Five years ago, Cruz Contreras thought he'd played his last show. His marriage was over and his band, Robinella and the CC String Band, had called it quits. He'd taken a job driving a truck for a stone company and was there for 18 months. "I really questioned pursuing the music thing pretty intensely," he says. "The traveling and the never-satisfied notion of it all. Working and never knowing if you're going to get paid. I felt like it had taken a toll on the marriage."
But in that truck, the wounds healed and he rediscovered the tingle of true love.
"I was driving around listening to 89.9 WDVX, a station in Knoxville, and I got reacquainted with my roots," Contreras says. "I'm like, 'God, I love this music. I love bluegrass, this Appalachian stuff.' Then Scott Miller [and the Commonwealth] called me up to do a couple shows. It just reminded me that it was something I loved doing."
This time, Contreras began writing and singing his own songs — something he'd never done. He sang along to the radio in the truck. He knew that the odds were against him, which just pushed him harder. "I had a lot of adrenaline at the time and really got after it. I tell people if you want to get something, you have to get mad," he chuckles.
These days, Contreras' doubts have been replaced by the promise of the Black Lillies, his new bluegrass-tinged country-rock outfit. Those dark days may not be a pleasant memory at this point, but they are reflected in the title of the band's second album, 100 Miles of Wreckage. Despite the fiery crash, Contreras appears to have landed clear of the carnage. In fact, his band has made multiple appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, an almost unheard of accomplishment for a new band, especially one on their own label.
"I felt the urgency from the beginning," Contreras says. "You're sitting around with your buddies in your 30s, and you're like, 'Hey, let's start a band.' It usually doesn't happen. But I was able to take what I learned in my 30s and put this into fast forward."
In the spring of 2009, the Black Lillies released Whiskey Angel. The album's twangy, easy-going Americana ranges widely from the sweetly lilting "Cruel," which features flashes of jazz guitar (Contreras was a jazz piano major) to the ragtime sway of the folk-blues "Goodbye Mama Blues" and spare, loping pedal-steel folk dirge "Lonely." Shadows lurk in the corners, but the songs push on into the light, echoing the dust-yourself-off resilience of the lyrics. "Oh the distance, oh the time," he sings on the "The Distance." "What's the difference? It's all in your mind."
Many of the songs feature female vocal accompaniment and duets, which were handled by Leah Gardner on the debut. But she left the band a year later, the victim of a rugged first national tour. It nearly broke up the gang. "[Midway through the tour] I told everybody, 'I'm going to go on regardless. Who's in, and who's not?'" he recalls.
When they returned home, Gardner departed and Trisha Gene Brady stepped in as the harmony vocalist, though Contreras believes she can do more.
"She's getting more and more comfortable," he says of Brady. "At the top of my list is to start writing more solo pieces for her because she can belt it out big time."
Brady doesn't really get to strut her stuff on Wreckage, but the Black Lillies sure do. They expand their palette into the very Band-like "Peach Pickin'," the greasy blues-piano swing of "Ain't My Fault" and "Two Hearts Down," which incorporates Celtic rock flavor into its bluegrass/country-rock hoedown. It's an album whose creation was deeply impacted by the death of Mark Linkous, an American songwriter known as leader of Sparklehorse, who'd been spending a lot of time in Knoxville prior to his suicide in March 2010. He shot himself outside the studio of his friend/producer Scott Minor, with whom Contreras was also recording Wreckage.
"The recording process came to a complete halt," Contreras remembers. "We had about six months before we came back at it. It's funny. Before that happened, I was forcing the issue — like let's just get the album out. After that happened, it put that all in perspective. Kind of 'as long as it takes,' you know? And try to let that be a reminder and inspiration to the project as a whole."
Although the album is only a year old, the Black Lillies have started brainstorming a new album. For the moment, they're content to enjoy what a victory it is to even have two albums out.
"We survived it. We turned the corner where we're all full-time and paying our bills," Contreras says. "We're in our third season of touring, and we're making it. We're in the game, and we're really pleased."