Preservation Profiles: An interview with Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras

The Black Lillies’ forthcoming fourth album Hard to Please is the band’s first with an outside producer (Grammy winner Ryan Hewitt, of Avett Brothers fame), and its first with a major distributor (30 Tigers out of Nashville). But Lillies leader Cruz Contreras says those changes came without hazard to the fierce creative instincts that have defined the hard-working Knoxville Americana outfit since their founding in 2009.

“Those were scary steps,” says Contreras, speaking from his home recently during an infrequent break from the road. “But I think it’s turned out in our favor. We’re still independent, and we still have our own record company. Now we just have someone else to help distribute.”

Truth be told, if there’s a model for making it in the music industry in the post-digital era — an age when all of the industry’s traditional cash cows are dying in the field — that model looks a lot like what the the Lillies have been doing since they laid tracks for their debut album in Contreras’ living room.

Because even as those old standbys — radio adds and CD sales and arena-centric road trips — have fallen by the wayside, the Black Lillies have risen, and gotten stronger. Theirs are the tools of a new era in music, crowd-funded DIY releases and careful merchandising and touring the festival circuit.

Having begun his career in earnest in the late 1990s with Robinella and the CCstringband, he says he realized at the outset that the rules of the game were in flux. “When we made our first record in 1999, we were an anomaly in that we were doing it ourselves,” he says.

“But that was right at the time when, suddenly, people could share music on the internet and not pay for it. That reality was a real wake-up call for me. It made me realize that if I would really have to be persistent about this if I was going to make it my career.”

Contreras recalls an instance some years back when a couple of young female fans approached him after a show in another city. “One girl comes up and says, I love your band — I burned your CD for all my friends,” he recounts with a rueful chuckle.

“I was making $75 a week at the time. And I didn’t really know what to think. ‘Should I be happy about this?'”

But Karma rewards Persistence, and Contreras is nothing if not Persistence in boots and worn denim. As of Oct. 2, the Black Lillies will have released four fine albums in six years, rated on U.S. Americana and Country charts with albums and singles alike, garnered fawning attention from the likes of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal, and played more high-profile shows on more big stages than can be justly considered in the space of a single article.

Perhaps there is no better testament to the Lillies’ impeccable cred, though, than the fact that they have graced the stage of the Grand Ole Opry nearly 40 times to date, a record for independent recording acts.

“We’re in a pretty good place now,” Contreras allows. “We’re an independent band that has been able to make a career making music. We’ve survived and thrived in a changing environment.”

They’ve evolved musically, too, from a band firmly grounded in roots musics to a versatile Americana juggernaut, a barnstorming, genre-bending outfit capable of shifting seamlessly between faithfully-rendered bluegrass, soulful southern rock, throwback country and swing.

“We started out as something closer to a string band,” says Contreras, a gifted multi-instrumentalist and former jazz piano student at the University of Tennessee. “That’s changed the more I’ve written songs. As I started writing more, the rock and country and jazz influences started coming in. Now, its shows in the fact that we get compared to so many bands.”

Contreras promises that the band’s sound will only get bigger as the Lillies incorporate new influences from new members Sam Quinn (ex-King Super, the everybody fields), Jonathan Keeney (Guy Marshall, Baseball, Dixieghost), and Mike Seal (the Jeff Sipe trio) — three well-traveled veterans who bring impressive credentials both as players and as songwriters into the Lillies’ fold.

“I’m excited,” Contreras enthuses. “The band has evolved even since we recorded in March. We have new members, new sounds, a new vibe, a new chemistry. I want to be open to what our new sound will be.

“Whatever that is, I’ll be as surprised as anyone. But I do think that more songs that work on a big stage will be coming down the line.”

None of which should be taken to mean that Contreras doesn’t miss the rich contributions of former Lillies who have left the fold — decorated players like guitarist Tom Prior, who left this year to move West, or former drummer Jamie Cook, who departed the band to become a bandleader in his own right.

“What’s continuity?” Contreras laughs. “You know, I’m the only member now who has been here since the beginning. It takes courage to move ahead.

“In our band, we don’t talk about our ‘personnel.’ We talk about our family and friends. And it’s sad when friends move on. But what do you want to do? I want to keep playing music.”

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