still dealing with.
"I married young. I went from being an oldest son, trying to please my parents and taking care of my siblings, to being married. My whole life, I had plenty of parameters around me. I didn't have to worry about what I thought or believed or what my guidelines were.
"Once I got out on my own, it was like the party was suddenly on," he adds. "I'm still trying to sort it all out ... still figuring out some basic things."
He smiles -- wistful again, if only for a moment. He's got too much on his plate to stay up in his head for long, however, and before long, he's back in his truck and headed back to Knoxville. In the back, several instrument cases jostle for space with a box full of newly minted CDs. A child's car seat sits in the back, awaiting its owner the next time Contreras picks up his boy. The radio fires up with the crank of the engine, tuning immediately to WDVX-FM.
He knows these roads, this town, like the back of his hand. For years, he lived and worked and ate and played in Blount County. It's no longer his, but then again, perhaps it never was. Because a man like Cruz Contreras, to paraphrase that old Steve Earle song, ain't ever satisfied. And now that he's gotten a taste of the creativity and the art that dissatisfaction and discomfort brings, he may never be content for too long.
The Black Lillies Bring a Fresh Start for Cruz Contreras
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When life forecasts a few heavy showers, why not plant some “Black Lillies”? That’s exactly what ...When life forecasts a few heavy showers, why not plant some “Black Lillies”?
That’s exactly what Knoxville’s Cruz Contreras did to revive his passion for music and discover a knack for singing and songwriting.
“I just took a big hit in life,” said Contreras, a former member of Robinella and the CC Stringband. “After dealing with that I had a pretty large amount of stuff to write about. I had a lot of energy and a lot of ideas.”
Contreras had never written a verse or sang one note until he was encouraged by longtime friend and bandmate Leah Gardner.
“Leah was there from the beginning [of the Black Lillies],” he said. She was singing lead at the time and suggested that Contreras learn some covers.
A few cover songs led to a full album of Contreras’ original work. “Whiskey Angel,” available on iTunes, is a tribute to the good and the bad in life, as well as a chance for Contreras to do his own thing.
“I lost touch with the music that I was into because I was helping people with other stuff,” he said. “Doing this reminded me of what I really get excited about.”
Collaborating with bassist Jeff Woods, electric guitarist and pedal steel expert Tom Pryor, drummer Jamie Cook and Johnson City native Leah Gardner, Contreras formed The Black Lillies.
Emerging from Knoxville, the ensemble recently returned home from two shows at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn. They’ll travel to the Down Home on Friday in search of some loyal Johnson City fans. Their gig begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12.
This Americana and country combination has a more mature feel than that of Contreras’ previous work, he says.
“This is more about the song and the arrangement, as well as harmonies, texture, layers and the emotional impact of the song,” Contreras said.
All these things are wrapped up in 11 solid tracks. “Whiskey Angel,” which was recorded live in Contreras’ living room and released last month, hops from a mellow love-struck song “Cruel” to the serious yet tender “Midnight,” written about a homeless man in Knoxville.
“I’ve talked to him over the years and asked him how he ended up here,” Contreras said. “It’s a semi-biographical song.”
Now that Contreras has started writing catchy songs like “There’s Only One,” and “Yes I Know,” he’s finding it hard to stop.
“The music, writing and singing is so new that I’ve gotta get it out,” he said.
Another song he just had to “let out” was the title track “Whiskey Angel.”
“It’s generally about the hellos and goodbyes in life,” Contreras says. “And we play in a lot of bars, so it kinda fits.”
While their sound may share a little in common with acts such as Iron and Wine, and Old Crow Medicine show, Contreras says The Black Lillies still haven’t touched on who they really are yet. The group is constantly evolving and is already adding new material to its set list.
In the end, Contreras just wants to make a living doing what he loves.
My Heart is the Bums on the Street
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Ever since Cruz Contreras gave me a copy of “Whiskey Angel,” the new CD by his band The Black Lillie...Ever since Cruz Contreras gave me a copy of “Whiskey Angel,” the new CD by his band The Black Lillies, I’ve been fixated on track No. 4.
Don’t get me wrong; the whole CD is magnificent. Great songwriting, spot-on instrumental work and some amazing vocals by Cruz, who’s developed this tenor that reminds me of a cross between Dan Tyminski (the member of Union Station who sang “Man of Constant Sorrow”) and country singer Randy Travis. And the songwriting is well done, too.
But song four … song four is something else entirely.
It’s called “Midnight,” and it’s sung from the perspective of a man who’s been crushed by heartbreak. It’s implied he comes home to find his wife in another’s arms; either way, he never recovers.
When I talked to Cruz about it, he told me it was based on the story of Rodney, a homeless man who’s familiar to a lot of people who patronize Market Square and the Old City. I’ve met Rodney a time or two; he’s a gentle little man who isn’t bold or desperate or trying to manipulate you for money. He’ll offer a poem for a cigarette, and he’ll make conversation, dropping little clues here and there about where he’s been in his travels. He doesn’t tarry, and before long he’ll disappear into the night, head down and walking fast.
Cruz struck up a conversation with Rodney during a walk back to his North Knoxville home. At the time, Cruz himself was having a hard go of it; divorced and relocated to Knoxville from Blount County, he was starting over. No record contract, no band, no real prospects of a musical future; he found himself driving a truck and being a single dad and trying to figure out what to do next.
What struck him that night was just how similar his story and Rodney’s are … that but for the grace of God or a Higher Power or whatever you want to call it, it could just as easily been him asking for a little change of Rodney instead of the other way around.
A lot of people has gossiped and rumored about Cruz’s and Robin’s divorce, and because both are such high-profile members of the music community and quasi-celebrities as far as Blount County is concerned, I’ve found myself having to touch on it in stories about both. I don’t pry, and I’ve never asked what happened … because it’s none of my business. Mentioning it is unavoidable; using it as fodder for a story is in bad taste. I say that because I’m in no way implying that Rodney’s heartbreak is a mirror of Cruz’s; only that the two men found a kinship in the way that life had slammed down its fist like the hammer of Thor and shattered everything they knew.
“Midnight” is a song that touches me. Because of my own past as an addict and the darkness and pain that accompanied it, I know men like Rodney. But for a few blessings, some decisions inspired by a divine nudge here and there and the love of friends and family, I could have been a Rodney. Living in a halfway house off of North Central for two years, I met plenty, living among them and walking those same streets that seemed paved with hard luck and pain as much as they are by asphalt.
Cruz felt that pain radiating off of Rodney like a hot fever, and it touched him as well. That’s the other thing about “Midnight” that touches me — Cruz could have easily wallowed in self-pity and written song after song about heartache and loneliness, poor-mouthing his way through an album that would probably be just as good musically but lacking in depth spiritually.
Instead, he rose up, out of his own head and his own pain, and wrote a song about someone else. It won’t set Rodney up in a cushy new life and won’t bring his love back. But it’s a song about two people making a connection, a song that recognizes that the homeless most of us step over or walk around or just plain avoid have a story and a life; they’re human beings moving through the world just like the rest of us, trying to cope with whatever demons plague them.
Most people may never even know it’s about Rodney. But Cruz does. And I do. And now, so do you. And I hope the next time he approaches, you don’t slink away or take a step back.
Don’t pity him. He doesn’t want it or need it. Just recognize him. Acknowledge him, and say a little prayer of thanks that there but for the grace of God, go us all.
Top Ticket: Lillies will bloom at Kirk
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Cruz Contreras until recently had been best known as bandleader for his then-wife, Robinella, and he...Cruz Contreras until recently had been best known as bandleader for his then-wife, Robinella, and her band of the same name. Sadly, the Contrerases split up a while back, and Cruz Contreras took some time away to figure out what he wanted to do. Well, he's back, with a new band, The Black Lillies. This is a whole different animal than the Robinella show.
Where that band took its country and swing roots further in pop, soul and jazz directions, The Black Lillies brings a harder-rocking, honky-tonk edge to its bluegrass and roots sensibilities. "Little Darlin'" and the slide guitar-driven "There's Only One" rock blues and country harder than anything Contreras has previously recorded, while "Whiskey Angel" and "Where the Black Lillies Grow" show softer yet darker sides. Cruz Contreras uses his stone country singing voice up front these days, and shows that listeners have been missing something. Backing singer/guitarist Leah Gardner complements him well.
If this Knoxville, Tenn.-band doesn't have a bright future, it's a damned shame.
Details: 7:30 p.m. Kirk Avenue Music Hall, Roanoke. $10. kirkavenuemusic .com, kirkavenue @gmail.com, myspace.com/theblacklillies.
Best Americana Band: The Black Lillies
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This past year has been a whirlwind for Knoxville’s Black Lillies. After releasing their debut album...This past year has been a whirlwind for Knoxville’s Black Lillies. After releasing their debut album, Whiskey Angel, which was recorded by Sparklehorse’s Scott Minor, the group embarked on a well-received national tour that included a set at Bonnaroo. Founded by multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras and guitarist Leah Gardner, the Black Lillies’ current roster consists of Contreras, Jamie Cook, Tom Pryor, Jeff Woods and the group’s most recent addition, Trisha Gene Brady. Although the band’s success already seems to have reached a high point, with a new album in the works—which Contreras plans to fund by appealing to loyal fans who can choose to either pre-order or “sponsor” the new album by selecting a package from the group’s website—and their recent addition to the bill of the Americana Music Festival, it appears that the Black Lillies are just starting to make their mark.
'Wreckage' in bloom: The Black Lillies return with a new album and renewed determination
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Thanksgiving, 2009: The Black Lillies almost came to an end in Fargo, N.D. After bursting out of ...Thanksgiving, 2009: The Black Lillies almost came to an end in Fargo, N.D.
After bursting out of the gate with the phenomenal album “Whiskey Angel,” the band led by Cruz Contreras found itself two weeks into a cross-country tour. Fraught with challenges and hardships, the band — Contreras, pedal steel player/guitarist Tom Pryor, drummer Jamie Cook, bass player Taylor Coker and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Leah Gardner — holed up in a Lutheran center and plotted the next move.
For Contreras, there was never any doubt. He’d given up everything — literally — to make the band work. He’d built it on the ashes of a marriage to East Tennessee songbird Robinella, whom he’d divorced two years prior. He’d poured all of the heartache and self-loathing into the songs on “Whiskey Angel,” and in emerging as a new force on the local music scene, he was ready to seize the opportunity for something bigger.
After years of toiling as the initials to his ex-wife’s project, he had come into his own, and despite the frozen landscape outside the window and the flagging spirits of those who had accompanied him that far, he knew what his decision would be.
“We were about to turn around and come home,” he recalled over a recent breakfast interview at Long’s Drug Store in Knoxville’s Bearden neighborhood. “But I was determined. I had nothing to go back to — I’d literally given away everything. I sat everything I owned on the sidewalk outside my apartment in North Knoxville, and it was gone in an hour. I’d given away my house, literally.
“I knew it would be a major defeat if we didn’t persevere through that, and I told everyone, ‘I’m not going to beg. I’m going on, even if I have to do it by myself.’”
It’s not hard to imagine the scenario — those eyes, heavy-lidded as always but brimming with the fevered touch of a man on a crusade … Pryor, nodding nonchalantly … Cook, loyal to the vision. Gardner, the vocalist around whom Contreras had built the Lillies’ male-female harmonies, opted out, however; Coker would follow a few months later.
Contreras hated to see them go … but when it comes to The Black Lillies, he answers to a higher calling. Friendship means a great deal, but the music means more. These days, it means everything, and so the band rolled on, making do and adjusting to the loss after dropping Gardner off in Denver. In the months to come, the band would add local singer-songwriter Trisha Gene Brady and bass player Robert Richards to the fold. A sophomore album, “100 Miles of Wreckage,” would be recorded.
This weekend, The Black Lillies celebrate the release of that album with a show at The Bijou Theatre. At press time, only a few tickets remained; by the time the show begins on Saturday night, chances are the band will be playing to a sold-out crowd.
It’s been a tumultuous journey, to say the least. But when the house lights dim and the band begins to play, Contreras may feel for the next couple of hours something akin to contentment.
It won’t last. For a guy like him, it never does; the road calls or the studio beckons or the muse demands to be let out. Ghosts of the past and specters of the future are never far from his thoughts, and the choices he’s made and will make are things he constantly second-guesses.
All save for one — the direction in which he’s headed.
“The further I go down this path, the more certain that it’s what I’m meant to do,” he said. “For years, I felt guilty for playing music, like I wasn’t being responsible. I felt like I should get a 9-to-5 job. But that’s just not me. I just see it as the one constant in my life at this point. I mean, I’ve been doing it since I was 6, and it’s the one thing I could always do well.”
Finding his own path
For years, Contreras was known as the bandleader for the CCstringband, his ex-wife’s backing group. He produced the band’s albums and served as something of a de facto business manager until a major record label came calling; the band flirted with national fame for a while, even appearing on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” before moving to the Dualtone label.
The marriage would come to an end before a follow-up to “Solace for the Lonely” was recorded. High-profile by East Tennessee standards, the couple went through an awkward period of reestablishing themselves independent of one another. For Contreras, doing so seemed to take a bigger toll. During the summer of 2007, he got that 9-to-5 job driving a truck and took some time off from playing music, popping up periodically to take part in a jazz trio with Coker and keyboard player Mike Seal. At first, the group stuck to instrumentals, but Contreras felt something was lacking.
“Mike was always encouraging me to sing, and it felt like it needed vocals, so I learned two Doc Watson songs and one Gillian Welch tune,” he said. “We were playing at (now-closed) Cha Cha, and I remember there was a birthday party there one night, and there were all of these black ladies at the table, and they asked me to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’
“I was really nervous, thinking, ‘These black ladies are not going to want to hear me sing!’ But luckily I had Mike and Taylor playing with me, and they’re the smoothest of musicians, so I just walked up to the table and crooned it out. And they just ate it up! They melted, and I remember while I was singing that I thought, ‘I’m doing it … and they’re not throwing anything! I think they actually like it!’”
Gardner, whom Contreras had known since his days at the University of Tennessee, was another supporter pushing him to sing. When the two teamed up for a memorial service and later for an off-the-cuff jam at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville, she pushed him to showcase his vocals in addition to his mandolin prowess. He started learning more songs, and eventually the group billed as Cruz Contreras and Friends would become The Black Lillies, taking its name from a song that would end up on “Whiskey Angel.”
A long road of ‘Wreckage’
Making that first album, he recalled was a completely different process than recording “100 Miles of Wreckage.”
“It was uncharted territory then,” he said. “There were no fans, and I really just made an album then to prove something to myself. With this one, we’ve had a couple of years to play and to get fans, and now there are all kinds of expectations.”
None, however, stacked up to the expectations Contreras put on himself. After Gardner left the tour in Denver, the last few weeks saw The Black Lillies gain national traction. The dynamic changed, with Cook taking over the higher harmonies, and the remaining four members solidified into a cohesive unit. With Cook as the rock-steady anchor and Pryor’s wizardry on a number of instruments, Contreras felt unfettered when it came to singing and playing, and the Americana/bluegrass basis of The Black Lillies would take some beautiful detours into a number of realms — Southern rock, country, folk and other roots genres that have long held a special place in his heart.
“When we got back, we decided to record with Scott Minor (drummer for the critically acclaimed indie rock band Sparklehorse, who moved to Knoxville a few years ago),” Contreras said. “We were working on three-part harmonies with me, Jamie and Tom, and it was working great. It sounded great live, and we wanted that same vibe in the studio.”
Tragedy struck during the process when Sparklehorse founder and mastermind Mark Linkous committed suicide behind Minor’s house. Although Linkous wasn’t involved in the recording project, he had become a fixture around the studio, and Contreras said he’d grown to view the musician as something of a mentor.
“He was very studio — patient and very focused with his art,” Contreras said. “When he committed suicide, it brought the whole project to a halt. It gave me time to reevaluate everything. When a big event like that happens, it really makes you put things in perspective.
“When he passed, it made me think that I should really aspire to that same standard. And I realized that if I’m not happy with what we were doing, then I shouldn’t release it.”
He can’t put his finger on what it was about those early recordings that was dissatisfying — only that, upon listening to it the songs felt flat and lifeless.
“It has to be compelling,” he said. “What’s going to make me want to listen to it again? And if nothing is there to do that, why should I expect anyone else to want to do that?”
The band reconvened with Minor in July of last year, re-recording the tracks for “100 Miles of Wreckage” and putting together an out-of-the-park follow-up. Brady was added near the end of the recording process, but as a friend of the band since the beginning, she’d already added some vocals to the new songs and never quite left.
Her sass and Southern charm are a contrast to Gardner’s demure demeanor, and that attitude gives many of the new songs a dose of attitude – from the dangerous on “Two Hearts Down,” the opening track, to the wildcat cries that flavor “Three in the Mornin’.” In person, she’s both laid-back and a firecracker, a fun addition whose smile adds to the band’s personality without upsetting the dynamic Contreras relies upon to steer the ship.
Saturday night at The Bijou Theatre, all members of the band will bask in the spotlight. After all, The Black Lillies have played the stage before — two or three songs here and there on a couple of WDVX-FM “Tennessee Shines” appearances, in various other configurations of their numerous past projects — but for the first time, they’ll own that stage.
They’ll headline it, commanding an audience that’s there to support, to encourage and to demand more of each of them. They’ve had a taste of The Black Lillies, and by all accounts, they can’t get enough. Playing to such a crowd, Contreras acknowledged, is daunting. Rewarding, too, but daunting nonetheless.
“Playing the Bijou is a huge step for any local band,” he said. “I try to imagine what it’s going to feel like, because at times it seems so big — just a Mecca for performers. But at other times, like when I was at some of the Big Ears (Festival) shows last year, I looked around the audience and it felt like I was in my high school gym, because I knew everyone in the crowd.
“I just want us to go for it. We want to play ball and to let go of all doubts and all fears. We want to take away the net and just follow our vision. What’s it going to be like? I don’t know. But I think it’s going to be so much energy they may have to carry me off the stage.”
Black Lillies triumphant at Bijou
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Every now and then, if you're blessed or just plain lucky, you'll find yourself in a theater filled ...Every now and then, if you're blessed or just plain lucky, you'll find yourself in a theater filled to capacity. The atmosphere? Electric. The music? Magic.
It happened last night at the Bijou with the Black Lillies. Sold out. Super.
I was in the Old City nearly two years ago when I first heard Cruz Contreras (nee of the CCStringband fame) open up his mouth and sing. Having only heard his picking from his years leading the band for Robinella, my jaw dropped and my butt nearly hit the floor when he began his unique country crooning.
Oh, it's country, and then again, it isn't. This is Americana at its finest, music that needs no label, songs that stand alone.
You can read elsewhere about the band's history and personnel changes. Here, I will talk about last night, which will last with me for a long, long time.
It was a concert and a celebration, a release party, in fact, for the band's new CD, "100 Miles of Wreckage." Oh, how they jammed, Cruz and Jamie Cook and Robert Richards and Trisha Gene Brady and the terrific Tom Pryor, who plucks that pedal steel like nobody else. Cruz's brother, Billy, stopped by, too, to rosin up his bow.
Cruz and Trisha Gene weaved their harmony into a tapestry of tunes, Appalachian in its honesty. Jill Andrews (nee of the Everybodyfields) popped up, too, to sing "The Arrow," her duet with Cruz from the new album. Awesome.
The showstopper slipped up on us, as the Lillies quietly made their way to the lip of the stage to accentuate the Bijou's acoustics on "unplugged" renditions of "Go to Sleep" and the band's best single to date, "Whiskey Angel." You know you've made it when the entire audience sings along, even on the verses, no less.
And make it this band will. They must. It would give those who remember what roots music really sounds like a reason to believe in quality amid the crap.
We danced, we pranced and we pined for more. And the band obliged, coming back along with members of the opening act, the New Familiars, to jam on jumpin' versions of The Marshall Tucker Band's "Fire on the Mountain" and Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues."
It was a moment -- and it worked. Nearly religious. Neat.
Originals from Whiskey Angel
1. Whiskey Angel
2. See Right Through
5. Yes I Know
6. There’s Only One
7. Goodbye Mama Blues
8. The Distance
9. Little Darlin’
10. Where The Black Lillies Grow
Originals from 100 Miles of Wreckage:
12. Two Hearts Down
13. The Arrow
14. Same Mistakes
15. Three in the Mornin'
16. Nobody's Business
17. Shepherd's Song
18. Peach Pickin'
19. Soul of Man
20. Tall Trees
21. Ain't My Fault
22. Go to Sleep
24. Falsehearted Lover
25. A Thousand Stars
26. Triple D Blues
27. My Father’s Song
26. Two Soldiers
28. The Cuckoo
29. Lil Martha
30. Hard Times
31. Shady Grove
32. Blue Moon of Kentucky
33. Curly Headed Baby
35. Up on the Blue Ridge Mountain
36. Katy Dear
37. My Bucket’s Got a Hole in it
38. There Ain’t No One Like You
39. House of Gold
40. Mississippi Kid
41. If I Needed You
42. Pancho and Lefty
43. Cumberlin Land
45. Silver Threads Among the Gold
46. Warm and Tender
47. A Song For You
48. Sow ‘em on the Mountain
49. Blues Stay Away
50. Back in Time
51. Goodnight Irene
53. West Virginia
54. Angeline the Baker
55. Lonesome Moonlight Waltz
PDF RiderStage Plot - The Black Lillies
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