An alt-country band on the rise uses their roots and resiliency to keep moving forward.
By Steve Houk
The ground is fertile in Tennessee. A plethora of different kinds of vegetables thrive and grow lush in the rich Tennessee earth, and a myriad of flowers bloom plentifully.
But the flora is not the only thing that blossoms in Tennessee. Music is an indigenous and inherent flowering facet of life here, and if you are lucky enough that that’s where you grew up, you will inevitably come away with a deep taste, even a knack, for creating music. Just ask the folks in the red-hot Knoxville band The Black Lillies, and they’ll tell you that growing up in and around K-Town, or almost anywhere in the Volunteer State, you just came away with a taste for all things musical.
“I don’t think I’d be playing music today had I not moved to Tennessee,” said the Lillies’ frontman and bandleader Cruz Contreras during a break at The Mansion on O in DC recently. “Everybody makes music there. And by the time I was 15 years old, I’d met alot of the legends in country music, thanks to my brother who was a prodigy fiddle player. I just like listening to people sing.”
Knoxville-bred Lillies singer Trisha Grene Brady echoes the sentiment. “Born and raised in Knoxville, my Dad kinda played and his mother, my grandma, played and (she started) later in life which kind of inspired me to start later in life, and it was really cool. And when I first learned, I learned Carter Family songs, so I could go and play them for her ‘cuz I knew she’d be all over that.”
It is the musical fabric of Knoxville that has helped The Black Lillies put together what has blossomed into a highly successful ever-burgeoning career as one of alt country rock’s most talented bands. They recently released their fourth record, the critically-acclaimed Hard To Please produced by Grammy-winner Ryan Hewitt, and despite a couple pretty hard knocks of late, have been on a roll with steady dates, packed houses and most of all, very well-written and well-played songs. They play the Hamilton in DC on Friday February 26th.
After releasing Hard To Please, the Lillies’ first hit to the gut was when two of them moved on, and Contreras was left trying to fill in key slots so the band could get out on the road behind the record. Luckily, it was Knoxville, so local talent was plentiful.
“It’s not easy to replace one player in your band, let alone two,” the likable Contreras said. “I’m overly optimistic, so I didn’t realize how difficult it was gonna be. We put the word out and it took awhile, we certainly had people that were interested, and in the end it came down to us finding all Knoxville-based people we knew. Didn’t really see that coming from the beginning. But the lineup now, it’s pretty rewarding to remain a Knoxville band.”
For Brady, it’s a matter of how special and unique Knoxville is as a music hub that cultivates a family vibe and shuns the overly competitive atmosphere other places have. She was one of the remaining members along with drummer Bowman Townsend who helped Contreras assess options when their bandmates departed.
“If you play music in Knoxville, you pretty much know each other,” Brady said. “We’re kinda family, it’s very special and different, not like the over-saturated cutthroat scene you get in other places. We all play together. And not only do we know these guys, but we wanted to have Knoxville people. We have this really amazing pool of musicians we can pull from because we all are from the same area. We get it, we fall into it really easy. I think there’s something to it, I think there’s something about finding people that are common folk, like we are all those kinda people, and we just fall right in with it.”
With their new lineup firmly in place and gelling, the sheer power of The Black Lillies is clearly evident on first listen, either live or in-studio. Playing prowess abounds in this superbly talented group, with masters at every instrument, including Band of Horses’ Bill Reynolds, Sam Quinn (the everybodyfields), Mike Seal (Jeff Sipe Trio, Larkin Poe) and Jonathan Keeney (Robinella) joining Contreras, Brady and Townsend. But what lifts a band from good to great is the songwriting, and Contreras is a master at painting landscapes that stretch from the rollicking to the very personal.
“To me, the most important ingredient is the songs, the songwriting. I’ve always been drawn to songs that have an emotional impact, so I approach it generally from a singer/songwriter perspective. But then try to take my experience as a sideman and as a bandleader and then my connections with world-class musicians around me from our community in Knoxville, and put it together. So hopefully if people are more attracted to the instrumental side of it, there’s something there for ’em, and if they’re attracted more to the lyrics side, I want to be kicking on all cylinders.”
Brady raves when she speaks of her bandmate’s ability to craft songs that she loves to sing. “Cruz is prophetic, he really is. He’s gifted with songs. And if I don’t believe in it, I’m not gonna get up there and be able to sing it and give it to you. You want to make a connection with somebody, and if you’re not all in on it, they’re gonna know it. I would not be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t believe in all of what we’re doing.”
What’s the saying, what almost kills you makes you stronger? After surviving the loss of the two band members, it seemed like nothing could go wrong for the red-hot Lillies, until it did: they lost nearly all of their equipment, gear and personal items when their van and trailer were stolen from a Houston hotel parking lot a few weeks ago. Many bands may have imploded in one way or another. But after the initial shock, the Lillies banded together, shook it off, got back on their feet and are back on tour with the same power and flourish they had before the theft, a huge credit to their resiliency. It’s an experience Brady says she wouldn’t wish on anyone, but that it was inspirational to see how the band, including their newer comrades, handled it.
“If I’d ever had any questions about the solidarity of our new group, I will not have any again,” Brady told me as the band prepared to board the Cayamo Cruise a week ago to play alongside some of their genre’s biggest. “Because every single person bucked up and dealt with this like it was no big deal. It makes me so proud. And I’ve been even more blown away by the outpouring of support we’ve had than anything else. Every day I have an emotional moment that breaks me down because of that. Someone told me the other day that the prettiest flowers come from shit, that is the best thing I’ve heard, that is fabulous.”
After an emotional return to the stage less than a week after the theft with a treasure trove of borrowed instruments — “We had so many offers we didn’t know who to take ’em up on, Cruz brought a Martin C35 guitar to the show that the Avett Brothers had given their father Jim for his birthday, and loaned him,” Brady recalls — The Black Lilies are tearing it up again and clearly have bounced back stronger than ever. And for Contreras, facing adversity reminds him of why he does it all to begin with.
“To me, it’s all meaningful, because it’s challenging enough traveling around and doin’ this, and dealing with what comes. So if you ever kinda wonder is it worth it…to me, making the human connection, and moving people, makes it worth it.”
The Black Lillies with special guest Sam Quinn perform Friday February 26th at the Hamilton, 600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.