Late last summer at the Bottleneck in Lawrence, the Americana band the Black Lillies played in front of about a dozen people.
That number is generous. Maybe if you counted the bartender and the sound guy, you could come up with 12.
No matter. The band ripped through its catalog as if the place were standing-room-only.
And after they played their final song for the night, the members stowed away their instruments and one after another stepped off the front of the stage and headed straight to the merch table with little ceremony.
There I told the singer, Cruz Contreras, that it was a little sad more folks didn’t make it out, but you sure couldn’t tell from the way the band played.
“Yeah, well,” he said. “I still have to entertain myself.”
Traveling by van across the snowy Colorado plains last week, Contreras reiterated that point over the phone.
“I think you have to make a habit out of doing what you do no matter the circumstance,” Contreras said. “I told myself years ago, ‘Even if you’re playing to two people, don’t throw it away. Don’t think you’re going to go through the motions with two people and all of a sudden rock it in front of a thousand people.’
“You make a habit out of it. Then those two people tell two people, and that’s how you build it.”
The Black Lillies, based out of Knoxville, Tenn., perform Wednesday at Knuckleheads and have been revered by the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, PBS, NPR and others for some years now. Last summer, Rolling Stone named them one of its “10 New Artists You Need to Know.”
But they’re difficult to categorize. They’re not exactly country and not exactly rock. Contreras explains the band’s sound as “All kinds of roots music, whether it’s bluegrass or mountain music or rock ’n’ roll or gospel — it can be anything — and we just roll all that up into one ball of energy.”
Definitely a reflection of the band’s frontman.
In and out of music
Contreras started playing classical piano as a kid, then got into bluegrass at 15, after hearing “The Telluride Sessions,” an album by Strength in Numbers, a bluegrass super-group, if you will, featuring banjo player Bela Fleck, fiddler Mark O’Connor, Dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolin player Sam Bush and bassist Edgar Meyer.
“It just branched out from there,” Contreras said. “I like bluegrass and I like swing and I like jazz and I like Celtic music.… It just became this pursuit of learning everything I could about music and all the different styles.”
He studied jazz piano at the University of Tennessee. For almost a decade, Contreras was a mandolin player and instrumentalist in Robinella and the CC Stringband, a progressive bluegrass band with his then-wife Robin Ella Tipton. When the marriage and the band ended, Contreras spent some time driving a truck for a stone company before he decided to give music another shot with a new band and a new role: singer and songwriter.
“Early on with this band, it was something I wanted to prove to myself,” he said. “I wanted to play music again, I wanted to be happy, I wanted to see if I couldn’t write some songs and sing.”
The Black Lillies’ 2009 album, “Whiskey Angel,” was met with critical praise, and its 2013 album, “Runaway Freeway Blues,” debuted at No. 43 on the Billboard Country chart and No. 21 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart.
Last year, they logged nearly 80,000 miles in a van, playing more than 200 shows. They’ve performed at Bonnaroo, CMA Fan Fair, the Rochester (N.Y.) Jazz Fest, Oregon’s Pickathon in Portland and KC’s own International Folk Alliance Festival. They’ve also played the Grand Ole Opry more than 30 times, which, Contreras said, is, “Probably the most important stage we play.”
But like a lot of bands with audiences of the same size, the Black Lillies are looking to take that next step.
“You look at bands that were hugely successful and you wonder what the trick was,” Contreras said. “Was it a hit song or was it marketing or was it luck?”
Contreras said he has really tried to focus on the music part of that equation, because that’s what lasts.
“We have approached this as a touring band,” he said. “We haven’t had a big marketing budget, so we just throw down when we play live, and people spread the word.”
Dinner with the band?
The band is a fun follow on Facebook. Contreras posts photos of his young son, Cash, with the recently departed Little Jimmy Dickens. Bandmate Trisha Gene Brady shares photos that fans have taken of the band or landscapes from tour stops in Taos, N.M., or Steamboat Springs, Colo.
“I think for us not having a record deal, that’s just the way we do it,” Contreras said. “It’s a way for our fan base to network with each other. They follow us on Facebook, and they come to recognize each other’s names when they go to a show and they run into each other. It’s really cool to see that come together.”
They hope that faithful following pays off for their next album, which they plan to record in February if they get enough help from fans.
The album is being financed through PledgeMusic, a music-focused, crowd-funding site that has also been the home of projects from Howie Day, the Legendary Shack Shakers, Plain White T’s and others. For the right-sized pledge, the Black Lillies in turn will give donors anything from the opportunity to co-write a song to a hat knitted by the drummer’s mom. For $750, you can go backstage at the Opry. For $1,000 you can go dirt biking with Contreras. For $1,750, band members will cook you dinner.
“What we do doesn’t quite fit into an existing market,” Contreras said. “ So we have to keep doing it the way we’re doing it, making our own niche.”
Contreras says it would be wishful thinking, but it probably would have been easier to make a living years back.
“You made money selling records back in the day, and that’s not really profitable now,” he said. “And personally, I’m a fan of music from that era, so ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s, it would have been cool to have been around that. But I definitely enjoy being known as a ‘live band experience.’”
But you have to wonder: All that driving and hustling and asking fans for financial help has to take a toll. Contreras says he has been honest with his son that if this music thing doesn’t keep heading in the right direction, he’s headed home. When doubt creeps in, he has to ask himself, “Why am I really doing this?”
“There’s selfish reasons, but there’s also giving reasons for doing this,” he said. “Music is a pretty simple thing, but it kind of gives people a chance to take a break from whatever they’re experiencing in life. It kind of helps for a bit to get out and enjoy some music and enjoy some friendship. It’s a gift, and a responsibility and a calling to use it in that way. I think we bring a lot of people joy and happiness with what we do.”
Even if it’s just a dozen people at a time.
SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFE
Some of Cruz Contreras’ favorite albums and artists:
Album that has influenced me the most: “Guns N’ Roses, ‘Appetite for Destruction.’ Probably a million people would say that, but here’s the reason why: So much energy is packed into one record. But also Strength in Numbers’ ‘The Telluride Sessions.’ There was this transition for me between those two records. When I heard ‘The Telluride Sessions,’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute — this is weird. This music is so different, but it kind of like gets you going in the same way.’”
First album I bought with my own money. “Young M.C., ‘Stone Cold Rhymin’.’ I bought it at the Notre Dame bookstore.”
Album I’ll never tire of listening to: “Lately I’ve been wearing out the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sticky Fingers.’ I’ve been listening to that a lot, trying to keep it in mind as we go in to make the next record. To me, that’s a very roots-oriented record. Rock ’n’ roll and blues and it’s got the jam elements and country elements. Big fan of that record.”
Song that helped me find my voice as a songwriter: I don’t think of songs, but I think of voices. Every writer has their go-to voices they reference. John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, those are all references for me.”
What I’ve been listening to lately: “I never get tired of Shovels & Rope. The simplicity and straightforwardness of what they’re doing. I’ve got a few friends in Knoxville that are making good music. Josh Oliver, he used to play in a band called the Everybodyfields. Big fan of his new record.”
| David Frese, The Star
The Black Lillies perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester. Tickets are $12 through KnuckleheadsHonkyTonk.com.