Starting with those personal experiences, Contreras kept writing, and in 2009, recorded the band’s debut record Whiskey Angel in his living room. Playing locally under his own name, Contreras took the name The Black Lillies from an early song he’d written, “Where the Black Lillies Grow”, which appears on Whiskey Angel. “I’d been a bandleader and sideman and musician for years and it took everything I had musically,” says Contreras, “put it together with some lyrical output that was new to me, and just kind of a learning experience.”
With Whiskey Angel ready to fly, the Knoxville music scene was perfect for the band’s takeoff.
“Our first record, a lot of the record was– well, it’s all personal – but, more blatantly, just like first person experience,” Contreras admits. “You get out there and you test it, and you realize you have a platform for it.”
As the group’s lineup has evolved over the years, so has the writing. Contreras, Pryor and Cook are original members of The Black Lillies, since adding Brady and Richards to the fold after the departure of founding member and vocalist Leah Gardner.
“We have a band now,” Contreras says. “Let’s have something, we can write a duet now. We can have harmonies or we can have duet, another vocalist, or let’s write something that’s jamming, for guitar solos.”
In another nod to America’s Pastime, Contreras likens the process to coaching a baseball team. “You think of who your players are, and you think of making something that’s going to make the team collectively its best. You go with what you’ve got.”
“You want that home run, baby,” Brady says, drawing laughs.
As for his songwriting, Contreras says a perfect formula doesn’t exist. “I believe that it will happen again,” he says of his means for capturing a meaningful song on paper. “I’ve done it before. Some of the best stories are the songs that come really quickly. I think of one song on the first record. It was hanging out at the Preservation Pub in Knoxville. Sitting there having a pint. It’s like this little idea runs through my head, and I ask the bartender for a pen, and it’s on the corner of a napkin. I forget about it until the next morning, but there’s my guitar, and you put it together, and there’s a song. And to this day it’s like one of the songs that people request, and it took 15 minutes, with no forethought and no afterthought. That’s a really great way to go about it, and the other way would be something that’s more involved, and like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a concept, maybe I’m not finished with it, still need to work through it.’ Sometimes you’ve got to do that, too.”
Speaking on the development of the band’s material since the start, putting to paper the heartbreak, sadness and drowning of his personal trials with the bottle on Whiskey Angel and the band’s follow up effort 100 Miles of Wreckage, Contreras has continued to build on what he started, yet doesn’t keep checking the rear-view mirror for affirmation.
“I think that’s a natural evolution,” Contreras says. “It’s a goal. If anybody goes through something personally, it’s difficult. You try to learn and move on, mature and grow, and I think the evolution of the band is the same way. I ran into a guy yesterday who was kind of getting on my case for not having more blood on the stage. I’m like, ‘C’mon, what do you want?’ I’m not going to wallow around in this, you know?”
“There are more stories on the new one, too. About other people,” Cook adds, referring to Runaway Freeway Blues, the group’s newest release.
“You can always talk about other people’s problems,” Contreras says.
Keeping the wheels rolling is Runaway Freeway Blues, beginning with the haunting opening tracks “The Fall” and “Gold and Roses”, to the sweeping ballad “Smokestack Lady” and soldiers coming of age in wartime with “Goodbye Charlie” and “Catherine”, a touch of gospel with “By the Wayside”, the reflective “All This Living” and the spirited “Baby Doe.”
The group spent over three years working on the material for Runaway Freeway Blues, most of which came from the road. “I think the grass is always greener,” Contreras says, reflecting on the experience. “After this, I tend to think, ‘man, next time we need to set aside time, for writing, for rehearsing, for recording’. Going into the project, I didn’t really know what the theme was, it was like you know, ‘give each song what it deserves, get the best recording you can, and then step back and see what the theme is’. That’s when it occurred to me, this is a record made from the road.”
According to Contreras, finding a balance between touring and recording the album was impossible. Even with touring endlessly and without a record deal, the group had a fanbase more than willing to lend a hand to their cause. “We did a PledgeMusic campaign,” Contreras says. “We paid for a video which CMT aired, and got the recording going, and there’s no way we could have done it any other way.”
Brady treasures the connection with the fans just the same. “I think it’s an amazing thing we can have fan support and stay independent and be able to offer up an experience to our fans and not just, ‘here’s our music and just come to a show’,” Brady says, “but ‘let me give you some art, let me give you something that you’re going to be able to connect with.’ Because that’s what we’re trying to do every day with our music, is connect with them. We have family all across the United States because of that.”
“Some of them have nice houses,” Richards chimes in. “And let us stay there.”
“With food in the refrigerators,” jokes Contreras.
“There’s a lot of giving on both sides,” Contreras continues, talking about the PledgeMusic campaign. “And another cool thing that I noticed is we did our CD release show in Knoxville a month or two ago, I’m losing track now, and we had those fans we’re talking about, that have put us up on the road, and taken care of us, and supported the record, they all came to the show, and they met each other. And they bonded over their common experience and so it’s really cool to see your fanbase kind of take on a life of its own. That’s happening and is a really good feeling.”
I ask why the band calls Knoxville home, when the bright lights of Nashville shine just two and a half hours down Interstate 40.
“We’ve been so fortunate with that,” says Contreras, of the band’s success remaining in Knoxville. “I went to high school in Nashville, have family there. You know, there’s always been, for any musician, there’s a thought. ‘Do I need to move to Nashville to pursue music?’”
“They’re going to assume you’re from there so you don’t have to move there,” adds Richards.
“We just did that videotaping for CMT,” Contreras continues, “and they have a show called ‘Concrete Country’ and it was the first time they left Nashville to film, and they came over to Knoxville. So, we’re making that connection.”
Contreras adds the band’s Knoxville roots have also been attractive to Nashville.
“Because it’s different, I guess. It’s still Tennessee, but it has an independent nature to it, and they’ve embraced us. So, I never really even thought of us as a country band to begin with, but we’ve been on CMT, and we’ve been repeat performers on the Grand Ole Opry. We love Nashville. Nashville’s been good to us, and its working out great.”
When The Black Lillies venture into Music City, they play on the grandest of stages, such as The Ryman Auditorium, and notably, The Grand Ole Opry. The Black Lillies are the only independent band from Knoxville to have played the Opry. Brady says playing there is both amazing and humbling. ”It’s one of the bigger things you could ever be asked for,” Brady says. “And from where we’re from, that’s what every musician back in the day wanted, that’s what they worked for, was the Opry. And they still do.”
Her grandmother still cries every time The Black Lillies play the venue. “It makes my family so proud, it’s ridiculous,” Brady continues. “So I just couldn’t be more excited. Every time we go, I’m like, ‘Yes, another Opry! Yes, they want us back again!’”
Contreras admits there’s a feeling of validation in such an opportunity. “It’s the one thing you can say to your family that they’ve finally think you’ve made it on some level.”
Brady says the worldwide acclaim the Opry brings has helped the band keep their Knoxville roots. “The Opry’s one of those things where you can go anywhere in the world and even if somebody’s never heard it, you can say ‘the Opry’, and they’re going to smile, and they’re going to know what it is,” she says. “It’s a very funny thing, what that did, and I think that it also helped with CMT coming over and starting to get interested in Knoxville a little more.”
The Black Lillies have so far enjoyed an old-school means of success as a band in the modern age, their reputation growing from city to city before them by word of mouth promotion from endless touring. Be it that word of mouth now primarily comes from social media such as Facebook, Twitter and the PledgeMusic campaign. Contreras and his bandmates have the unique perspective of experiencing this success by remaining independent of a record label as the music industry goes through a ‘Wild West’ period. The band, for the greater part, with their manager Brackeen’s help, has shouldered most of the responsibilities on their own.
“It’s an interesting thing,” Contreras says.
Jamie Cook offers his unique take. “I’ve never been on a label, so I don’t have any experience with that, personally,” Cook says. “I mean, you go on kind of go on what you hear about it, but everybody’s experiences are different with different labels. You can’t just say, ‘Well, this is that, and this is this’. I’m kind of glad we do retain a little bit of independence, just in the way we conduct ourselves, in what we have to wear, how we look, or a certain direction in the music. It’s true we don’t have the support of that, but we also don’t have the constraints of it, too. It’s kind of ‘pick your battles.’ I don’t think one way – it’s not for everybody, you know? I think there are advantages to going with a record label; the support, and some financial help here and there.”
“Being signed isn’t what it used to be,” says Pryor.
Contreras says his experience under a record label with Robinella and the CCstringband was definitely a learning curve. “Out of the band, I probably have the most experience with that,” Contreras says. “I had a band, we were signed to Columbia Records, and it was…I was young when it happened, and I really didn’t know…I learned from it, you know? Everything then was the first time. ‘Should we do this? Should we not?’ So when I started this band, there weren’t as many mysteries. I understood the structure. And man, I’ve not really been tempted for one day.” He smiles, and leaning forward, Contreras measures his thoughts. “I enjoy doing this on a personal level with everybody,” he continues, a smile resurfacing once again. “That’s about all I’ll say.”
Asking about tour schedules with a group that’s been touring nonstop since 2009 can get entertaining. “Good question,” Contreras replies, pondering the answer. “I know for the next three months we’re slammed. Doing a big zigzag all around the country. Well, it’s not a zigzag, it’s…” he continues, before trailing off.
“It’s the four corners, man,” Richards interjects. “We’re hitting them all this year. We’re going up to Maine for the first time. Just got back from Key West. We’re going up to Bellingham, Washington, and down to…” he says, trying to remember where the touring continues.
“Every corner of the country,” Pryor adds, in perfect finality to complement his bandmates.
Indeed, keeping tabs on the months ahead is a tricky process for any band, eager for a nation, both young and old, from all walks of life, to hear their music. So here are The Black Lillies, Contreras at the proverbial wheel, foot to the floor, with Brady riding shotgun, and Cook, Pryor and Richards the fuel in the tank, all driving the roadshow carrying their bold and bittersweet slice of Americana carved from East Tennessee across the map.
Cruz Contreras and his bandmates are well equipped for the long haul, save for one small purchase.
“We need to get one of those little stickers with each state,” Contreras suggests, already thinking ahead, far down the open road.