by: Thomas D. Mooney
Americana has become a pretty lazy title to call and classify bands the past few years. It seems that if you’re not sure what they exactly are, you can call them Americana and no one will bat an eye or disapprove your claims. Americana isn’t necessarily a tainted genre label, but it’s gotten a little gilded and suffered from semantic saturation. Its’ meaning, completely lost.
If we were able to wipe the slate clean from the collective memory from pop culture, there wouldn’t be a better place to base the Americana label after than The Black Lillies. They’re truly an American band. Their roots are deeply grounded into the foundation of American music without pulling at the frays and stitching of the fabric.
You see and hear a constant evolution over the course of their three albums: Whiskey Angel, 100 Miles of Wreckage, and their latest’, Runaway Freeway Blues. Their songs aren’t fixed in time trying to make you believe they’re from the Post-Civil War era or turn of the century tunes. Course, that doesn’t mean you’re not thrown a traditional from time to time.
The way I see it, they’re driving down a highway looking ahead while glancing in the rear view mirror ever so often. They just aren’t relying on nostalgia. That’s something that bands sometimes too often rely upon. It’s OK to be singing about modern problems, thoughts, emotions, and situations. I think Black Lillies know this too.
On Runaway Freeway Blues, their best album yet, they explore a genuine American experience: The open highway. It’s something that they’re all too familiar with being a constantly traveling and constantly touring band. It’s ingrained. It’s real and sincere.
When they’re singing about the Red Arrow Highway, those smokestack, hauling jack, switchback, kickin’ back runaway freeway blues, going from Bowling Green to Nashville, and eighteen wheels rolling, they’re singing from the heart. They’re carving their own Cumberland Gap out on those highways playing town to town.
And of course, having a few gospel hymns and Appalachian serenades here and there don’t hurt either.
We caught up with Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras last week to talk about songwriting, Runaway Freeway Blues, and their hometown of Knoxville. They’re playing The Blue Light tonight (Thursday, May 8). Watch/Listen to “The Fall” below.
New Slang: While getting ready for this interview, I had read this one that you had done a while back and there was this line that you said and it really struck me. I really liked it. It was “Don’t ever write a song you’re not willing to sing every day for the rest of your life.” I think that’s a great line about songwriting.
Cruz Contreras: Yeah. Kind of the background on that, I grew up playing bluegrass and country music during my high school years. Really got into it and made up my mind that I was going to be a professional musician. I went to UT-Knoxville and started jazz piano. When I got out of school, I had a working band and I was the band leader and an instrumentalist. I saw what a lot of songwriters and lead singers go through. It’s a “here it comes again. And tonight. And the next night and the next and the next.” So when I got around to writing myself with Black Lillies, I was aware of it. Talking to myself, I said “Listen, put everything you can into this and make it as good as you can. Make it something you’re proud of.” You don’t decide who your fans are and what songs go over well. If they dig it, you’re going to be playing it a whole bunch.
NS: So that naturally leads to this. Do you ever get tired of playing any specific song–maybe not “tired” of playing, but you know, maybe getting a little old.
CC: Luckily, it’s not really anything. What’s cool about our band is that we don’t really just go through the motions. We don’t play it the same every time. The band has really evolved. We’ve got a couple of members who have experience playing jazz and all kinds of stuff. Some who have done the Deadhead thing, played in a reggae band, playing funk music. If you listen to the songs we recorded three years ago and hear them now, they’ve evolved a lot. That’s how we keep things fresh. Sometimes you don’t need to write a new song; you just need to learn new ways to play it.
NS: Yeah. I was going to bring that up. Your background with jazz and this band having a big influence from Appalachia music, old-time, bluegrass. Those genres styles more so than others, do lend themselves to songs evolving and spontaneity.
CC: Yeah. I’m thrilled to have those backgrounds. As far as jazz goes, that’s something I learned in school. I didn’t live around a jazz community. Didn’t grow up in New Orleans or New York. Bluegrass and Appalachian music, that’s something I learned from friends, family, and neighbors.
NS: You guys are from Tennessee. You were originally from Nashville and Black Lillies really originating in Knoxville and everything. I guess a lot of people always really think of Nashville and Memphis when they think of Tennessee, but Knoxville I’ve heard is a great music place as well.
CC: Yeah. It’s a great scene. And really, if you step back, there’s multiple music hubs in Tennessee. Of course Memphis and Nashville are really well-known, but there’s the Muscle Shoals area, which is really Northern Alabama, but it’s right on the Tennessee line. Bristol has a real deep music heritage, The Tri-Cities. It’s the birthplace of country music. Knoxville, it’s known as The Cradle. It’s really about progression. Eastern to Western migration. There was a time when Knoxville was the town for live radio. Musicians from all over the country moved to Knoxville to make a living. I was reading on The Everly Brothers and the reason they grew up in Knoxville was because their dad was musician and they moved there to be on the radio shows. Eventually they met Chet Atkins, who’s originally from Knoxville. He encouraged them to come to Nashville. We’ve been playing The Opry a lot the past two years and a lot of the old Opry members, when we say we’re from Knoxville, you can see them light up. They kind of remember the time when a lot of the artists and talent came from that region. Not as much music industry in Knoxville. It’s a smaller town. But, it’s a great music scene. Very supportive and very diverse. You name it, you can probably find it there somewhere someday.
NS: Runaway Freeway Blues is your latest album. What was the most difficult song to write or record on that record?
CC: The very last song on the record, “Glow.” It’s a really simple sounding song. It’s really a private song and really the most difficult for me to sing. I didn’t realize it until I got into the studio, but sometimes the most simple things are the most difficult to record. I produced the record, which is a tough task to do, to produce and perform it. I was sitting out there singing it and our engineer was looking at me kind of shaking his head like “Yeah…I don’t think we’re getting there.” So I got a second shot at it and it was pretty cool because my son Cash was there. The only people in the studio were me, my son, and our engineer Scott. I had really written that song for Cash so it was cool. I said to myself, “If I can’t focus now, I’ll just sing it to him and we’ll be done with it.” That was pretty cool experience.
NS: Yeah. I think most of the time when you’re thinking about making an atmosphere for recording a record, you think it’s the loud songs that are most difficult to get amped up to record without that live audience there to perform it for, but I can see those intimate songs being way more difficult to perform and record.
CC: Yeah. A lot of times, they take more accuracy. You don’t have that pure adrenaline. You have to focus more. Stay still a little more.
NS: Yeah. You guys have had a couple of big years the last couple. You’re getting more publicity and playing bigger shows and venues. Do you even feel like you’re more successful as it’s happening? Do you just wake up one day and realize that you’ve come a long way since that same day the year before or anything?
CC: [Laughs]. I don’t really know if it works that way. It’s the most challenging part in the music business, this pursuit. In our case, touring and trying to get more people to come out to your shows. Yeah, one night you’re in a sold out theater and the next you’re playing to the janitor in a small club. So you really have to have some thick skin and roll with the ups and the downs. You have to keep the bigger picture in mind and believe in what you’re doing. I’m not kidding, it puts you to the test. Since we do it every day, it’s difficult to sometimes see the progress. But when you step back and look, you go “OK. Yeah, we’re doing OK.”
NS: When it comes to songwriting, since there are two really great vocalists in this band, yourself and Trisha [Gene Brady], I can see how that would really expand what y’all can do.
CC: Yeah. I just pulled out a song that I had written a long time ago that I thought she’d do well on. I’m actually doing a little bit of that right now, going and checking out songs that I wrote years ago that hadn’t ever been presented to the band. I pulled one out the other day. I had always really liked the song, but the form, I didn’t think was done well by a male vocalist so I told Trisha to take a look at it and we’d rehearse it later. On it, I’m playing bass and our bass player is playing lead guitar and Trisha sings lead. I was very happy with it. I don’t want us to get into a rut ever.
NS: Yeah. I’m guessing it’s an exciting time music wise. I know we were talking about songs evolving, but also just the fact that you guys are all multi-instrumentalists has to be something you’re happy to tap into.
CC: Yeah. Everybody is, so there’s not reason not to present that over time.
NS: As far as looking forward to the next album, when do you think that’ll be coming out? When are you thinking you’ll be going back into the studio?
CC: Right now, I’m looking at recording in the fall. We’re looking at studios and thinking about engineers and coming up with material. We’re about halfway there. With this second half of material, I’ve got to really step back and decide where I want to go with it. Really the biggest challenge with this band is having too many options. You know, I have twenty concepts for records that we could try. We just have to figure out what we’re going to do. 2015, we’ll probably get it out that spring.