Tours can make or break bands. Long hours, close quarters, road food, and unfamiliar territory test the civility of even the tightest musical cohort. And while the title of the Black Lillies' new CD isn't technically a reference to the 40-date tour that shook them to the core, 100 Miles of Wreckage reflects the turbulence the band has experienced over the past two years.
In 2009, the Knoxville-based Americana band embarked on a cross-country tour of bars, clubs, and music festivals to support their debut record, Whiskey Angel.
"We were really gutsy," says Cruz Contreras, the band's singer and songwriter. "We had to make something happen. It was a good way to get things rolling." But by the end of that summer, he says, "we were pretty rode-hard and weary."
They gained many new fans along the way but lost founding member Leah Gardner to the rigors of the road. Her sweet harmonies were integral to the band's classic country sound, and her absence left a noticeable gap.
"Her being gone, wow, there was something missing," Contreras says. Topping the list of potential recruits was Trisha Gene Brady, a player Contreras knew from her role in the Naughty Knots as well as from social gatherings around campfires. She's the real deal, he says, a confident singer who makes a connection with listeners and understands the kind of mountain music at the core of the Black Lillies' sound.
Brady joined Contreras, Tom Pryor, Robert Richards, and Jamie Cook, and the band continued to perform and consider the next step—recording their sophomore album. In February 2010, armed with plenty of new songs, they again teamed up with Scott Minor, with whom they'd recorded Whiskey Angel, in his North Knoxville home studio. Contreras says he approached the recording sessions as he always has: Play well, but don't belabor the process, and try to capture the essence of a live performance in the studio setting. During the mixing sessions with Minor, Contreras says he felt some doubts about the recordings but forged ahead.
"I can't say I was completely happy with it, but I was like, all right. This is it. You get a chance. That's it. We did our best."
In March, Minor's close friend and Sparklehorse bandmate Mark Linkous committed suicide outside Minor's home. The singer/songwriter had been spending a lot of time in Knoxville and was making preparations to move here. Contreras had gotten to know Linkous and viewed him as a role model; he says Linkous helped him shake off the last vestiges of guilt he'd felt about making music for a living.
"I'd felt like I was messing around, being irresponsible and just indulging myself, that I should grow up and get a real job," Contreras says. "But then you realize that for some artists, it is a real job. They're professional and really good at it. Meeting Mark was great for me because I saw him as a guy doing really well; he'd made a career out of music. And he was very supportive of me, which meant a lot."
The project came to a halt as Minor helped with Linkous' arrangements, and the band left town to play its scheduled gigs. In that time, Contreras says he re-evaluated his ambivalent feelings about the studio recordings.
"I was like, ‘Wait a minute, there's no reason to sell myself short on this. This thing needs to be right, and there's no rush. It's more important that it comes out as the best record it can be than come out this month or whenever.'"
For the second recording session, Minor and the Black Lillies settled into the historic Riverside School off Thorngrove Pike in East Knox County. Contreras says the sound they captured there hit the mark, leaving only three tracks from the previous sessions on 100 Miles of Wreckage: "Same Mistakes;" "The Arrow," a duet with Jill Andrews; and "Tall Trees," an eight-minute triptych with a gospel section and an extended electric guitar and electric piano jam at the end. Contreras wrote the song after returning from the band's stint at 2009's Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
"There's definitely an element of alternate reality that goes on there," he says of the festival. Bonnaroo's uninhibited culture and inclination toward improvisational music inspired Contreras to deviate from his usual verse-chorus-verse approach.
"‘Tall Trees' has more imagery and metaphors, and I really thought about the parts," he says. "We don't play it at every show because sometimes people aren't ready to hear it. If they're expecting more traditional bluegrass or country, we don't always do it. But to me it's more like what I really love about music: busting out of the expectations."