Knoxville's Americana favorites The Black Lillies continue to bloom

Saul Young/News Sentinel
Over the past four years, The Black Lillies have become one of the most talked-about acts in Americana music. The group is, from left, Tom Pryor,  Cruz Contreras, Trisha Gene Brady, Jamie Cook and Robert Richards.

Photo by Saul Young, 2013 Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo

Saul Young/News Sentinel Over the past four years, The Black Lillies have become one of the most talked-about acts in Americana music. The group is, from left, Tom Pryor, Cruz Contreras, Trisha Gene Brady, Jamie Cook and Robert Richards.

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Cruz Contreras was in the eighth grade when he had a life-changing moment. Contreras was at John Hartford’s house in Nashville where Hartford held regular picking parties.

“I’d had my guitar for one week and there’s Marty Stuart, Earl Scruggs ...”

The young teen Contreras was sitting in the dining room with his guitar when “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe sits down beside him and commands that he accompany him on “Jerusalem Ridge” in A minor.

“I guess he just saw me with a guitar and figured I could do it!” says Contreras, still marveling a little looking back on the incident. “I got enough inspiration that one night to play music for the rest of my life! It was like, ‘OK, I get it. I need to go practice!’ ”

Sitting over breakfast at the French Market on Gay Street, Contreras smiles. There’s little doubt that music and Contreras are forever intertwined. He is the leader of The Black Lillies, one of the most talked-about acts in Americana music. The group is celebrating the release of their new album, “Runaway Freeway Blues,” at the Tennessee Theatre on Saturday and will follow the next week with a celebration show in Nashville and another appearance on the Friday night edition of the Grand Ole Opry.

Contreras has been well-known in East Tennessee since he was the “CC” in Robinella and the CC Stringband, another Knoxville act that earned national acclaim. Before that he was a precocious kid in Nashville.

“Growing up I was always raking leaves or mowing grass — I was that kid. I almost didn’t go to college because, at 17, I had a job playing piano at the Opryland Hotel.”

Yet he did decide to move to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee and study jazz piano under Donald Brown. To make ends meet, he worked at Home Depot and delivered books to teachers on campus. He also began a bluegrass band called the Stringbeans with Robin Ella Tipton (now Bailey), which morphed into Robinella and the CC Stringband. Contreras and Tipton married. The group signed with Columbia Records and appeared on national programs, including “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” before the marriage and the band ended in 2007.

Contreras spent some time away from music working as a truck driver, but he began writing songs. He spent 2008 writing and recording what would become the Black Lillies’ debut album.

“That first album, no one even knew I was doing it,” says Contreras. “I was living in North Knoxville and I could play my drum set at night in the living room. I’d record a song or two a month and there was no external pressure.”

Contreras had never been a vocalist and frontman in a group, but began to enjoy the role. Several players played with him on the project, including guitarist Tom Pryor and drummer Jamie Cook (both of The Everybodyfields), vocalist Leah Gardner and bassists Jeff Woods and Taylor Coker. The album was recorded before Contreras decided to call the group (which had become known locally as the Cruz Contreras Band) The Black Lillies.

The group’s formal debut was the CD release show on April 11, 2009. The group’s next gig was at Bonnaroo and the third was as part of WDVX’s “Tennessee Shines” show at the Bijou.

The lineup has changed somewhat from the group’s first two years. While Contreras, Pryor and Cook have been with the group since its inception, Robert Richards is now the group bassist and Trisha Gene Brady joined on vocals after Gardner left the group.

Although Contreras credits Chyna Brackeen with helping the group find success, the act has also benefitted from some friends’ guerilla marketing.

A friend and fan of the band set up a pirate radio signal in Leadville, Colo., and played the song “Whiskey Angel” over and over with a commercial for the band.

“We’d been playing there for two to five people, but we get there and there’s a line out the door!” says Contreras.

Enthusiasm has been high with both fans and peers. The group has almost become regulars on the Grand Ole Opry and earned praise from both Vince Gill and Jim Ed Brown.

Contreras says one thing he doesn’t want is for the band to become predictable.

“I don’t feel like we’re limited. I want to do everything we can to not paint ourselves in a corner. People familiar with our live shows know it can go in any direction.”

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The Black Lillies

With: Langhorne Slim

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 23

Where: Tennessee Theatre

Tickets: $26.50, available at Knoxville Tickets outlets, 865-656-4444 and www.knoxvilletickets.com

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