In recent months, Cruz Contreras—songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and frontman for the Black Lillies—has learned what it's like to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, record at Sun Studios in Memphis, host a WSM radio show, and see his music videos on CMT, but when we caught up with him on the phone Tuesday, he was directing a construction project.
"You need a river and a lake," he says, "and some hills to make some contour." He's tending to some kids in a sandbox, among them his son, Cash. Combining single parenting and touring is difficult, but there's an upside. "Here it is, the middle of the day," he says, "and I'm playing in a sandbox."
Contreras still lives on Gay Street, but his 35th year amounts to an almost spiritual musical-heritage tour. This past Tuesday afternoon, he played DJ, hosting an hour-long show on WSM, spinning records. About a dozen times now, he and his band the Black Lillies—including pedal-steel man Tom Pryor, drummer Jamie Cook, bassist Robert Richards, and vocalist Trisha Gene Brady—have performed on the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Theater. Last week, they recorded several songs for a public-television series at Sun Records in Memphis.
"Talk about a mind-blowing experience you cannot be prepared for," Contreras says, speaking of his awe of the shrine, adorned with mementos of Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin' Wolf. "It's like stepping back in time."
He seems only politely interested in the result. Will it be on PBS? "I guess it should be, eventually," he says, trying to remember the name of the show. "I don't watch much TV." The Black Lillies will be on the Opry again on Sept. 29. This week, they're playing at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville on Thursday—and on Friday, Bristol's Rhythm & Roots. "It's a world-class festival," he says, one he reveres as a spectator.
And this coming Tuesday, Sept. 18, CMT will begin airing the Black Lillies' new video, for the song "Same Mistakes."
"We're right up there with the big dogs," Contreras says. He's especially happy about this video, directed by Nashville videographer David McClister—formerly of Bearden, McClister directed the Lillies' last video, "Two Hearts Down," the song that earlier this year won an Independent Music Award. The new video, a concept piece conjured by McClister, features several of Contreras' family and friends, many of whom have helped further his career, as well as his 8-year-old son. "Cash plays my son in the video," he says.
The awe of playing the Grand Ole Opry hasn't worn off. "In some ways, the Ryman is not a music venue first," he says. "It was a tabernacle, a church. It's actually laid out a little strange for a show. It's not the easiest room to get the most pristine sound. What makes it great is not some technical sonic aspect of the room, but the history, the legacy that I try to draw on.
"I think I can relate to a time when it was a little more raw," he continues. "When there were all those bars, like Tootsie's, and everybody was getting drunk and trying to write better songs. That's an energy we bring back to the show. We're not a slick package." When they first played the Opry, the audience seemed taken aback. "They were like, ‘Whoa, what was that?'"
The Black Lillies will be touring again later in the fall, with several shows booked in Missouri and Colorado; by then, Contreras hopes, they will have recorded a new album. "We're looking at studio time in October." He has a bundle of new songs, but hopes to write some more by then. The paradox of the songwriter's life is that the rush of rehearsal and performance is rarely conducive to writing. "We've been so busy, it's kind of laying on me a little bit," he admits.
Don't look for them here soon, though Contreras himself is playing a fund-raiser on Sept. 28 at the Riverdale Schoolhouse, a $60 gig for the French Broad Preservation Association.
"It would be good to have a CD release show in late winter," he says. Fans can help hasten the day by contributing to pledgemusic.com.