Cruz Contreras Steps Into Spotlight with Black Lillies

Contreras joined a group of Knoxville music veterans last fall to form the Black Lillies and their debut, Whiskey Angel.

Cruz Contreras, the singer and songwriter for the new band the Black Lillies, recently devoted a couple of years to finding his voice—both literally and figuratively—by pulling from a wide range of musical influences. If the Black Lillies' new album Whiskey Angel is any indication, it was time well spent.

Contreras spent the late 1990s and early '00s performing with his now ex-wife, Robinella, and the CCstringband. After the marriage and band ended, he took a couple of years off from music before emerging last year as leader and frontman of the Cruz Contreras Band. That fledgling solo project led to the formation last fall of the Black Lillies.

"I led a band for someone who did their own thing, so those were the parameters," he says. "Now there's no rules. I've just been in a real intense period in my life where I've got to do this, I want to do it, I know I can do it, and everyone's really trusted and supported me."

For the Black Lillies, Contreras joined a group of Knoxville music veterans: vocalist Leah Gardner (Maid Rite String Band), drummer Jamie Cook (the everybodyfields) and electric and pedal steel guitar player Tom Pryor (the everybodyfields and Whiskey Scars), and bassist Jeff Woods (Dark Mountain Orchid), as well as Cruz's brother Billy Contreras sitting in on fiddle.

Whiskey Angel can best be described as Americana, "but Americana in the broadest sense," Woods says. "It touches on most everything that Americana is. I don't think there's a lot left out as far as the canons of what popular music's been for the last 50 years."

A close listen to Whiskey Angel reveals significant rock, bluegrass, folk and blues influences, ranging from Hazel Dickens and Merle Haggard to less-obvious artists like Ray Charles, Gogol Bordello, and the Grateful Dead. "It's not twangy country or anything," Cook says. "It's more introspective than pop country is today; the themes run a little bit deeper than pickup trucks. I prefer to think of it in terms of Southern music, that tradition of whiskey-steeped balance. Like Hank Williams, it's the dichotomy of Saturday night and Sunday morning: You can do what you want on Saturday as long as you can support it on Sunday. And I think there's definitely both sides of that on the album."

Whiskey Angel was written in a living room in North Knoxville and recorded there virtually live over a single weekend. The album's highlight is the impressive vocal harmonies between Contreras and Gardner, especially considering Contreras' relative inexperience singing. "Yes I Know" is a rhythmic, sincere ballad from parent to child. (Cruz has a son, Cash, with his ex-wife) "Midnight" is a heart-wrenching examination of how easily a man's life can collapse; the chorus finds him at midnight under a Knoxville bridge, sorrowfully accepting the blame for his decisions but lamenting that "I never thought life would turn out this way." Listen to it in the right (or wrong) mood and it might bring tears to your eyes.

The title track, along with "There's Only One," shows the band's "more rowdy" side, as Gardner puts it. The vocal interplay between her and Contreras on "Little Darlin'" calls to mind the old-school exchanges of June Carter and Johnny Cash, while "Goodbye Mama Blues" is unapologetically funky in its ode to good times, good luck, and the wisdom that can come with hard living.

A standing-room-only crowd attended the Black Lillies' premiere performance and CD-release party in April at the Square Room, and the band just finished a performance at Bonnaroo.

"In my gut I really feel like this is the beginning of something that's going to be around for a while," Contreras says. "We've all got the mentality to really grow, and there are no rules on this—no label, no A&R, no publicist, no manager, no nothing. I like high-energy and intense music; I like the song that just makes you stop and listen to it. Even if it's an old mountain ballad, I want it to make you stop in your tracks."