Cruz Contreras, frontman of the Black Lillies, was once known as the non-singing bandleader for Robinella & the CC String Band, an all-acoustic outfit that dipped a toe into everything from old-time music to jazz and pop.
Based in Knoxville, Tenn., the Black Lillies, however, hail from a variety of different roots, rock and country backgrounds. They’ve made a habit of casting an even wider stylistic net on each of their three albums, including the latest, Runaway Freeway Blues. That, and the fact they’ll do just about anything it takes to get a crowd dancing, is why they’re the rarer-than-rare independent band that’s made no less than 15 appearances on the venerable Grand Ole Opry and played wildly eclectic festivals like Bonnaroo and South by Southwest.
It just so happened that Contreras was riding in the van on his way back from Austin when he took a few minutes to talk about what makes the Lillies’ music feel the way it does.
CMT Edge: What was it like finding your footing as a singing, songwriting frontman for the first time?
Contreras: I was probably 31, singing for the first time and singing my own songs for the first time. I used to play basketball when I was younger, and you kind of have dreams of grandeur, like, “One day, I’m gonna do a slam dunk.” It doesn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t dream about it. I think singing was that way for me. That’s something I figured I just wasn’t capable of doing. Then when it happened, I was like, “Wow, old dogs can learn new tricks.”
How long did it take for you to feel like you’d settled into the role?
I think the very first time I sang, we did a pickup gig at the Preservation Pub [in Knoxville]. I can’t say that I had really found my voice yet. So I was like, “All right, if you don’t know how to sing, you either try to sound like Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings, one of the two.” I mean, not that I sound like that, but [they’re] singers that I have always listened to. We’ve played so many shows over the past few years, you just learn.
What difference has it made to the Black Lillies that you’d already had one go-round in the music business?
A couple things. With the CC String Band, we played for years and years in local bars, and we played numerous times a week. You don’t want to oversaturate your home. If you want to be a national act, you just look at it that way from the beginning. So the first show [the Lillies] did on our first tour was booked in Eugene, Ore. We actually drove across the entire country for the first show. But it set the standard for the whole thing, like, “We’re gonna go for this.”
I think the other thing was just the concept of dedication. Years ago, I did a CC String Band tour with Old Crow Medicine Show before they were as well-known as they are now. I remember watching Ketch [Secor], and what I learned from watching them was how much they believed in themselves, you know? They didn’t care if they were playing for two people — or nobody. They believed so much in what they were doing. They had so much conviction that you couldn’t help but want to be part of that and enjoy it. So we take that approach with this band. Half-assed isn’t what we’re going for.
The band you were in before was a string band. So how did the new band you started — on mandolin, mind you — wind up with hybrid instrumentation, a plugged-in sound and sometimes a pretty aggressive attack?
I don’t know. That’s pretty complicated. I think it’s kind of a natural evolution. I know personally, I don’t really like going through the motions. I want to improve as an artist continually, and I think everybody in the band is that way. Everybody’s also coming from a very different musical background. Most of us are not from a bluegrass or string band background. Our lead guitar player is big into the Grateful Dead. I studied jazz piano. There are a whole lot of influences. We try to show all that off and not get pigeonholed as one type of music, and I think the more we purposefully shake that up, people know to expect it.
On all three of your albums, there’s a much greater variety of grooves than you’ll hear from the typical string band — or roots rock, alt-rock or alt-country band.
The groove part is key to me. I’ve always felt when I’m onstage, you’re trying to create energy and share energy with people in that setting. There’s no better way to do that than to establish a groove or change the groove. You want it to be interesting. I’m not that interested in playing in a band that just plays one type of groove.
Sometimes you get into a hard-driving country or bluegrass feel.
It’s funny how we go back to that a lot and especially if we end up playing a show where the people are dancing. It gets people on the floor, and once they’re on the floor, you kinda can’t stop. If you ever see us turn into a dance band at a live show, that’s usually how it happens. You’re usually in a mountain town, and people wanna do the hoedown thing. I enjoy that. Coming from a bluegrass background, that’s a comfort zone for me.
That’s one kind of dance music. Then you have songs like “Peach Pickin’” and “Baby Doe” with R&B leanings. That’s something that hasn’t been as present in roots music of late.
Like I said, I studied jazz piano in college. Also our drummer and bass player are both from the Muscle Shoals, Ala., area, and they’ve been well-schooled in a lot of styles of music. I think it’s a strength of our band that we’re able to go back and forth from straight-ahead, traditional country to more of … I’m not gonna say we’ve really explored an R&B approach yet. I mean, that’s certainly an option. But, you know, something like you might hear The Band play or early ‘70s Elton John, kind of funky, groovy with people shaking it on the dance floor kind of thing.
So you’ve seen people respond by dancing to that stuff, too.
Exactly. And I think with our generation, we’ve all grown up listening to everything and people like the variety. If you go to the biggest musical festivals now, you’re gonna see hard rock and a bluegrass band on the same bill. To some degree, hopefully we accomplish some of that just within the band.
Do you see different elements of your repertoire connecting with different audiences?
Absolutely. The Opry’s been a really big deal for us. There’s a lot of tradition there, so when we go, we play songs that are accessible to that audience. You count ‘em off and you play ‘em well, and you’re not jamming out for 15 minutes. You’re aware of what stage you’re on.