Bluegrass With Black Lillies
Rising stars out of Knoxville, Tennessee, the Black Lillies are on the cusp of an exciting and nail-biting date for any band — Album Release Day. On March 26, Runaway Freeway Blues will hit physical and digital shelves.
The successor to 2011's stellar 100 Miles of Wreckage follows the tradition of showcasing a diverse array of Americana and roots styles. From rustic, acoustic gospel to rump-shaking Southern rock, the band, led by frontman Cruz Contreras, expertly weaves the seemingly divergent threads together.
The five-piece band play a few shows at SXSW in Austin, of course, but they will also swing by Hailey's in Denton on Friday, March 15, sharing the stage with former lead singer of BR-549, Chuck Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys.
We recently caught up with Contreras to discuss Knoxville's place in the crowded Tennessee musical geography, asking fans for money, and how to put a fresh spin on old-timey sounds.
Culture Map: Nashville and Memphis seem to get the major share of attention regarding music from Tennessee. How's Knoxville's music scene?
Cruz Contreras: Knoxville has a storied and vibrant musical scene, from its mountain music past to its present-day, thriving Americana scene. I moved there in 1995 to study jazz piano with world-class player and instructor Donald Brown at the University of Tennessee. It's a great place for music education, as well as being a perfect environment for starting up and promoting a band.
The scene is small enough that you have to be original — there aren't really enough bands to emulate — yet there's so much community support that it is really a difficult place to leave.
CM: As a band that employs what some might consider old-school sounds, do you find it difficult to continue sounding fresh instead of simply rehashing older sounds?
CC: I do think it's a challenge for any band to keep things fresh. To me, the key is to continually create new material and never feel like your supposed to re-create the type of music or sound you are known for because that's already been done.
We do play in some more traditional settings, like the Grand Ole Opry, but when we're on the road, our fans know to expect anything.
At the end of our 2012 tour, we were playing Thomas, West Virginia, at a venue called the Purple Fiddle. About three hours into a four-hour set, we busted into a hip-hop jam. Everybody was having a great time, and I told the crowd with a wink, "You know, we're a country band!"
In unison, the crowd erupted into laughter — not because they don't love country music, but because they know how ridiculous labels can be. Our band and fans are concerned foremost with good music!
CM: Kickstarter and other fan-funding methods are massively popular these days. Your group has raised funds for albums this way. What are your overall thoughts on its merits?
CC: Fan-supported and fan-funded music is a big part of who we are. I've seen firsthand the collapse of much of the major record deal model. I made my first independent CD in 1999, and immediately a fan told me how much she loved it and that she had burned it for all of her friends. She was proud of that, and she didn't realize how it impacted me. I knew then that I had gotten into the record business at a strange time.
Never fear, though — people still love and need music. We want to play it, hear it, experience it and sustain it — enter fan-funded records. I have to admit, I was skeptical at first. I wasn't raised to be comfortable asking for help like that. But it's a two-way street. The fans get the music they want and are then involved with its creation, and the artist is able to make a product free of some of the industry pitfalls, with confidence and integrity.
CM: Scott Minor from Sparklehorse produced your new album. Stylistically, there aren't many similarities between you and Sparklehorse. Give us some background on your relationship with him and what he's brought to the recording process.
CC: He has recorded and mixed each of the Black Lillies' records. He's a Knoxville resident, and mutual friends brought us together. We come from very different musical backgrounds, but I think there has been a very positive temperance in our working relationship. I have pretty cheesy, tacky taste, and he's the cool kid.
Mark Linkous [Sparklehorse lead singer who committed suicide in 2010] was spending time in Knoxville when we recorded our second release, 100 Miles of Wreckage. His passing brought the recording process of that album to an abrupt halt.
At the time, I was about to send off the recording for mastering, though I was not completely satisfied. Mark's presence had made quite an impact on me, and with his death, I knew I wasn't going to settle for anything less than our truly best effort. We resumed recording later that summer, and despite our differing musical worlds, he very much positively impacted our band.
CM: SXSW is always a crazy week. Is the experience fun for you, or do you see it as a painful week that you just have to deal with as a necessary evil of today's indie music world?
CC: This week will be the Black Lillies' first trip to SXSW. I suppose it's like anything else, and it'll be what we make of it. I know we'll be busy playing showcases, and that's what we're there to do, but we'll also get to see many of our musician friends and say hey to the people working hard to promote us who we would otherwise rarely see.
We love Austin, and we love Texas. I've got family all over the state. My dad's an Aggie, and I'll probably see some family from Fort Worth. I most hope to see my grandma in Houston. I better give her a call!
The Black Lillies take the stage at Hailey's in Denton on March 15.