American Songwriter magazine has released their list of the top 50 albums of 2013, and Runaway Freeway Blues made the cut! “Given the arena-sizing of folk-rock over the last several years, you’d almost expect the opening track’s tethered-in-place acoustic guitar figure and faint four-on-the-floor kick drum pulse to build to a real geyser of a chorus. But “The Fall” isn’t that sort of song, and The Black Lillies aren’t that sort of band. They’re a storytelling, occasionally funky, Appalachian-pop outfit, which would make them not at all hard to pick out of a contemporary roots band lineup populated by stompers and shouters. Songwriting frontman Cruz Contreras delivers the tunes on Runaway Freeway Blues with the cracked, southern-accented croon of a guy who’s dabbled in indie rock yet camped out in country. And the performances get warmer—as opposed to just, you know, louder—when Trisha Gene Brady adds her dusky, blues-inflected harmonies.”
….and play a gig. In Nacogdoches, TX. On Halloween. Sounds like a recipe for a good time, but I am getting way ahead of myself here, so let’s start at the beginning…..
Chapter 1: The Pale
This particular tour kicked off in the sassy city of Indianapolis, Indiana. I definitely do not use the word “sassy” lightly. In fact, I rarely use that word at all; so I hope that gives you an idea of the severity of the sass. Anywho, Indianapolis was the first gig I can ever recall being asked to remove articles of clothing during the performance. To appease the screaming female masses (which I am pretty sure was actually just one friend of the band trying to mess with me), I proceeded to unsnap several snaps of my trusty green corduroy snapper. O snap! It was quite a relief to me, as I always end up wearing undoubtedly the warmest shirt I own on the hottest stages we play, but I think the audience got more than they bargained for. Riding around in a van all day and only being active at night has turned my already borderline translucent chest into a shade similar to bleached milk, and undoubtedly the stage lights reflecting off of it may have caused temporary blindness within the audience. Everyone seemed to recover,however, (no more clothes shedding was requested) and the show ended up being a great kick off to the tour.
Chapter 2: Three of My Favorite Things
The second day of the tour was undoubtedly one of the greatest days I have ever experienced, as it involved three of my all time favorite things…. windmills, cheese, and drums. Through our travels I have had the joy of seeing windmill farms all across our great land, from New Mexico to West Virginia, but no windmills excite me more than those of Northwest Indiana. That’s because they were the first windmills I ever got to see, and the experience had a profound effect on me. In the fall of my senior year of college I was called by Nashville (formerly Knoxville) songstress Jill Andrews to do a one off gig in Milwaukee, WI. The night before we were set to leave I got home from a gig at midnight, eager to catch some sleep before our 5 AM departure. Unfortunately, my roommates had decided to throw a last minute house party, and rather than peace and quiet I was greeted by the beer-slick floors and unholy cacophony that is a collegiate Friday night. I got little sleep and only managed a few fretful hours in the van in between my driving shifts. We reached Milwaukee and played an incredibly fun and memorable gig. Unfortunately, immediately after the headlining band finished performing at midnight, we had to load out and drive back to Knoxville. The bass player on the gig, Bryn, is not only an amazing musician but also one of the hardest road warriors I have ever met and volunteered to drive the entire ten hours back home by herself. I attempted to stay up and keep her company, but the exhaustion of the previous night started to get the best of me. The last thing I remember was looking out the window and seeing all these blinking red lights in the sky all around us. It looked like an alien invasion! I woke up in in the morning and found out it was not in fact extraterrestrials, but a windmill farm. Thus, a passion was born.
Directly after the windmill farm, we stopped at a roadside dairy farm. Regrettably, because of time constraints we were unable to visit the calf-birthing barn, but we did get to sample some fantastic cheeses. It is always slightly awkward going up to a sample woman/man knowing very well you have no intention of buying what they are trying so hard to sell, so I sidled up next to a middle aged couple at the counter, hoping to pass for a son or nephew. “Hmmmm, this cheese sure is great!” I said, affectionately elbowing the man in the ribs. It did not take long for my overly friendly behavior to start weirding the couple out, so they hurriedly made their purchases and left. Thankfully, Trisha Gene appeared and unlike cheap, sample gobbling me, she did intend to buy some cheese. The best I tried was a cheese that had been aged for 6 years, which to me is a counterintuitively long time for a dairy product to exist. If that cheese were in school, it would probably just be entering the first grade. Unfortunately, cheeses are grossly undereducated in this country.
After the cheese farm, we made a stop in arguably my favorite music shop in all the country; The Chicago Music Exchange. I went in to get my snare drum worked on, and left with a whole drum set. 1964. Ludwig. Silver Sparkle. Pretty much everything I have ever hoped for in a set of drums. Unfortunately, because of time/spacial constraints, I had to ship the drums to my folk’s house in Austin, TX, where we would be several days later.
Chapter 3: Chuck Mead and Curds of Cheese
Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys kill. Absolutely off the charts amazing. Imagine going to the most intensely informative class of your life, but instead of picking up chalk, your teachers sling on guitars and rock the skin off of your face. That was exactly what the four dates we co-billed with Chuck were like. We ended up combining forces at the end of every gig and jamming for sometimes almost as long as our individual sets on whatever songs Chuck or Cruz happened to call out. 2 drum sets, three guitar, bass, key, 3-5 vocals…. an absolute powerhouse of sound and some of the greatest jams I have had the privilege to be a part of. They are also incredibly stand up, kind dudes. We blew a trailer tire about thirty miles outside of Racine, WI and Bobby and I offered to sit out on the interstate in the Wisconsin cold to watch the trailer while the rest of the band went searching for a replacement. It was looking like a recipe for frostbite (at least from my Texas perspective), but luckily within five minutes of sitting outside, Chuck and the boys came to our rescue. “Hey fellas, want a beer?” They asked, pulling their van over to the side of the road. Robert and I spent the next thirty minutes cracking jokes and drinking beer in the van with the band. They even turned a blind eye to my cashmere, salmon (not pink!) scarf that my mom had given me to wear. While amazingly warm and comfortable, it takes an incredible amount of masculine fortitude to sport in public, especially in front of your new musical idols. Martin, the drummer, also told us about a great place to stop for some cheese curds on our way from Madison to Minneapolis. I had always been fascinated by cheese curds since hearing of them on the aforementioned trip to Milwaukee, and like most things that fascinate me, I mentioned them with a highly annoying frequency. “Exit 68. Get that boy some damn curds!” was the text Martin sent Trisha Gene. We ended up stopping. It was amazing. A tiny, unassuming gas station in the middle of nowhere, WI ended up being a Dairy Mecca that would make even a seasoned cheese monger blush. An entire refrigerated wall of cheese, various samples, and foam fake cheese paraphernalia from hats to coasters; this place had it all. I ended up getting the standard white curds, and just as promised, they squeeked when I chewed them. Awesome! (although my digestive system thanked me when we left Wisconsin: dairy, starch, and beer seem to be all they eat up there)
Playing a gig in Austin was a bit like Christmas come early for me; I got to see my mom and pop, I was greeted with a brand new (old) drum set, and, like most every Christmas I have had in Texas, the weather gave no indication of the season. The gig was at Antone’s; an old historic blues club that has been a stomping ground for legendary Central Texas musicians such as Pine Top Perkins, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Gary Clark Jr. Antone’s has always been very supportive of young musicians,and because of that support, I had gotten to play there several times in my youth. I had not, however, played at the brand new club location on East Riverside Dr. We shared the bill with Shinyribs, a newer band led by the front man of the recently disbanded “The Gourds”; a legendary Austin group. Trisha Gene has been a huge fan/friend of the Gourds since back before she ever started pursuing music, and even flew down to Austin for a New Year’s Eve show the band played when she was celebrating getting her undergrad degree. I also have a history with the band. One of my first ever gigs with my middle school band, “New Moon”, was opening up for the Gourds at a benefit for a local elementary school (my dad still wears the free t-shirt he got at the show). Tactlessly, I mentioned this to Shinyribs’ drummer (who also played for the Gourds), hoping to form some sort of bond. Instead, I got a, “Thanks for making me feel old, kid.” Keith, if you are reading this, sorry dude. Anywho, the gig was a blast and ended up being a great homecoming for me; high school friends, teachers, and even members of my pop’s church came out to see the band. Thanks to all who made it out!
The following day was Halloween, with a gig scheduled in Nacogdoches, TX. We were on a tight schedule, having tried to squeeze in as much Austin time as possible, and no one had any idea what to wear for Halloween. Luckily, Cruz had to make a crucial stop at the bank in Hutto, Texas (home of the Hutto Hippos), and we were all afforded fifteen minutes in a near by Goodwill to throw together a costume. I quickly found a ridiculous looking straw hat and coupled it with an obscenely brown, desert-themed pearl snap shirt. The costume worked and was dirt cheap, but I realized that it really only made me look like a dorky, exaggerated version of what people probably expect an Americana/country musician to look like. Dang, back to the drawing board (although I did buy the shirt; seriously, it is nasty). Luckily, within seconds of casting the straw hat aside, I found it; a black felt, ninety nine cent beret. Instantly the whole costume was illuminated in my mind, and the remaining pieces seemed to call to me from their racks. A tube of black and white face paint, a low cut woman’s striped shirt, and sacrebleu! I was an effeminate mime. The rest of the costumes were as follows….. TGB- The only one to actually pay any heed to the theme of the party we were playing (1920′s), Trisha Gene donned a pretty dress and a masquerade mask. BAM! 1920′s masked flapper girl. Cruz- Cruz purchased mostly things that he probably would have bought anyway (a powder blue two piece suit and matching “Hawaii” trucker hat), but thanks to a pair of obnoxiously large polarized sunglasses, passed as a senior citizen. Or a blind guy. Or a well dressed blind senior citizen on vacation in Hawaii. Most of these costumes were pretty open to interpretation. Tom- The genius of Tom’s costume was that not only did it require a knowledge of multiple generations of popular culture (70′s jam band and current TV phenomenon), but it also required by far the least amount of money to pull off (95 cents). By applying a generous amount of fake blood to some of his standard “gig clothes” (a Grateful Dead hat and tie-dye shirt), Tom became “a Walking Deadhead”. Genius. Robert- Depending on one’s definition of success, Bobby had by far the most successful costume of the night. 1 slim, body-hugging woman’s kimono + 1 Panda Bear Hat + 1 bushy red beard = a cross-dressing red panda. Both headed to small town Texas dressed in women’s clothing, Robert and I figured we had about an equal shot at being beat up after the gig.
Thankfully, we were both unharmed, but my costume did cause it’s fair share of troubles. No mime costume would be complete without a lack of speaking, so I decided to take a vow of silence from the moment I crappily self applied my face paint till the last note of the gig. Things started pretty smoothly. As a non-singing drummer it is pretty easy (and often encouraged) to stay silent during a show. I even managed to draw a few laughs by “miming” part of my drum solo in “Nobody’s Business”. The real trouble came at set break. As I headed to the bar trying to figure out how to mime-order a beer, I noticed that the merch table was conspicuously unoccupied, with a small group of people waiting eagerly to make purchases. Whether everyone in the band was caught up socializing or it was a cruel joke on me that they had all banded together on, I don’t know, but I dutifully headed over to the table figuring it would be a good test of my skills. The situation immediately disintegrated into shambles. I did not even know how to begin communicating with these well intentioned people, and I am pretty sure with my wild, exaggerated hand gestures and throw together Goodwill costume they had no idea that I was a mime. I try to imagine it from their perspective; after enjoying the first set of music they head over to the merchandise to try to support the band with a purchase, only to be accosted by the band’s drummer, in smeared make up and French women’s apparel, who starts waving around CD’s and modeling t-shirts, shrugging inquiringly. It probably freaked a couple of people out for sure. Thankfully, Cruz showed up, and I was left to go figure out how to order that beer. I realized that the easiest way was to point to whatever drink your neighbor is having and hold up the number one. Subtleties and specifics are not readily at an effeminate mime’s disposal.
Epilogue: Band Questions
As promised, I will now answer a randomly selected question that was submitted to the band. Our good friend Patrick Hall, of West Virginia, asks, “Who in the band is the biggest foodie?”
That is a difficult question. We all like food. We usually eat it a minimum of three times daily, and usually enjoy it. Rather than a direct answer, I will try to provide several key “food facts” about each band member…… TGB- Dates the head chef of a popular Maryville, TN restaurant. Grows and cans her own vegetables. Robert- Before becoming a full time musician, worked as a souse chef under Bruce Bogarts, who has won “Best Chef in Knoxville” several years running. Uses the word “demi glaze” in normal conversation. Tom- Often makes a meal of canned sardines and crackers. Once cooked a pork loin in Electric City, WA. Cruz- Cooks eggs. Only eggs. Lives in a home with no kitchen. Bowman- Abhors dried fruit and bananas. Notorious for asking a restaurant what its vegetarian dishes are, only to end up ordering BBQ………………. There it is, hope it cleared some things up for you Patrick!
Well that’s it for this blog edition friends! Please feel free to keep submitting those questions. As of now I only have enough questions for one more blog post (meaning one question), and while I could wax on for blogs upon blogs about the wonders of cheese and windmills, it is nice to get to say some things about the band and its other four members. Thanks for reading!
This month only – get our debut album, Whiskey Angel, for FREE via Noisetrade.com. This is the one that started it all, folks! We hope you enjoy it. Download it here: http://www.noisetrade.com/theblacklillies
I would love to be able to romanticize my situation by saying, “I arrived in New York City with nothing but the clothes on my back and a song in my heart,” but the truth is I had much more than that. I had my drums, cymbals, and percussion accessories. I had my back pack; complete with laptop, book, CD player, and Bruce Hornsby albums. And I did have the clothes on my back; just not the remaining garments I had packed for the six day trip we had just started.
Let me back up…. The previous evening we had had a rare gig in Knoxville. It was not a typical hometown performance at the Bijou or more recently the TN Theatre, however, but an extravagant tailgate party for what would end up being a heart breaking overtime loss to Georgia the following day. I had played many sweat soaked, beer drenched Saturday afternoon tailgates for various fraternities in my four years at UT, but this was a much more lavish, family friendly affair. The show was a blast and proved to be a good opportunity to shake the rust off after a rare two week break from the road. We played our last song, a new arrangement of an old cover (“T for Texas, T for Tennessee), packed our things, and began our overnight journey to the Big Apple.
There are not really shifts or guidelines for overnight drives in the Lillies, but the general rule of thumb is drive until you feel tired and then pass the wheel to the next person feeling alert. Tom was up for driving and volunteered first, so I settled into the seat and tried to get as much sleep as I could until I was inevitably awoken for my turn. Around 9 AM, we stopped in New Jersey for gas. Wrinkled and smelly from the previous night’s gig, I went around back to the trunk to grab my toothbrush and a fresh t-shirt. My heart sank. My bag was no where to be found. I did not panic, however. I had experienced this feeling many times before, only to discover that my bag had simply fallen into the back seat or been wedged behind the cooler. This time it was not. The bag was gone. Later, we pieced together that a member of the band (who will remain unnamed) had stopped at some point in the middle of the night to get something out of his/her own bag, placed mine on the wheel well of the trailer, and accidentally taken off, leaving the bag’s approximate location somewhere between northern Tennessee and New Jersey.
It was not such a bummer, though. As I am more than willing to admit, I have easily the worst fashion sense in the band. I probably get this sense (or lack thereof) from my father, who went to get clothes at the TN department store “Goody’s” sometime around the year I was born and decided that would probably be all the shopping he would ever need to do. In fact, of the three “gig appropriate” shirts I had packed for the trip, one was Cruz’s and the second was my roommate’s, who decided when I was asked to join the band that I needed it more than he did. There were three cherished items, however, that are now lost forever…. 1. My moisture-wicking West Virginia athletic shirt, given to me by Patrick Hall the day after my 23rd birthday. 2. My spit-caked, Texas flag emblazoned high school retainer (perhaps the least rock and roll item ever lost in a traveling musicians bag.) and 3. A never before worn t-shirt of one of my favorite new bands, Humming House (from Nashville), that featured a giant white llama on a green back-drop. The third loss was made even more heart breaking when days later I found out (from a reliable source in a Thomas, WV bar) that backpacking trips in Montana often keep several llamas in tow to ward off bears (apparently, the bears are frightened by the llamas’ unfamiliar, peculiar appearance). Not only had I lost a sweet new shirt, but also a stylish, comfortable bear repellant. Anywho, with the help of my folks (who had flown up from TX for the show) and shirt donations from the incredibly fine people of The Burning Bridge Tavern in Wrightsville, PA, I was able to piece together plenty of things to wear for the upcoming shows. Rock and Roll!
Speaking of which, the first show of the trip was a big old heaping pile of awesome that went down at, wait for it, Madison Square……….Park. The crowd was substantial and attentive and included (among many others) my mom, pop, sister, brother-in-law, childhood friend Clara, and dental wizard/band friend Kamand. We also found a new friend in an ornery, stuffed raccoon (pictured below) that had apparently made an appearance at every concert at MSP for the last two years. It was a pretty interesting experience pouring thick, juicy waves of Americana music over the sonic backdrop of bustling Manhattan, but Tom took full advantage of the ruckus; incorporating ambulance sirens and various other noises he heard into his pedal steel lines. The Madison Square Park Conservancy later called the show “one of the most rocking Studio sets the park has ever hosted”. (You can watch a high quality video of “Ramblin’ Boy” from the gig here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTwVeM_96bE)
The following night we played at a great venue down the road called “Hill Country BBQ”. It was a pretty surreal experience; walking into to the club/restaurant off of the crowded New York streets I was immediately reminded of the feel/asthetic of many of the popular BBQ joints I use to frequent in and around Austin (I found out later that the owners are from Lockhart, a smoked meat mecca). The gig went well, and as an encore we debuted an acoustified version of the Zombies classic “Time of the Season”, with the whole audience singing along.
A gig-less Monday had us saying farewell to the Big Apple and hello to the historic city (definitely look it up) of Wrightsville, PA. The Burning Bridge Tavern is run by some of the kindest, most hospitable people you could ever hope to meet and not only did they clothe me, but they put us all up for two nights and fed us four hearty meals free of charge. Super kind folks, super cool bar. The final stop of the mini-tour was another one of the band’s favorite clubs, the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, WV. As usual, the place was packed to the gills with friendly, smiling faces ready to get up and get down. Afterwards, we repaired to a local bar where, to build team strength and unity, I instigated a series of “trust falls” among the band and bar patrons. The camaraderie flowed freely and everyone ended up having a few laughs; except for Cruz, who was way too trusting of an overly inebriated man and ended up with several bruised ribs.
Well there it is, as up to date as I am liable to get for the time being. Now I would like to briefly ask you, the blog reader/Black Lillies fan’s, for a little bit of assistance. You see, as a traveling musician chronicling my experiences, I end up from time to time finding myself feeling a bit like Guy Fieri. For those not in the know, Guy Fieri is a big, frosted-tipped goober who hosts a show my pop watches on Food Network called “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives”. Every week Guy cruises around the country sampling various dishes from some of America’s best, as the title states, diners, drive-ins, and dives. It is actually a pretty entertaining show, and the best part is that 12 to 15 times an episode this spikey-haired little cheeseball has to come up with a new, trendy way to say, “That dish tastes really good”. Similarly, sometimes when I think about trying to write blog posts at various points in our journeys all that comes to mind are variations on “The gig in (insert city here) was really fun.” That’s why I would like to enlist your help in what will hopefully be an on and off Q&A section between ya’ll and the Lillies. Not only will it provide you with little insights into what things are really like with the band, but it will also give me (the newest member) an opportunity to find out more about my band mates and the four years before I joined. Questions can either be directed towards specific band members (“Dear Bobby, You have a red beard. What is that like?”) or towards the band in general (“How does Bobby’s red beard affect the rest of the group?”). You can submit them underneath this blog’s post on the facebook page, or in the “comments” section of this blog. Lastly, I know with our friends/fans this probably goes without saying, but please only submit questions that you would feel comfortable having your grandmother answer (if your grandmother was in the Black Lillies). Hopefully these questions will provide more blog posts when nothing particularly bizarre is happening on the road. Yeah! America(na)!
We had a blast playing NPR’s Mountain Stage a couple of months ago. It was our second time on the show – our first marked the very first time we played on a nationally-broadcast program! The second time around was MUCH more comfortable and less nerve-wracking. The episode is airing now on NPR affiliate stations throughout the country, or you can click here to listen online.
September 2, 2013- In Black Lillies real time we are currently camped out in a Holiday Inn (Express) in the bustling ski town of Sandpoint, Idaho. In the off season, both visitors and residents alike trade their poles for beers and their skis for dancing shoes in a celebration of three Lillie favorites; food, drink, and a good time. Blog time, however, finds our heroes significantly further south and, due to a certain author’s literary negligence, significantly further in the past. As they approached the Mile High City, a peculiar athletic fervor had overtaken our five musical comrades; and so unfolds “The Colorado Calisthenic Chronicles”.
Chapter One- The Dojo
August 19, 2013- We are very privileged in this band to have many friends and family across the country willing to put us up for the night in our musical travels. These accommodations range from one bedroom apartments to mansions, but the one constant is always a warm reception and the best hospitality a road weary musician could ever hope to receive. To anyone reading this who has or ever will house us for the night, our gratitude extends beyond what words can express.
As we rolled into Denver in the late evening, it was clear that this house would be one of the more lavish we have ever encountered. It had every amenity needed for a classicly “sweet” home….. jacuzzi, grill, volley ball court, UFC Dojo…….wait WHAT?! That’s right, those athletes that figured boxing was for softies honed their ability to wreck opponents’ faces in a shed directly adjacent to the house where we were staying. So we did what any road exhausted traveler would do and headed to the Ultimate Fighter training facility for a little “R n’ R”.
It is hard to accurately portray the supreme incongruity of five artistically inclined musicians living a overwhelmingly sedentary lifestyle hanging out and relaxing in a place where dudes and girls train to annihilate one another, but that is exactly what happened….. Tom, in his tie dye shirt and cowboy boots sipped an IPA between sets of leg presses. Bobby, in Chacos and home made cutoffs, tried to find his max bench press (surprisingly high). When I snapped a picture on my phone of Cruz proudly hoisting the unadorned bench press bar, he suggested that I could photoshop some additional weight on the bar later (I unfortunately can’t, sorry dude!). Other highlights included TGB sparring with Cruz’s brother in a full on “Joe Dirt”- style mullet wig (pictured above on Bobby Dix, looking disconcertingly natural) and getting to slide down a hidden fire station pole (by the way, the house also had a hidden fire station pole).
Chapter Two: The Five B’s
August 21, 2013- The only thing particularly noteworthy about this night was that it was probably the best night ever. Moe’s Original BBQ in Englewood, CO officially monopolized awesome when they decided to combine the four things that everyone in the world that believes in fun loves… BBQ, Music, Bowling, and Alcohol. That why I can pretty succinctly sum up the night with the five B’s; Bowling, Band, Beer, BBQ, Bowman.
For those not into the whole brevity thing (first and last “Big Lebowski” reference), here’s the longer version…. The brisket sandwich was one of the finest I have had outside the Lonestar State (a compliment I do NOT give lightly). The gig was a true delight and included fans who had seen us previously in DC and Thomas, WV (truly impossible to have a bad gig with WV fans in the audience). TGB and I bowled a game which started with her claiming ,”I have not played in 10 years, so take it easy on me” and ended with me (figuratively) weeping in defeat (she would later go on to beat every other member of the band at least once).
Chapter Three: Running is Easy (when large animals are chasing you)
August 22, 2013- Inspired by the recent trip to the Dojo, I decided to actually act on my weekly impulse to “start running again”. I have been an occasional runner for a little while now, but like most things simultaneously beneficial and painful I have often been able to prevent actual action by telling myself “well, it’s the thought that counts” (note: thoughts do not make you physically healthier). This time, however, I decided to actually run, and set off at a comfortable pace on the gravel road that snaked by the house. Within one hundred yards something I had forgotten about the city of Denver became painfully clear. Because of it’s incredibly high altitude, Denver is pretty much devoid of oxygen. This quickly turned my signature running move from “gasping for breath” to “slowly suffocating”. As I lumbered doggedly down the trail contemplating the irony of dying while exercising, I noticed a brown and black blur out of the corner of my vision. The blur, seemingly immune to trivial things like lack of breathable air, was headed rapidly towards me, and appeared to be in the shape of a large Rottweiler. Before my mind could fully comprehend what was happening, my once useless legs were amazingly racing me to the only available cover; a large, decorative outcropping of rocks. I scrambled up a boulder just in time, and the dog pulled up short. I have always loved dogs, and while I was not about to go down and try to befriend this particular dog, I figured if I just let it bark at me for a while it would eventually go away. In fact, as I stood on top of the rock trying to catch whatever breath was available to me a mile above sea level my only concern was that the dog’s owner might show up. Speaking from experience, there is nothing worse than a dog snapping at you or chasing you into a awkward situation, only to have its master come up and say something like, “O, I don’t know why you went up a tree. Fluffy wouldn’t hurt a fly!” or even worse, “Just relax…. he can smell fear.” Luckily, no one showed up, and the dog finally left me alone to contemplate the hidden dangers of getting in shape.
Thanks for reading! Come see us on the road!
PS. This blog post is dedicated to Patrick Hall for stirring me from my writing lethargy and getting me a sweet West Virginia shirt for my birthday. It is also dedicated to my mom. Because I love my mom.
August 13, 2013- It’s funny how three feet away from you someone can be fulfilling a childhood fantasy while you stand idly by, wondering, “Who is that man, and why is he affectionately fondling Robert’s bicep?” Let me back up…………. Tuesday. One week ago. The Grand Ole Opry. We had just finished a great photo shoot for the University of Tennessee and Knox County Public Library’s reading campaign and were lounging around backstage. The show was still hours from starting and Tom, Robert, Cruz and I decided to head to the Opryland Mall to grab some sandwiches. While Tom, Robert and I were waiting for Cruz in the hallway backstage, a man of both a distinguished age and appearance approached us, hand out- stretched. “Hey, great to meet you!” he said, pumping each of our hands enthusiastically. When he got to Bobby, he took it one step further; grabbing Robert’s bicep and endearingly massaging it with his hands. It’s difficult to explain, but the unusual gesture was not creepy in the slightest; more like an out of town uncle reconnecting with a nephew he had not seen in several years. Robert in turn did what anyone in such a position would naturally do, and flexed his muscle proudly. They stood together smiling ear to ear for a brief second and then the man waved and disappeared into the backstage catacombs of the Opry.
I was the first to break the magic. “Who was that guy?” I innocently asked. Immediately an avalanche of disbelief broke forth within the band. Apparently, “that guy” was Randy Owen, singer of the legendary country band Alabama, who have sold over three million records for every year I have spent on this earth (73 million to date). At the time I only knew Alabama as the band that wrote “Dixieland Delight”, which is a lot like only knowing Abraham Lincoln as the dude from that Daniel Day-Lewis movie (which I never saw). That perception was about to change, however, as I stood side stage for their set later that night and ended up knowing every single one of the four songs they played. Apparently, whether you know it or not, just by virtue of being born in America with a functional pair of ears you probably know at least a handful of Alabama songs. They are that good.
To fill in the rest of the evening… played 3 songs (The Fall, Whiskey Angel, Smokestack) directly before Alabama with special guests Kimber Ludiker (of the incredible Boston based string band “Della Mae”) on fiddle and Matt Menefee (of Big and Rich, and a bunch of other sweet bands) on banjo. It’s amazing when two musicians can come in and rehearse each song once in the dressing room and then absolutely nail it on the Opry stage in front of thousands of people. Trisha Gene’s Mom and (I believe) 86 year old grandma came and cheered us on. And did I mention we got to watch Alabama play?
To fill in on the rest of the week… Great time spent in Kentucky/Iowa/Illinois/Nebraska which involved the following activities (in no particular order) 1. Jammin’ with “The Deadly Gentleman” (Look them up!) 2. Getting a wine named after the band 3. Getting hit by a car while carrying a Subway sandwich 4. Meeting Robert’s niece 5. Driving through lots of corn; along with the usual meeting/seeing friends and amazing people all across this beautiful country.
My computer access is limited, but if there are people out there reading this besides just my mom (even though I love my mom); I (and potentially other Lillies) will try to keep ya’ll periodically updated on our cross country adventures on this blog. Until next time!
Finding a relatively quiet space to conduct an interview during a music festival can be daunting, but conducting an interview of five people, in this scenario the Knoxville, Tennessee-based Americana favorites The Black Lillies, is a remarkable challenge, only because rounding up said band in a bustling festival environment takes on a life of its own.
“Like herding cats,” jokes singer Tricia Gene Brady, as we watch as the other members of the group disappear then reappear out of the moving MerleFest crowds on the campus of Wilkes Community College towards our destination: a classroom building on the edge of the festival grounds.
After scanning the building’s hallways for empty space, joined by the band’s manager Chyna Brackeen, we gather in a dimly lit classroom, eerily reminiscent of the early scene in the movie Sling Blade when a college reporter poses questions to Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl Childers character about his nightmarish past in a similar setting.
“This is kind of creepy, right?” lead singer and multi-instrumentalistCruz Contreras asks, as he takes in the shadows stretching across the room, cracking a smile on his face, as everyone does their best to settle into the less-than-friendly confines.Along with Contreras,the Black Lillies are the soulful songstress Brady, multi-instrumentalist and lead guitarist Tom Pryor, bassist Robert Richards, and drummer Jamie Cook. Pryor and Cook helped Contreras start the band, previously lending their talents to indie folk group the everybodyfields, Pryor also joining in with Contreras as part of Robinella and the CCstringband. Before joining the group in 2010, Brady performed solo as well as with Upland South and the Naughty Knots. Richards was the bassist for Jill Andrews, Brewster’s Millions, the Natti Lovejoys and Band of Humans prior to playing bass for the Black Lillies.
Contreras, born in the Midwest and raised in Nashville, makes a viable candidate for the face of American roots music. He is wearing a t-shirt, jeans and work boots. His black hair is tousled, with gray streaks fighting gravity to climb his sideburns, five-o’clock stubble working overtime on a beard. He carries a rugged yet boyish visage, a yin-yang of restlessness and contentment. He is forthright and friendly, smiling frequently, as if he’s waiting for a payoff on some prank he’s played to happen. Contreras is the real deal, of that there is no doubt, but of most importance, the story of his past could have written his future, but he has not let that story define him as a person or as a singer-songwriter.
Taking this into consideration, it comes as no surprise that Contreras is a longtime follower of the Chicago Cubs, who, even as the longest suffering franchise in Major League Baseball (105 years since a World Series title; ironically, the Cubs won previous back-to-back titles in 1907 and 1908), still covet a die-hard fan base which continuously sells out home games year after year at Wrigley Field. Like Contreras, the Wrigley faithful continue, even through this century-plus long cold streak, making the absolute best of less-than-ideal circumstances.
“Baseball’s all I think about, besides this,” he says, referencing his occupation as bandleader of the Black Lillies. “And baseball’s all I thought about before I played music.”
So yes, Cruz Contreras could give some valuable notes to his beloved ‘Lovable Losers’ the same way he’s taken pain, regret and heartbreak and turned it into a perennial winner. On their third studio album, Runaway Freeway Blues, the Black Lillies combine their unique mixture of blues, rock, country, bluegrass and jazz into their strongest and most ambitious album to date.
Contreras, who took up music in his early teens, formed The Black Lillies in 2008. Since that time, the Americana quintet has gained a loyal nationwide following, even in lieu of a record label and keeping a zip code outside of Nashville. They have been touring nonstop, earning fans with their sweat-soaked, foot-stomping ballads and a workingman’s diligence, show after show, night after night.
Taking a quick break from the road during a recent stopover in Wilkesboro, NC for MerleFest, they played a whopping four sets (throwing in a midnight show, for good measure) throughout the weekend.
For the Black Lillies, the work is worth the reward. “Yeah, this is one of the biggest festivals in the country, in any style of music,” Contreras says. “We’re known as an Americana band, and the whole roots that Doc (Watson) set through his music, and the people that have attached themselves to this, there’s a lot of musical integrity. This is a great place for us to showcase on that.”
“I call it ‘the professionals’ festival,” adds Brady. Richards agrees with Brady’s thoughts. “Seems to be a place where music lovers come, instead of…”
“Instead of partiers,” Cook interjects, before adding, “That kind of changes the whole game. People are actually going to remember what they saw and the whole vibe of the place is really different and it’s geared really more towards the music than the party.”
“I think we fit really well here because I think that everybody here feels like they should be able to approach that artist and talk to them,” Brady adds, speaking of any ‘gray space’ between artists and the festivalgoers. “I had a lot of people just walk right up to me and I love it, I think that’s great. I’m a real person, so just come on up to me.”
Growing up in Nashville, Cruz Contreras learned music from his father, getting his start with his brothers and sister, training on classical piano then the guitar. After playing music alongside his younger brother Billy during his high school days, Contreras left Music City for Knoxville to study classical piano at the University of Tennessee, where he also met his future wife, Robin Ella Tipton (now Bailey). The two married, first forming The Stringbeans, and in the late 1990’s started the progressive bluegrass/jazz group Robinella and the CCstringband, flirting with national prominence signing with Columbia Records and appearing on The Late Show with Conan O’Brien.
Contreras and Tipton divorced in 2007, thus dissolving the band. After his divorce, Contreras came to a crossroads, unsure of what to do with his life as well as any future in music. In 2008, he spent a year with a truck driving gig hauling stone, yet as he labored, his mind kept drifting back to the string music he loved listening to on the radio. Eventually, the feeling was too strong to ignore. His inspiration back in place, Contreras began gathering musicians to form a band. First a jazz piano trio, then a mandolin trio, each time working to get the sound Contreras had in mind.
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 andthe 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.
For the past four years, Jamie Cook has been keeping us steady (on drums and in general!). He has been with the band since the very beginning, when a big Saturday night show meant hanging out on the porch and jamming with some friends. Jamie is an amazingly talented musician, and some of you have been lucky enough to see him perform his own songs … which he has been recording for the past year and will soon release publically.
As many of you know, Jamie has been on a leave of absence from the band for the past several weeks in order to tend to a family health matter. It is with mixed emotions that we announce that Jamie will be leaving the band in order to focus more fully on his own musical projects. Jamie is and always will be a part of our family. His influences on this band will be felt for years to come, and we will miss him – but know that there are great things in store for him.
In Jamie’s absence, drummer Bowman Townsend has been touring with us. (You might recognize him from the song “Baby Doe” on our new album RUNAWAY FREEWAY BLUES – that’s him keeping the beat.) Over the past several weeks, we’ve had a blast playing with and getting to know Bowman. His energy and enthusiasm are contagious, and he’s an incredibly talented drummer.
We are happy to announce that the fun is going to continue … Bowman will be joining us full-time. We’re excited to continue working with him and we know you’re all going to love him. He gets to play his very first Grand Ole Opry on Tuesday, so y’all tune in and listen for him … and please help us welcome him to the band!