‘Wreckage’ in bloom: The Black Lillies return with a new album and renewed determination
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Thanksgiving, 2009: The Black Lillies almost came to an end in Fargo, N.D.
After bursting out of the gate with the phenomenal album “Whiskey Angel,” the band led by Cruz Contreras found itself two weeks into a cross-country tour. Fraught with challenges and hardships, the band — Contreras, pedal steel player/guitarist Tom Pryor, drummer Jamie Cook, bass player Taylor Coker and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Leah Gardner — holed up in a Lutheran center and plotted the next move.
For Contreras, there was never any doubt. He’d given up everything — literally — to make the band work. He’d built it on the ashes of a marriage to East Tennessee songbird Robinella, whom he’d divorced two years prior. He’d poured all of the heartache and self-loathing into the songs on “Whiskey Angel,” and in emerging as a new force on the local music scene, he was ready to seize the opportunity for something bigger.
After years of toiling as the initials to his ex-wife’s project, he had come into his own, and despite the frozen landscape outside the window and the flagging spirits of those who had accompanied him that far, he knew what his decision would be.
“We were about to turn around and come home,” he recalled over a recent breakfast interview at Long’s Drug Store in Knoxville’s Bearden neighborhood. “But I was determined. I had nothing to go back to — I’d literally given away everything. I sat everything I owned on the sidewalk outside my apartment in North Knoxville, and it was gone in an hour. I’d given away my house, literally.
“I knew it would be a major defeat if we didn’t persevere through that, and I told everyone, ‘I’m not going to beg. I’m going on, even if I have to do it by myself.’”
It’s not hard to imagine the scenario — those eyes, heavy-lidded as always but brimming with the fevered touch of a man on a crusade … Pryor, nodding nonchalantly … Cook, loyal to the vision. Gardner, the vocalist around whom Contreras had built the Lillies’ male-female harmonies, opted out, however; Coker would follow a few months later.
Contreras hated to see them go … but when it comes to The Black Lillies, he answers to a higher calling. Friendship means a great deal, but the music means more. These days, it means everything, and so the band rolled on, making do and adjusting to the loss after dropping Gardner off in Denver. In the months to come, the band would add local singer-songwriter Trisha Gene Brady and bass player Robert Richards to the fold. A sophomore album, “100 Miles of Wreckage,” would be recorded.
This weekend, The Black Lillies celebrate the release of that album with a show at The Bijou Theatre. At press time, only a few tickets remained; by the time the show begins on Saturday night, chances are the band will be playing to a sold-out crowd.
It’s been a tumultuous journey, to say the least. But when the house lights dim and the band begins to play, Contreras may feel for the next couple of hours something akin to contentment.
It won’t last. For a guy like him, it never does; the road calls or the studio beckons or the muse demands to be let out. Ghosts of the past and specters of the future are never far from his thoughts, and the choices he’s made and will make are things he constantly second-guesses.
All save for one — the direction in which he’s headed.
“The further I go down this path, the more certain that it’s what I’m meant to do,” he said. “For years, I felt guilty for playing music, like I wasn’t being responsible. I felt like I should get a 9-to-5 job. But that’s just not me. I just see it as the one constant in my life at this point. I mean, I’ve been doing it since I was 6, and it’s the one thing I could always do well.”
Finding his own path
For years, Contreras was known as the bandleader for the CCstringband, his ex-wife’s backing group. He produced the band’s albums and served as something of a de facto business manager until a major record label came calling; the band flirted with national fame for a while, even appearing on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” before moving to the Dualtone label.
The marriage would come to an end before a follow-up to “Solace for the Lonely” was recorded. High-profile by East Tennessee standards, the couple went through an awkward period of reestablishing themselves independent of one another. For Contreras, doing so seemed to take a bigger toll. During the summer of 2007, he got that 9-to-5 job driving a truck and took some time off from playing music, popping up periodically to take part in a jazz trio with Coker and keyboard player Mike Seal. At first, the group stuck to instrumentals, but Contreras felt something was lacking.
“Mike was always encouraging me to sing, and it felt like it needed vocals, so I learned two Doc Watson songs and one Gillian Welch tune,” he said. “We were playing at (now-closed) Cha Cha, and I remember there was a birthday party there one night, and there were all of these black ladies at the table, and they asked me to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’
“I was really nervous, thinking, ‘These black ladies are not going to want to hear me sing!’ But luckily I had Mike and Taylor playing with me, and they’re the smoothest of musicians, so I just walked up to the table and crooned it out. And they just ate it up! They melted, and I remember while I was singing that I thought, ‘I’m doing it … and they’re not throwing anything! I think they actually like it!’”
Gardner, whom Contreras had known since his days at the University of Tennessee, was another supporter pushing him to sing. When the two teamed up for a memorial service and later for an off-the-cuff jam at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville, she pushed him to showcase his vocals in addition to his mandolin prowess. He started learning more songs, and eventually the group billed as Cruz Contreras and Friends would become The Black Lillies, taking its name from a song that would end up on “Whiskey Angel.”
A long road of ‘Wreckage’
Making that first album, he recalled was a completely different process than recording “100 Miles of Wreckage.”
“It was uncharted territory then,” he said. “There were no fans, and I really just made an album then to prove something to myself. With this one, we’ve had a couple of years to play and to get fans, and now there are all kinds of expectations.”
None, however, stacked up to the expectations Contreras put on himself. After Gardner left the tour in Denver, the last few weeks saw The Black Lillies gain national traction. The dynamic changed, with Cook taking over the higher harmonies, and the remaining four members solidified into a cohesive unit. With Cook as the rock-steady anchor and Pryor’s wizardry on a number of instruments, Contreras felt unfettered when it came to singing and playing, and the Americana/bluegrass basis of The Black Lillies would take some beautiful detours into a number of realms — Southern rock, country, folk and other roots genres that have long held a special place in his heart.
“When we got back, we decided to record with Scott Minor (drummer for the critically acclaimed indie rock band Sparklehorse, who moved to Knoxville a few years ago),” Contreras said. “We were working on three-part harmonies with me, Jamie and Tom, and it was working great. It sounded great live, and we wanted that same vibe in the studio.”
Tragedy struck during the process when Sparklehorse founder and mastermind Mark Linkous committed suicide behind Minor’s house. Although Linkous wasn’t involved in the recording project, he had become a fixture around the studio, and Contreras said he’d grown to view the musician as something of a mentor.
“He was very patient and very focused with his art,” Contreras said. “When he committed suicide, it brought the whole project to a halt. It gave me time to reevaluate everything. When a big event like that happens, it really makes you put things in perspective.
“When he passed, it made me think that I should really aspire to that same standard. And I realized that if I’m not happy with what we were doing, then I shouldn’t release it.”
He can’t put his finger on what it was about those early recordings that was dissatisfying — only that, upon listening to it the songs felt flat and lifeless.
“It has to be compelling,” he said. “What’s going to make me want to listen to it again? And if nothing is there to do that, why should I expect anyone else to want to do that?”
The band reconvened with Minor in July of last year, re-recording the tracks for “100 Miles of Wreckage” and putting together an out-of-the-park follow-up. Brady was added near the end of the recording process, but as a friend of the band since the beginning, she’d already added some vocals to the new songs and never quite left.
Her sass and Southern charm are a contrast to Gardner’s demure demeanor, and that attitude gives many of the new songs a dose of attitude — from the dangerous on “Two Hearts Down,” the opening track, to the wildcat cries that flavor “Three in the Mornin’.” In person, she’s both laid-back and a firecracker, a fun addition whose smile adds to the band’s personality without upsetting the dynamic Contreras relies upon to steer the ship.
Saturday night at The Bijou Theatre, all members of the band will bask in the spotlight. After all, The Black Lillies have played the stage before — two or three songs here and there on a couple of WDVX-FM “Tennessee Shines” appearances, in various other configurations of their numerous past projects — but for the first time, they’ll own that stage.
They’ll headline it, commanding an audience that’s there to support, to encourage and to demand more of each of them. They’ve had a taste of The Black Lillies, and by all accounts, they can’t get enough. Playing to such a crowd, Contreras acknowledged, is daunting. Rewarding, too, but daunting nonetheless.
“Playing the Bijou is a huge step for any local band,” he said. “I try to imagine what it’s going to feel like, because at times it seems so big — just a Mecca for performers. But at other times, like when I was at some of the Big Ears (Festival) shows last year, I looked around the audience and it felt like I was in my high school gym, because I knew everyone in the crowd.
“I just want us to go for it. We want to play ball and to let go of all doubts and all fears. We want to take away the net and just follow our vision. What’s it going to be like? I don’t know. But I think it’s going to be so much energy they may have to carry me off the stage.”