Clutching a pair of vintage yellow lamps he bought two hours ago, Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras strolls past the sleek, modern front office of Gay Street's Attack Monkey Productions and heads downstairs into his band's de facto headquarters: a messy quasi-living room littered with effects pedals, musical instruments, and shabby furniture. To his right is a media shelf filled with CDs, separated by genre and other categories—jazz, country, local, independent; on his left, a roughed-up Fender Rhodes piano.
"This is my crash pad," he says.
Crouching to the floor, Contreras pulls a hidden latch to open a trap door that leads to another stairway, which leads to another basement—one that vaguely resembles a medieval dungeon. Dirty and mostly bare, it hardly looks like a functioning rehearsal space.
"There's no dead bodies down here," he says, a coy grin punctuating his scraggly, country-boy beard. "I promise."
Contreras has big plans for the basement, which he is in the process of converting into a rehearsal space for the band. He's spent most of the day in local thrift stores, finally ending up with the yellow lamps he's holding.
"In a few days, you won't be able to recognize this place."
He also has big plans for his band, which has undergone its own extensive renovation since forming in 2009. Fans familiar with Contreras from his former band, the CCstringband, or the Black Lillies' casual early shows, might not recognize the seasoned group they have become. They played more than 230 shows in 2012, while also finding time to record their third and most fully developed album, Runaway Freeway Blues. They have earned spirited praise from all over the country, including from Nashville's country-music industry, and now they're set to play their first headlining show at the Tennessee Theatre to celebrate the release of their new album.
In many ways, this long-awaited homecoming performance will serve as a victory lap for the band, whose quick ascent to regional success with national potential almost didn't get off the ground in the first place. But it's also the beginning of a new chapter, with brand-new challenges.
Contreras, a Nashville native, moved to Knoxville in 1995, when he enrolled at the University of Tennessee's jazz program and studied piano under renowned pianist/composer Donald Brown. This was the beginning of his musical education: learning to "look at music like a visual artist," absorbing technical theories, scale degrees, and tonal colors.
"The way he taught me was something that could be applied to any style of music," Contreras says. "And what was awesome when I studied there was that he very much supported me in playing any kind of music. He knew that I was into country music and bluegrass, and he never had a single issue with it. He was like, ‘I see you doing this or that—go for it!' A lot of teachers want you to be a certain way, but the best have very open minds. They can respect and appreciate art done well in any genre."
That open-minded approach to songwriting eventually led to Robinella and the CCstringband, an eclectic outfit formed during his time at UT with his ex-wife, Robin Ella Bailey. With her effortless, expressive voice and the band's deft blend of country and bluegrass with soul, pop, and jazz, it didn't take long for them to find an appreciative audience. After releasing two albums independently—and earning a reputation as ace live performers on the local scene—the band signed a deal with Columbia Records, which released their self-titled record in 2003.
Suddenly, what had started as a simple artistic outlet for a gang of like-minded college kids turned into a legitimate business—one filled with tour buses and contracts and label executives. The music was flourishing, but it came at a price: In an attempt to rebrand the band and associate them with emerging artists like Norah Jones, Columbia dropped the "CCstringband" from their name, effectively marketing the group as a solo act with backing musicians. The marketing campaign didn't work; the group failed to generate either significant sales or a breakthrough hit with Columbia. In 2006, the band, now billed simply as Robinella, released the very well-received Solace for the Lonely on Nashville indie label Dualtone Records. But the damage was done. Resentments lingered—both artistic and personal—and Contreras' marriage was disintegrating.
"I try not to dwell on that," he says. "It's kind of like a past chapter. All that goes back to ending a marriage, which is something you want to learn from and move on from. But there's no doubt that, without that life-changing experience, I wouldn't have—I don't know how to say it—felt the necessity of making something happen for myself."
Disillusioned with music and life in general, Contreras nabbed a job driving a truck hauling stones. Accompanied only by his own dejection, he took solace in the country music coming out of his radio. This marked a new chapter—a winding road that eventually led to the Black Lillies.
"I just had a lot of time to think," he says. "I had to deal with the divorce, the emotional issues, and I really was convinced that music had ruined my life. I thought I'd put too much time and focus on it and ruined a marriage. So I thought, ‘I'm never gonna do that again.' But what happened was, when I was driving, like anybody, you start listening to what you actually want to listen to, and I started listening to WDVX and really getting pumped up about the music. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I forgot. This is what got me into it in the first place.'"
In the evenings after work, he started playing gigs around Market Square with a jazz piano trio. "I was like, ‘What have I done with my life? I went to college to study jazz piano, so why am I not playing jazz piano?'"
But he couldn't escape the lingering pull of string music. He quickly founded a new trio based around his mandolin playing, and then found local vocalist Leah Gardner, who helped cement the first incarnation of the Lillies.
"We booked two shows at the Preservation Pub, and those were the first songs I sang on a microphone," he says. "It was a pretty scary, exhilarating moment. As much as I'd been onstage playing, working as a bandleader and arranger, singing is a whole other thing. Especially growing up playing acoustic music, I just hadn't even played on a sound system like that very much. So I'm like, ‘I don't know what it's going to sound like.'
"I was working all day, and I was able to be productive in just a few hours at the end of the day," he says. "I was highly motivated. I had plenty to write about and think about, and I just put it all into songs. It was good. I didn't have to go to therapy. No shrink—that was my therapy."
With a veteran roster of local musicians—Gardner, pedal-steel whiz/guitarist Tom Pryor, drummer Jamie Cook, and bassist Jeff Woods—Contreras formed the initial Black Lillies lineup. They recorded their debut album, 2009's Whiskey Angel, in the living room of Contreras' North Knoxville house, and within a matter of months, they played Bonnaroo—their second show together ever.
Chyna Brackeen, the band's manager and Contreras' then-neighbor, saw that show with her husband and remembers it as a crucial turning point.
"It was one of those things where we felt kind of obligated to go see him because he was our neighbor, playing opposite Bruce Springsteen," she says. "We figured we would go, catch a song or two, stay there long enough for him to see that we made an appearance, and get out. We got there, and nobody was at this tiny stage. It was pretty obvious that there was not going to be a way to leave gracefully. But then they started playing, and they were really, really good. And all of a sudden, people were walking past the stage to go to Bruce Springsteen's set, and they're hearing the Black Lillies and turning back and staying—they're dancing and really responding to the music. We go from the only people standing at this stage to actually having a really sizable crowd."
A former marketing director at AC Entertainment—the local music-promotion company that organizes Bonnaroo—Brackeen was at a crossroads herself, burned out on her role in the music industry and desperately searching for a fresh perspective. Seeing the raw potential of her neighbor's new band was a wake-up call, a fuse that ignited a new life and career.
Using her reservoir of radio contacts, she shopped around the band's debut album to anyone who would listen. Within days of the Bonnaroo show, she'd secured the Black Lillies airplay on Asheville's WNCW and noticed a flurry of positive feedback on Twitter. Soon, she started receiving formal booking requests—all for a band whose members hardly even knew if they were a real band to begin with.
It was all happening too fast for Contreras, who, after his negative experiences a few years before, still viewed the music industry as evil, manipulative, and counterproductive. But Brackeen's persistence and dedication—coupled with a 24-page managerial manifesto—helped convince Contreras he was in good hands.
"I didn't know if I wanted to be in the music industry," Brackeen says, "And I knew he felt completely burned and didn't want to trust anybody. So I knew, even though he asked me to manage him, it would be hard to gain his trust and turn things over to me. And he wasn't sure if he even wanted the Black Lillies to be a professional thing at this point. But I talked to Cruz, and he said something to me that I will never forget. It probably sounds completely ridiculous, but in the moment, it made everything so clear. He said, ‘You and I are cowboys. We don't do things the regular way. We can't follow what everybody else wants us to do. We have to do things our way.'
"I don't know if I've ever said this to him, but I feel like when he and I met each other, we were both kind of broken. And we needed each other to help put together the pieces."
After several years of intense work, the band now has a devoted and sizable audience waiting for its music. With their sophomore album, 2011's 100 Miles of Wreckage, the Lillies developed and refined the sound of their debut, employing a more lush, nuanced brand of Americana. They made progress commercially, too, earning five months on the Americana Music Association radio charts and even scoring CMT buzz with their video for "Same Mistakes." Consistently selling out local shows, they were also expanding their reach nationally, including performances at the legendary Grand Ole Opry, where they've performed 15 times.
"We did an interview at the WSM Studios, which is in the Opryland Hotel, and WSM is the station that's the home of the Grand Ole Opry," Brackeen says. "As you drive in, there's a big billboard that shows who's playing the Opry coming up. I have a son—he's 8 years old now—and at the time, he watched this show called iCarly on Nickelodeon. And there was a girl on that show who's on the billboard for the Grand Ole Opry. I thought, ‘What in the world? Some little teeny-bopper is coming to the Opry to sing? If she can do it, this band should be playing the Opry.' There's no excuse at that point. They're good enough—they should be there."
Brackeen scrapped and charmed and begged her way into the Opry's good graces, starting with Joe Limardi, the program director at WSM and a fan of the band.
"WSM ran a contest with SonicBids to find the opening act for our annual anniversary concert at the Ryman Auditorium in 2009," Limardi says in an e-mail interview. "They stood out as the clear choice to be the opening act for Patty Loveless. From there, I felt it was important for their music to be heard on our global platform and ultimately to play the Opry. My definition of Americana music has passion, heart and a true spirit behind it. As the Black Lillies continue to evolve, their music embodies all of these aspects, and I believe they have a long-standing place in the Americana genre."
A setback in 2010 actually led to an important step in the band's evolution. Gardner left the group when she decided she couldn't continue juggling music with her life at home. The loss was potentially devastating to the band's progress, since their songs are specifically designed around male-female harmonies. But they charged forward: After sorting through endless contacts and MySpace pages, Brackeen suggested Trisha Gene Brady, who had been singing in the group the Naughty Knots. Contreras had met her singing around local campfires.
The key, says Brackeen, was finding a good vocalist with the "perfect amount of sass." Brady's spitfire charm is now an essential ingredient of the band's style.
Runaway Freeway Blues is an album informed by life on the road. Recorded during a 10-day sprint in October, Contreras and the current Black Lillies lineup—Pryor, Cook, Brady, and new bassist Robert Richards—found themselves finishing it while they were on tour, coordinating overdubs and listening to mixes from engineer Scott Minor, mostly late at night after shows, via cell phone and e-mail.
"Even twice during our tour, I flew back one night and drove back in the middle of the night to work a couple extra days," Contreras says. "I think it all worked out well, but I will try to avoid doing that again. It was like making the record under a little bit of duress."
"It seems like every record has been kind of a seat-of-your-pants experience," Cook says. "It seems like there's no reason to expect this one to be any different."
Yet, where the first two albums were recorded almost completely live in the studio, Runaway Freeway Blues is carefully sculpted with multiple takes, edits, and overdubs. It's a true artistic breakthrough, mostly because Contreras sounds liberated as a songwriter.
"I wanted to deconstruct the songs a little bit," Contreras says. "I went in by myself and broke down the songs and thought about what they really need—not just going on auto-pilot."
The album explores subtle new sonic shades, like the horns-and-Rhodes piano soul of "Baby Doe" or the layered fiddle/steel-guitar dreaminess of "Catherine." Contreras focuses his lyrics more on stories and imagery rather than wallowing in heartbreak.
"I applaud the band's decision to be a little more aggressive with their sound while maintaining the essence of their roots backgrounds," Limardi says. "Performances are stronger, more confident. Cruz has always been able to paint a picture with his songwriting, but recently, the writing has gone past a picture and into actually drawing you into the song. I don't feel like I'm an observer but a participant in some of the stories behind the songs."
Along with "Catherine," the album's centerpiece is "Goodbye Charlie," a twangy acoustic fever dream about the Vietnam War.
"That was written for a guy named Joe McGuire, who's like my mom's guy," Contreras says. "They've been together for quite a few years. He's from Donaldson, Tenn., and he went to UT, probably failed out. Definitely got drafted in '67, and he was in for quite a while and kind of just told me his story over time.
"My son, Cash, got up real early one morning and wanted me to get up. Musicians' schedules—you usually don't jump out of bed at 7 a.m. He's like, ‘I'm gonna get you!' He had all these Army toys for Christmas, and he surrounded me with all these guns and missiles and artillery. I started having this lucid dream, and this ‘Goodbye Charlie' thing suddenly came to me. I got up and immediately started writing. This character is propelled into this bigger-than-life, survival situation.
"People come up at the show, whether it's a veteran or someone who's lost a child in Iraq. You don't think about those things when you're writing a song, what kind of an effect it will have on people. I had this complex for a lot of years where I felt like playing music was a selfish endeavor. I was probably made to believe that by certain people in my life, and I enjoyed it so much that I probably believed them. But I always wondered, ‘How do you give back?'"
The life of a professional traveling musician requires sacrifices. For Contreras' son, Cash, the notion of giving back isn't so concrete. The 8-year-old lives in Maryville with Robinella, his mother, and the distance is painful for both father and son.
"The other day, he looked at me and said, ‘You should be around more,'" Contreras says. "That's what he told me. It's really heavy. ... I think when a child is really young, you're just meeting their moment-to-moment needs. They need to be fed and clothed. As they get older, they're turning into people—they have their own hopes and thoughts and expectations. So he and I, in the father-son relationship, we need each other more than we ever have in that way. This winter, I've actually had a lot of time off, which has been really, really important. I was gone so much last year. ... I'd be gone, say, two months. And I'd see him and think, ‘I've flat-out missed a lot of time.' And it's not just fluffy, like, ‘Oh, I missed this and that.' It's like he's growing up without his dad there, and what did I not teach him that he should know?
"It's a big motivator. I'm 36 years old. I'm not just out there trying to gallivant around the country. I want to make this happen. We have this silly idea—it's not a silly idea, I'm probably just embarrassed to say it out loud, but we want to buy some land and raise some buffalo. It's like we've gotta have something we can do together that we're working for."
Watch your step," Contreras says, descending the stairs down to the Attack Monkey basement, where the Black Lillies are setting up for a quick run-through of a few songs.
"So—do you recognize this place?"
In a mere five days, Contreras has transformed this primitive pit into a legitimate rehearsal space, big enough to fit a drum kit, piano, bass, steel guitar, mics, and amplifiers. It's also decked out in furniture and memorabilia with an appropriate vibe: a pair of wooden chairs Contreras picked up at AMVETS, two large stage backdrops used during a show at the Bijou, a Six Shooter Records poster that reads, "Life is too short to listen to shitty music." At the foot of the steps is a mirror he picked up at Knox Salvage; attached is a piece of fabric inscribed with a simple message: "If you ain't cowboy, you ain't shit." In the corner, neatly arranged on a pair of end tables, are those two yellow lamps he had carried down.
Pryor is hunched over his steel guitar. A long-time veteran of Knoxville bands like the everybodyfields and one of the area's most underrated musicians, he speaks in a low rumble, saying little during the band's rehearsal. Instead, he talks through his instruments, improvising spectacular, jazzy licks during the dust-blown country churn of "Smokestack Blues," transforming the track into something wild and chaotic.
"I had no idea what the hell you had under that door," says bassist Richards. He and Cook, the drummer, nestle into a nimbly tossed-off jazz-fusion groove, trading smiles and glances, before teasing a section of what sounds like Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." In this relaxed atmosphere, the Black Lillies show a more free-spirited approach to their material; during a gorgeous version of "Catherine," Richards seems transported—eyes closed, head back, adding funky rhythmic accents to the song's emotional climax.
"I'm proud of this space," Brady says. "It's nice to know we have a place to land when we get home next time. Now we have a place to hang our posters that we get on our road.
"Make sure nothin' falls on my head!" she says with a giggle, eyeing the patchy ceiling material above. When Contreras asks who's ready to play a new number, "All This Living," she responds enthusiastically. "It's one of my favorites!" she hollers, more like a fan of her own band than an actual member.
As comfortable as the band seems to feel in this setting, formal rehearsals haven't been a regular feature of their time together.
"This happened only a few times last year, with drums and everything," Cook says. "We've kind of grown to be pretty adaptable. You can run a song and just sit there and watch, and that's rehearsal. And we work a lot of stuff out onstage, night after night. We don't really do a lot of rehearsing."
The band is gearing up for a 10-performance sprint at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, but more exciting is their upcoming show at the Tennessee Theatre, a venue they've played in before, but never as headliners. Instead of anxiety, the band projects an effortless confidence, running through five tracks with barely a hiccup.
"I haven't touched the drums at all over the break," Cook says as the band members head down Gay Street after practice toward their white tour van. "I think, after the last tour we did, if it's not ingrained in us at this point, it's never gonna be."
"The Knoxville audience is pretty energetic," Contreras adds, nestling into the driver's seat as the rest pile in. "They'll let you know they're there. They just kinda pick you up and carry you along."
The band trades playful barbs in the backseat, poking fun at Contreras' driving skills, as the frontman pulls off Gay Street and positions the van on a deserted train track. They've been racking their brains for a fitting photo op all afternoon, but Contreras has big ideas.
"You know what? Let's do this," he says. "We're no strangers to train tracks."
It's freezing outside, and windy—hardly the ideal conditions for an outdoor photo shoot. Contreras climbs on top of the van, laughing and flexing in a he-man pose as the photos snap away.
"There's no one formula," he says. "There's no rules. But the fact is that you have to stay together and work together, trying to nurture and develop a common goal and vision for the band. At this point, a lot of it has been survival—get to the next gig, play, and hopefully I can pay my bills. I think we're really close to that point where, when we get onstage, we can look each other in the eye and say, ‘All right, we know what we're about here. Let's go do it and do it really well.'"
In this moment, wind at their backs, the Black Lillies seem ready for anything.