Americana band from Tennessee to play The Ramkat
The Black Lillies are from Knoxville, Tennessee, and they’re proud of it. The roots-Americana band will be zipping over the Blue Ridge Mountains to a play a few shows, including one at The Ramkat in Winston-Salem on March 31, before heading west.
Tennessee got doubly blessed with two cities — Memphis and Nashville — that are iconic for their place in music history. Both cities remain meccas for musicians in certain styles, and both of which attract music tourists from around the world. Knoxville might not be known internationally as a music capital, but musicians know that east Tennessee is situated in that rich spot where parts of western Virginia, North Carolina, north Georgia and Kentucky all sort of thread together with deep Appalachian traditions flowing in all directions. Knoxville has a music scene all its own, and the Black Lillies are independent-minded ambassadors of their city.
Cruz Contreras, the founder of the group and its frontman, said their home base has something to do with that.
“There is a great musical story specific to Knoxville,” said Contreras, ticking off some names of country-music greats like Dolly Parton, Kenny Chesney, or Chet Atkins, all of whom are from that part of the state.
Contreras grew up closer to Nashville, but he came to Knoxville for college, where he studied jazz piano at the University of Tennessee. Contreras was that somewhat unlikely musician who found his way to jazz through bluegrass and country, which he grew up playing.
“Somebody told me that if you really want to be a great musician and you want to be a studio musician, you need to go study jazz,” Contreras said. “That was good advice, and I took it. The whole time I was still playing mandolin, banjo and guitar and listening to bluegrass. At that time, I wanted to learn as much as I could about jazz and pull that back into the stringband world.”
Contreras played in other outfits before the Black Lillies formed in 2009. The mix of jazz, bluegrass, country, roots rock, blues and more has been part of his music all along. One can often hear hints of New Orleans piano music, honky-tonk and folk rock all jockeying for position in a Black Lillies song.
The band has had some lineup changes in recent years, and 2017 found Contreras working with Sam Quinn and Dustin Schafer, two other seasoned vocalists and songwriters, along with longtime drummer Bowman Townsend, giving the band the power to pull off Eagles-esque three-part harmonies. If there’s been a unifying theme of the Black Lillies’ music, it’s been a certain restless omni-American attitude, a familiarity with heartache and struggle, a taste for the open road, for rambling, for the charms of the internal-combustion engine, and a preference for motion over stillness. In that spirit, the Black Lillies have made a name for themselves as a band that tours relentlessly. Last year wasn’t exactly an abrupt stop to that routine, but new members and plans for a new record meant that 2017 wasn’t quite as much of a blur of shows. Instead, Contreras and his new bandmates set to work cranking out some fresh material, setting themselves the challenge of writing and debuting a new song almost every week for a chunk of the year. It put them in a good position to head into the studio.
“We got up to around the 25 song range,” Contreras said. “When it was time to make the record we had a lot of material to choose from.”
The band spent much of January and February recording songs for that new record at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville. They’re mixing a dozen or so songs now, preparing for an early-fall release. It’s a funny stop-and-start process, writing songs in a hurry, sharing them with fans on social media, giving them a trial run at live shows, fine-tuning them in the studio and now, keeping their powder dry, so to speak, waiting to release new material later in the year.
“Last year, by December, we were making a real push to play as much new music as possible, to try out new material for the record,” Contreras said. “Now I want to make sure we don’t wear out the new music.”
So, if you happened to catch the Black Lillies live in 2017, you might have heard some early iterations of new songs that have since changed, and which might not get played live again until it’s time to promote the as-yet-unnamed new record later in the year.
The latest incarnation of the Black Lillies, as can be heard on a new song like “Earthquake,” which Contreras and crew played live on Adam Carolla’s podcast last year, is a band that’s able to blend their voices with a sweetness and ease that becomes a defining part of their new sound. Contreras, coincidentally, had just seen an Eagles concert a few days before we spoke recently, and he was struck by how distinctive a strong mix of vocals can be, a combination that’s more than the sum of its parts. And the Black Lillies can do that in a mellow acoustic setting, or — more and more — with a driving pulse and the muscle of a rock band. As with Contreras’s ability to move from piano, to banjo, to mandolin, to guitar, from acoustic to electric contexts, the band, too, can operate in a variety of dynamic ranges. Now Contreras sees the task ahead for the Black Lillies as one of letting their essence shine through.
“We’re evolving quick,” he said. “I think at this point in our career we want to make sure people know where we’re going and where we want to be. The band’s more of a rock band now, and I think if you don’t let people know that, you’re doing everybody a disservice. We want to be able to rock out full-on.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See the Black Lillies at The Ramkat, 170 W. 9th St., Winston-Salem, on Saturday, March 31, at 8 p.m. $15, $25. Tyler Nail is also on the bill. www.theramkat.com.