As I stood behind the Americana Stage at MerleFest and waited for the members of The Black Lillies to congregate for the interview, I observed their post-set routine—careful casing of beloved instruments, quick visits with old friends, and sincere entertaining of questions, adorations and photographs with fans. Somewhere in between they caught their breath and took a moment to appreciate what had just transpired. They had just finished their first ever set at MerleFest as a band, and by the looks of the captivated and quite discerning audience they were very well received.
The band’s 8-song set, powered mainly by songs from their recently released third studio album, Runaway Freeway Blues, showcased beautiful, strong vocals and the sweetest of harmonies backed by tight instrumentation and vivid storytelling. This was the band’s first of four scheduled performances at MerleFest, and the buzz had already started to spread across the festival grounds. They were that band at this year’s MerleFest.
While The Black Lillies can easily be described as an Americana band, their collective sound certainly defies music genre boundaries, pulling inspiration from rock, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and country. Led by front-man and gifted songwriter Cruz Contreras (vocals, guitar, piano, mandolin), the band includes siren songstress Trisha Gene Brady (vocals, percussion, guitar, mandolin), beard-laden, laid back rocker Tom Pryor (pedal steel, electric guitar, background vocals), friendly funnyman Robert Richards (bass), and quiet charmer Jamie Cook (drums).
For close to two decades, Knoxville, Tennessee has been the musical epicenter for Contreras and crew. Prior to forming The Black Lillies, each member put in time in other bands like the everybodyfields, Robinella and the CCstringband, Whiskey Scars, Natti Love Joys, and The Naughty Knots. Over the years, they began to run in the same musical circles, forging friendships through their music, which eventually led them to a crossroads in 2009.
Contreras–who slides in as the band’s spokesperson with a downhome ease–shares a bit about the band’s humble beginnings. “The first Black Lillies record came out in 2009, so our first CD release show was the official first Black Lillies show. There was about a year or so evolution. You know, finding the right players and the music. The line up here, I think we’ve been together I feel like going on 4 years.”
While they started as friends, the past 4 years have made them a family. There is a love that is obvious–a mutual respect for each other, born from paid dues and hard work on and off of the road. Being a family has helped them manage and appreciate being thrown into the spotlight over the past year.
“I think you have to be crazy to get accustomed to that life. So we must be, because we are definitely accustomed to it. And on the forefront of it being out there, and people noticing, and us getting press, we know about it but it’s hard to really know about it, because we are on the road. And it’s like, ‘Oh that’s happening, but what does that mean?’ I know it’s good, but I don’t really know what it means because we are out here and we have to work every night,” shares Brady.
Contreras adds, “We’ve got our hand it in. It’s a little difficult to see the big picture, because you are just surviving day-to-day, traveling. We travel in a van, which is like a lot of tedious work. But every now and then you get to step back and you hopefully believe that it’s progressing.”
For The Black Lillies, 2012 was a breakthrough year spent almost entirely on the road—unloading the van, playing their hearts out, loading the van, sleeping, driving, and doing it all over in a different city the following night. During the quiet moments along long stretches of highway, Contreras found time to perfect songs that had been conceived over the past three years—songs that told the stories of travelers, warriors, lovers, explorers, dreamers, and everything in between. The result is Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s most refined album to date.
“It’s more of a studio recording. I think it’s our best recording quality. It’s definitely an evolution,” says Contreras.
“I think there’s a lot more separation. I don’t want to say it’s more produced or anything, but I’ve had a lot of people comment on the separation of the vocals. They seem to be more in focus than the past records,” adds Richards.
“Yeah, the early records were live—everybody in a room—so there’s so much bleed in the mics. You get this really live, energetic feeling, but it’s really difficult to mix. This time we had control, and we got the best tones on the drums because we were able to manipulate those. You know, that’s a technical thing,” Contreras explains.
With the evolution of a band often comes critique, in particular from fans who were there from the start–the self-proclaimed true fans. As bands, like The Black Lillies, find themselves in the middle of a buzz storm and headlining bigger venues, they can also experience a backlash from fans who may feel as if the band has sold out. Fortunately, The Black Lillies have yet to come up against any backlash, and maintain a positive attitude about their evolution.
“I think every band deserves that right to evolve, every person does. It’s a natural thing—it’s maturity. Maybe sometimes it’s different, and that doesn’t please everybody,” says Contreras.
In fact, negative criticism from their fans has been very rare. The band’s manager, Chyna Brackeen, who has been with the band from the start, gives her take on it, “I’d say most of the fans are really excited by the new record because it is more like what they see on stage. It’s not that it’s so much more produced. It was done differently–it was recorded differently than the other two–but it has just a lot more depth to it, more instrumentation. It really focuses on highlighting each of the instrumental parts as much as possible—the way that they do in a live performance.”
While the recording quality on Runaway Freeway Blues has improved, so too has the songwriting, especially on songs like Goodbye Charlie. Contreras certainly pulls from his own experiences, but also possesses a gift that allows him to transform the stories of others into song. He is an observer—a listener.
“Well it’s just listening to stories. It’s like when you get a concept for a song sometimes I’ve felt like you need to go study, or do your homework, or be studious about it – you don’t. Once you even have the notion of, ‘Oh I should write a song about it,’ you know enough. [In terms of Goodbye Charlie], that’s someone in my life who told me a bunch of stories over time and you put them together and, you know, it’s there,” explains Contreras.
The stories woven into the fabric of the songs have dimension and texture, and it is in The Black Lillies’ live performances that they fully come to life.
“We’re a live band, and it changes every night,” says Pryor. “So, what you are hearing from three records is somewhat of a representation, but what we do live is usually wildly different from what you hear on the record.”
Pryor speaks the truth. Having listened to their albums before experiencing a live performance, I can admit that I wasn’t completely sold–until I saw them on stage. The band interaction, the joy, the harmonies, the honesty, the energy, the momentum, the sound—collectively these things inspired me to invest in them, their music, and their message. The fact that they are all fun-loving, good people, who care about making great music and value their fans and community, well that’s all just icing on the cake.
After winning over droves of music lovers at MerleFest–including myself–The Black Lillies got right back to doing what they do best–touring. There’s no rest for these weary musicians. Currently, The Black Lillies have shows booked through September at festivals, clubs, cafes, and theaters across the US. Do yourself a favor and get out to see them live. They are moving forward–wide open throttle and no looking back–so be prepared to jump on the Black Lillies bandwagon before it leaves you in the dust.
A special thank you to Chyna Brackeen and The Black Lillies for taking time out of their schedules for this interview. It was certainly my pleasure to meet you all. Safe travels!