Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Cruz Contreras, lead singer of the Knoxville-based Appalachian bluegrass band The Black Lillies about finding his voice and the band's recent Grand Ole Opry debut.
CP: You guys just finished making your Grand Ole Opry debut. That's a big moment for any band. Are you still feeling the afterglow?
CC: It's been less than two weeks. That was amazing. We played a Friday night Opry, and it was a sold-out, full house with over 4,000 seats. It definitely was one of the bigger audiences we've played to. It was a theater, so people were sitting there paying attention. We had a great show and were very well received. Hopefully, we'll be going back.
CP: How does playing in that sort of environment, where the audience is focused on you, affect your demeanor on stage?
CC: Every last second counts because you're being scrutinized. We played two songs, and they were both up-tempo. We had some soloists; I had some guest fiddle players, and we did dual fiddles.
It was really condensed. You give them a power punch. You have just a few minutes to stake your claim. It's totally different. Sometimes, you get up there and have to play three sets or play for two hours, but there, you've got 10 minutes to win them over.
CP: You guys must be riding high, at the moment.
CC: Absolutely. There's always reality checks. We actually got directly in the car and drove all the way to Pennsylvania to play a wedding. We didn't get any sleep. There are a lot of highs and a lot of reality and hard work, for sure, traveling around and trying to make a living playing music. Definitely, it does give you a confidence and a level of experience that you're like, "Yeah, we did that." It gives you the courage to go into those other situations and believe in yourself.
CP: How is the rest of your summer shaping up?
CC: The next month, we're doing regional stuff. Next week, we're doing five different shows. We're doing shows in Florida, a couple shows in Alabama, Birmingham, Louisville and Virginia. At the end of July, we're headed out for 6-7 weeks to do a Western tour. That'll be our big tour of the summer, which we're all excited about. We all love playing music out west. Our music is really received well out there. We can't wait to do that.
CP: So your Appalachian spirit resonates with Westerners just as well as at home?
CC: Yeah, they do. It's kind of the mountain culture. I don't know what it is. There are a handful of things that seem to all go together: music, moonshine, dancing, beer drinking, kayaking and hiking. People who like one like the whole shebang.
CP: How did you start playing music?
CC: My dad encouraged me and my two brothers and sister to study music as kids. We studied classical piano. That was my introduction.
My youngest brother, Billy, started playing fiddle when he was really little, probably five or six years old. I was a teenager at the time. His teacher convinced my parents that I should play guitar and play with him. They were like, "Hey, do you want a guitar? It's free." So I was like, "... yeah."
Billy and I spend my high school years traveling and playing fiddle and guitar in the bluegrass and old time style music. It kind of got me hooked on music. I think I fell in love with it in those years. So I got back into the piano and studied jazz piano at UT with Donald Brown.
All the time, bluegrass/Americana music was really my love. I started playing mandolin about the time I met Robinella. We had a bluegrass band called The String Beans.
I brought all these different musical influences together. The first time that really came together was CCstringband, which was my concept and idea. It was my first chance to make my own music. All those years of doing that and all that experience set me up to do this project, too.
CP: For all your instrumental history, what's really surprising about your work with The Black Lillies is that you're now a lead vocalist. When did that enter the picture?
CC: Yeah, that was a pretty big shocker for me, too. It's like having a daydream about dunking a basketball, and one day, you can. It's pretty cool.
After Robinella and I split up, I quit playing. I left the band because if we weren't getting along, we weren't going to get along on stage. I went and was driving a truck for a stone company. That was definitely a difficult time, with the divorce and all that.
For a little while, I was convinced that music had ruined my life. I was like, "Oh no. I've made a deal with the devil. Look where it's got me." But I was driving that truck around listening to the radio and WDVX, and it just struck me again.
Even making a living playing music, you get burned on it a little bit; you forget why you fell in love with it to begin with. Driving that truck and listening to the radio, I think I got reacquainted with what motivated me to play music in the first place.
I put a jazz piano trio together. I was like, "Well, I've got my degree in it, and I don't do it anymore. I should go back and touch up on that." I had a lot of energy at the time an a lot of free time. I started with the jazz piano trio, and then, I was like, "Eh, that's not really what I want to do."
Then, I turned it into a mandolin trio. Then, I was like, "Somebody needs to sing a song. No one is singing." This guy I was playing with, this great guitar player named Mike Seal, was like, "Dude, why don't you sing a song?" At the same time, I was driving down the road singing with the radio, and I taught myself a few songs.
Every time I sang a song, I expected someone to say, " Dude, you really don't need to be doing that," but no one ever said that. So I just kept going and started writing some songs. I don't know. It's just been one step right after the next, and here I am.
CP: As I understand it, you formed The Black Lillies to work on your first record, "Whiskey Angel." What is the timeline, as far as when you started singing to when you worked on "Whiskey Angel?"
CC: Within a year of ending the CCstringband, I probably wrote my first song. I spent the next year writing songs slowly, maybe one a month, and trying out booking gigs one a month and trying out different band members. I was slowly evolving the sound of the band and the music.
Probably a year after writing the first song, I decided I needed to make a recording of this, make the "Whiskey Angel" record in my living room. At that point, I was going by Cruz Contreras.
I had written the song, "Where the Black Lillies Grow" earlier that year, and I really loved the image and the name. As soon as I wrote the song, I was like, "I would love to name this band The Black Lillies. I've got it; this is it." I told Leah (Gardener), who was singing in the band, and she was like, "You can't do that. That's not even a real flower." I was like, "OK, there goes me listening to women again telling me I can't do something."
My friend Doug Lancel mastered the record. I walked in, and he was like, "Dude, this is awesome. Who's singing?" I said, "Dude, it's me." The thing he said to me that caught my attention was, "This sounds like a band. Do you have a band name?" I said, "Yeah, I do: The Black Lillies." That was it.
Basically, the night we mastered the record, I officially named it The Black Lillies. It's been pretty exciting ever since.
CP: When was that?
CC: 2009. We did "Whiskey Angel," and in 2010, we made the "100 Miles of Wreckage" CD.
CP: How, if at all, did your approach change for "100 Miles of Wreckage?"
CC: Not too drastically. Every record I've made I've recorded live. That's definitely my comfort zone, getting the whole band in the same room, where you can see each other, hear each other, feel each other and go for it - and nobody mess up, hopefully. (Laughs.) That was pretty similar.
We had more space. For the first record, we used my living room, which is tiny. The second time, we used an old school house, so we had more space.
I think the record is better, which probably has more to do with individual maturity and playing. I've written all the material on it, which has been very rewarding, so it was a very personal project.
I wonder whether the next record will be able to be so live. When you record live, you can finish it quickly - do it all in one day - but it actually takes a lot more time to mix it and make it sound good. It's difficult because every channel has sound bleeding into it. It's funny because it ends up taking just as long because you have to fool with it even longer. I like the rawness and energy of a live feel.
CP: With The Black Lillies, you've graduated from sideman to front man. How is that role sitting with you?
CC: It's very rewarding. I think when I was in the CCstringband, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a sideman and take solos on an instrument. That's what I wanted to do, and really, I thought that's all I wanted to do. I would have been content to do that. Necessity changed that. I was looking for happiness and satisfaction in my life, and I thought music is the way to go.
I certainly love backing people up, but I think I'll always do this, write and sing. It's personal, and it's not difficult to remember lyrics when they're true stories. I love communicating with people and sharing with people.
You do put out a lot of energy, but it's very rewarding, too. I love working for myself and being creative. I love to make something I can step back and see or hear. I love it. I'm very satisfied doing it.
CP: When you started writing songs, did you find it difficult to open up and share personal stories in your lyrics?
CC: It's weird. I think, emotionally, the state I was in, I was honestly reckless. I felt like I'd lost everything and had nothing left to lose. Probably, in some ways, that's a good place to be. I didn't really think about it. I was doing what I had to do, at the time.
It's funny because now, the band has some success, and people have opinions (about the music). When I wrote those songs, there were no fans and there was no band. Now, it's, "Oh, there are fans. What are they going to think?" or "Oh, there are DJs. What will they think?" I miss that time when there were no expectations, and I had time to make what I wanted.
CP: Is that expectation shaping what you're writing?
CC: Ultimately, I don't want to let it. I want to make sure that I follow my own gut instincts, my own heart, my spirit, because ultimately, I've got to sing the songs and I've got to believe them. My experience with the CCstringband taught me that, "Don't write a song you're not willing to sing every day of your life." I want to stick to that.
Also, I have an amazing band, and it's smart to write for your band, especially musically. This band really is going to evolve a lot. We already have.
CP: Evolve? In what sense?
CC: Musically and stylistically. I don't like repeating myself. I don't like playing one song after another that sounds like the last one. I encourage everyone to study and get better and learn to play new styles and forms. I think that makes for good listening, a good record and a good show. It's inspiring to the listener and to me, as a musician. I want to enjoy it. It's like making dinner for yourself: You just make it to suit yourself, and if you like it, chances are, someone else will, too.
CP: Have you thought about what you'll be playing in Chattanooga?
CC: No. For 99 percent of my shows, I decide maybe five minutes before. I love being in the moment and playing what's appropriate and right for that space and time. Song wise, we have a lot of material, more than we can play in a show, and I have my favorite songs, which will be played, but there's no rehearsal for a set list or a canned show or anything.
CP: But will those songs come mostly from "Whiskey Angel," "100 Miles of Wreckage," new material or a combination?
CC: It will be a complete balance. There will be some songs off "Whiskey," some songs off "100 miles," some new material and some covers. It'll be a total mix.
CP: Speaking of new material, have you given thought to the next album?
CC: I have. It's in the back of my mind now. I'm always looking for new songs, and I'm continuing to write new songs. That's the key; it's all about the songs for me. If you keep doing that, when it comes time to make a record, you'll have what you need, and it will be what it's supposed to be. I don't want to overthink it or stress out about it. I'm just going to keep writing good songs, and making the record will be easy.