SPOTLIGHT: The Black Lillies Keep Their Story Going with New Lineup, New Gear, New Songs
Cruz Contreras is lean and fit at the front end of his 40s, with a tan deepened by playing festivals throughout the American West for much of the summer. His salt-and-pepper hair flops down in locks when he stomps the pedals with his dusty cowboy boots to control the sound of his guitar. The effect is an enviable blend of ruggedness and playfulness, and the trials of the past decade or so seem to have ingrained a confidence into him regarding what might be just around the corner. Sometimes that might mean a lineup change to his nine-year-old band The Black Lillies, and other times it might mean a thief steals nearly everything he owns. But on this particular night in Montana, what’s just around the corner will be his band performing “Earthquake” off its forthcoming album, Stranger to Me. The song has reliably hushed audiences at shows for the past year, just as it will tonight at an outdoor venue near where elk from the Gallatin Mountains swim the Yellowstone River to reach the Absarokas.
“Earthquake”’s three-part harmonies breathe an airy buoyancy into the song, pointing to CSNY as much as to the Eagles’ version of “Seven Bridges Road.” In fact, it’s easy to imagine country music’s Little Big Town taking it to the country charts as a crossover; a feat that would be a challenge for an indie band, even one with as much hard-touring street cred as the Black Lillies, to pull off. But that fantasy is immaterial for the moment, as the Montana crowd is singing along by the third time “Earthquake”’s emotive chorus rolls around.
You’re my earthquake, the sweetest heartache
You’re the rock in my roll, you shake me down to my soul
You take my breath away, you know just what to say
You shake me down to my soul, you’re my earthquake.
The Black Lillies, founded in 2008 in Knoxville, Tennessee, have remade themselves over the years. Today, Contreras is the lone torchbearer of the original lineup. But make no mistake — this is no ragtag outfit of road-weary musicians hanging on for the sake of hanging on. The Black Lillies are focused and energized, building on their reputation for musicianship, showmanship, and rock-and-roll energy, not unlike the Mavericks circa 1990s (minus the support of a major label).
The Black Lillies formed in the wake of Contreras’ divorce from Robin Ella, who was also his bandmate at the time in Robinella and the CCstringband, an eclectic ensemble that walked the line between bluegrass and “old timey jazz,” as Contreras puts it. Almost immediately, he began writing the songs that would comprise he Black Lillies debut record, the critically acclaimed Whiskey Angel (2009). Interestingly, the band’s first performance would be the album’s release party. Contreras hadn’t even bothered to name the band until the record was nearly complete. Almost as an afterthought, he lifted the name from the album’s 10th track, a mournful ode to a failed relationship, “Where the Black Lillies Grow.”
“If I had to name the band now, I probably wouldn’t choose ‘the Black Lillies,’” Contreras says. “When we started out, people thought we were either a heavy metal band, or we’re an all-girl band, or that we’re are all black.”
Though it’s easy to see the that band is none of these, what it is, he concedes, can be hard to define.
“There was a time that the type of music we play was called alt-country. And maybe that’s what we are,” he says. “But, with our blues and rock influences, maybe that’s why we’re called Americana quite often, too.”
The Black Lillies would find success early, playing Bonnaroo, the Grand Ole Opry, and CMA Festival/Fan Fair shortly after forming. They’d play the venerable Mountain Stage radio show and showcase at AmericanaFest, too. They’d tour, averaging 175 shows per year for nine years, according to a post on the band’s Facebook page. And they’d make records and replace band members as circumstances warranted.
In January 2016, however, the Black Lillies would face a nightmare scenario that every touring band surely considers each time they lock their gear up for the night: Thieves absconded into the damp Houston night with their van and the trailer attached to it, which contained their instruments, PA equipment — everything a six-piece band would need to be self-sustaining on the road for weeks on end. All told, the loss was about $140,000. Insurance and fan support helped cover a portion of the loss. But it was a devastating blow nonetheless.
“Shortly afterward, two of my most veteran guys left the group,” Contreras said. “After six years on the road, we were tired. There’s that moment when you look across the room at each other and ask, ‘How are we going to do this?’”
Instead of packing it in, he opted to rebuild. By 2016, the current lineup would be in place, comprising strong musicians who each are songwriters as well: Sam Quinn (bass, previously with folk-rock fusionists The Everybodyfields), Dustin Schaefer (guitar, previously with Micky & the Motorcars), and Bowman Townsend (drums, an up-and-coming percussionist well known around Knoxville).
“Through the lineup change and the changing chemistry of the band, I became preoccupied with a team mentality,” Contreras says. “Respect became really important to me, and I think that helped bring out the best in all of us.”
To introduce the new lineup to its sizable fanbase acquired through years of crisscrossing the country time and again, The Black Lillies launched a weekly Facebook Live campaign called “The Sprinter Sessions” featuring acoustic versions of new songs, some of which Contreras swears the band finished writing minutes before the webcast began. These weren’t high-production performances — they were streamed live, often from inside their tour van, a Mercedes Sprinter (hence the name “The Sprinter Sessions”). It was a months-long coming-out party of sorts, conveying Contreras’ confidence in the new songs while showcasing the respective talents of the new band.
“In some ways, ‘The Sprinter Sessions’ made us the band we are today,” says bassist Quinn, who joined the Black Lillies in 2015. “Because we were writing the songs on the road and performing them so quickly after completing them, I think that took some pressure off Cruz to do as much as he had been doing beforehand. Now, he can be a player more than just the lead guy, and maybe enjoy himself on stage more than he had for a while. We don’t do that ‘Play, monkey, play’ bullshit anymore. There’s a lightness to what we’re doing, and that lightness comes from being in a band that’s writing very good songs and putting on very good shows.”
With the new lineup in place, The Black Lillies started planning their next record. They launched a crowdsourcing effort to fund the production of Stranger to Me (Thirty Tigers), due Sept. 28. And one donation in particular would lead Contreras to writing the song that would eventually become the backbone of the album. A couple from Colorado — fans of the band who had become friends with Contreras over the years — had donated to the funding campaign. In return, he wrote a love song for them.
“I ended up writing ‘Earthquake,’” Contreras says. “I sent them the song. But I also knew that I wanted to put it on the record. The husband is a combat veteran, which is reflected in the original lyrics. So, I asked them if they’d mind if I changed it up a bit for the record.”
By early 2018, the band headed to Echo Mountain studio in Asheville, North Carolina, armed with a new band and a newfound lushness to its sound. Stranger to Me contains 13 songs that run the gamut from straight-up rock and roll to alt-country and blues, which pretty much means they fall under the nebulous, catch-all umbrella of Americana — a genre that whose common denominator may be as simple as a one-two punch of strong songwriting and lack of major-label support.
“It has taken three years to turn this ship around, I am very proud of the history of this band and what we’ve overcome. And I think we deserve our own story,” Contreras says. “We’re hard to pigeonhole, and we don’t need or want a label. With that said, I understand why people say we’re Americana. But if you see the Black Lillies perform live, you’re going to see a great rock-and-roll show, plain and simple.”