Their Sound: Country music with a soul-rock infusion, supported by bandleader Cruz Contreras’ smart songwriting and tight musicianship that comes from years on the road.
Big Break: Contreras spent his teen years in Franklin, Tennessee, soaking up country music heritage, as well as bluegrass, jazz and swing music. In 1995, he enrolled in the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to study jazz piano. He and his wife, Robin, released three albums as Robinella and the CCstringband, but following the dissolution of the marriage (and the band) in 2007, Contreras turned to roots music for healing and songwriting inspiration.
While driving a truck for a stone company and trying to figure out his next move, Contreras cobbled together some Knoxville buddies to record an album. Lacking an official band lineup, he spontaneously credited the project to The Black Lillies – and the name stuck. He admits he stepped into the role of lead singer out of necessity: “When there was nobody to sing, I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got something to say.’ I gave it a try with encouragement from friends and it went well enough for me to keep taking a stab at it,” he tells Rolling Stone Country.
Why We’re Listening: In a town that sits in the shadow of its Country Capital neighbor, the Black Lillies have become Knoxville’s own version of a country band, swirling everything from Appalachian twang and rock grit into their brew. And some of Tennessee’s biggest stages have also taken notice: the band has brought its earthy, soulful music to Bonnaroo, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and country music’s Mother Church, the Ryman Auditorium. They’ve racked up dozens of appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, too.
“The touring has been the key – and of course, putting our heart and soul and energy into making the records,” Contreras says. “My hope is that the music does the work for us ultimately.”
For the best example of the Black Lillies’ mountain-born sound, check out fourth album Hard to Please. It’s full of catchy jams, like “The First Time,” which showcases Trisha Jean Brady on lead vocals and underscores the undeniable dynamic that drives the band — the interplay between masculine and feminine voices.
“That’s what the Black Lillies have always been — the male-female vocal team effort. I think it’s one of the more unique things we offer. We’re just trying to put that out there more,” Contreras says.
The indie project will be released on October 2nd in conjunction with a free show on Knoxville’s Market Square.
Favorite Knoxville Music Venues: “Knoxville’s a great town to build a band in,” Contreras says. “You can start at some of the local bars like Preservation Pub, the Pilot Light, or Barley’s. The most recent shows we’ve done in Knoxville have been in the Tennessee Theatre. Before that, we did two shows at the Bijou Theatre. You can’t say enough about the theatres because they are really classy, legitimate theatres.”
Knoxville Scoop: “One of the unique things Knoxville has going on right now is the development of urban wilderness. We’re right on the river and South Knoxville has these rock quarries, so if we’re home, we’re going to be swimming, biking or hiking down there,” Contreras says. “Market Square is a great place to check out food and shops. I love eating at the Tomato Head. The Southwestern chicken salad with chipotle ranch has a lot of organic, healthy ingredients, and if you’re working and active, it will keep you rolling.”
Watch for Yourself: Contreras plays a dozing cop and Brady portrays the diner waitress in “Smokestack Lady,” a madcap music video filmed in the town square of Lebanon, Tennessee.