It’s a muggy Knoxville Friday afternoon, and Cruz Contreras has the day off. Well, almost. Besides filling a toy firehose with an arsenal of water for his young son and fielding phone calls from local musicians, he seems content to be hanging out and enjoying some family time at his home in North Knoxville. He’s been busy, too. He teaches music four days a week and played keyboards for Erick Baker recently at Sundown. But he’s got a lot on his own plate: He just played the Bluebird Café in Nashville, and he’s hoping to record his first record this summer with his new band.
Contreras is in the midst of a transition, emerging from a high-profile split with his wife, local musician and jazzy chanteuse Robinella, and subsequently leaving his post as her bandleader. The two formed the beloved Robinella & the CCstringband, gained a loyal following in town, signed a major recording deal, and toured the country with the likes of Bob Dylan. (Robinella still records, and she performs almost weekly, most Sundays at Barley’s in the Old City.)
Understandably, Contreras had a respite to weigh his options and reconsider his future in music. “Yeah, I struggled with it temporarily, but eventually playing music became a no-brainer again. But I took some time off last year after playing with Robin. I had just gotten so into running the band and playing for several years, I had really forgotten what I liked,” he says. “I got a job driving a truck; I had to pay the bills. I was working 10 hours a day and listened to a bunch of radio. I started listening to WDVX again and remembered all the kinds of music that really got me excited in the first place when I was a kid.”
After his hiatus, Contreras finally began performing live again last summer, playing some jazz piano shows and with a mandolin trio. “But I started missing songs, missing vocals, so I learned a couple of songs to just start going out and doing gigs.” He called up a bevy of old buddies to collaborate on writing some new material, booked some gigs at the Preservation Pub last December, and soon there was no turning back. “I think I’m hooked, it’s just been so rewarding.”
After finally cementing its inner circle, the group is now performing as the Cruz Contreras Band, lead by Contreras on vocals, electric guitar, and mandolin. He met guitarist Leah Gardner (also from the Maid Right String Band) after the two were hired to perform at a memorial service. Gardner and bassist Jeff Woods form the core of the band, with drummer Derrick Dickens coming on as a later addition.
The sound is mostly a mix of mid-tempo alt-country tunes and some plaintive ballads, though some have a rock edge. Lyrically, Contreras says the songs are pretty simple, but “ definitely bring on an emotional energy.”
As for the group’s upcoming shows, the audiences can expect two distinctly different approaches. “At our last show at the Grotto, we definitely rocked out. Jeff had his bass down on the ground and was gyrating. He was behind me, but people were screaming,” he says excitedly. “As far as the Blue Plate, we’ll lean towards the acoustic, more bluegrass side. Being at WDVX really puts me in that mindset, but we’ll have a lot of electric guitar at the Grotto.”
Contreras admits that fronting a group posed a few new musical challenges, and it took a performance or two to get used to his own singing voice. “It takes a completely different mindset. I got used to always leading the band and listening to what everyone else was doing. When you’re singing you have to worry about what you’re doing. You have to stay focused,” he says. “I was pretty much scared to death the first few times I did it. Before the first time in public at the Preservation Pub, I had never even sung on a mike before, but I just had to go for it. And now I love it!”