By Al Kaufman
Listening to Black Lillies’ third CD, Runaway Freeway Blues, is akin to transporting oneself through large country roads in Middle America. That’s due in no small part to Cruz Contreras, founder, singer and songwriter of the band. When Contreras’ marriage to Robinella Bailey of funky bluegrass Robinella and the CCstringband dissolved and he left the band in 2007, he took a job as a truck driver. During his long travels on the road, he worked through the despairs and unexpected changes his life had thrown at him. He got together with some friends, vocalist Trisha Gene Brady, multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor, bassist Robert Richards, and drummer Bowman Townsend, and the result was 2009’s Whiskey Angel, a throwback to old time country music with Contreras’ signature mandolin, and also his new found sweet voice, which simultaneously sounds old and familiar, and new and fresh. 100 Miles of Wreckage followed in 2011 and, although their gospel –tinged old time country practically guaranteed them no radio airplay, people started to notice. They were asked to play everything from Grand Ole Opry (which they have been asked to play numerous times since) to Bonnaroo. The reason is simple enough. When a person sees this band, that person does not care how the music coming from the stage should be classified, that person only cares about dancing and having a good time.
Runaway Freeway Blues takes their sound even further. It’s an album about rambling over lonesome roads, but also about arriving into new and exciting places. It’s still Appalachian, folksy, and gospel, but there’s enough roots rock, jams, and attitude on there to make the Bonnaroo kids take notice. And Contreras’ and Brady’s harmonies, well, let’s just say that Johnny and June Carter Cash come to mind. “Smokestack Lady” will make more than one person think of the Johnny and June classic “Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man,” (penned by the great Carl Perkins), and that ain’t bad company.
The band plays over 200 dates a year, and still managed to cut a commercial for Twizzlers. Contreras took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.
So many songs on Runaway Freeway Blues have that wide open feel, and I understand for your first album you wrote many of the songs while driving a truck. Were many of these songs written on the road? What about the road is so conducive to song writing?
Time on the road is conducive to working out your own thoughts — amazing scenery, listening to inspiring music — and it affords you the chance to scream and/or sing at the top of your lungs (especially if you’re by yourself). So yes, I worked up the courage to sing while driving, but as far as writing a song, it is a lot safer to do that during some downtime.
You have a lot of songs in which you duet with Trisha. Do you have to make a conscious effort to write a song for two people to sing?
The duets that Trisha and I sing are a very important part of what we do. Initially, I wrote songs for solo performances and later realized they could be altered for the two voices. Now, I consciously write for the dual parts. There’s so much energy in that classic male-female conversational melodic exchange. It tells the story of the ages.
You’ve played the Grand Ole Opry over 30 times. How has the experience changed for you over the years?
The Opry has been the ultimate honor of our careers. The thing that changes the most is the diminishing level of nervousness — thank goodness. And, there’s this feeling that you’re being welcomed into and accepted by a family with deep musical roots and tradition. We are playing there this Tuesday [November 4th, with Darius Rucker and Kristian Bush] and it’s always just as hallowed and alive as it was the very first time.
How did playing Bonnaroo differ from playing Grand Ole Opry?
Comparing The Grand Ole Opry and Bonnaroo is like comparing … hmm … Hank Williams to The Flaming Lips. The biggest difference is the venue. One has people singing about farms and one is on a farm.
You’ve played a lot of festivals, including the Rochester Jazz Festival. What’s it like playing festivals? Do you meet idols? Does everyone sit backstage and jam?
Festivals are what many an artist and band wants and works to achieve. Who doesn’t want to go to the party, perform in an amazing setting, for an energized appreciative crowd, hear and see amazing performers, meet them, be inspired by them? You get to be a fan and artist all at once. Playing festivals makes this insane pursuit totally worth it. Long live the festival!
Were you a fan of Twizzlers before you did the commercial? How did that partnership come about? Do you think it brought new fans your way?
Dude, sugar in its finest form. Not only could you survive on Twizzlers in a cave for a month, but you could use them to build a ladder or a bridge to escape! When my son heard we were doing a Twizzlers ad, he gave me that look, like, “Yea dad, a life supply. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!”
Black Lillies play Eddie’s Attic on Wednesday, November 5th.