Cruz Contreras, frontman for The Black Lillies, spent his post-Thanksgiving break taking advantage of the lighter holiday schedule to reconnect with family. Caught on the phone on Black Friday, Contreras is putting lots of miles on his vehicle trying to reach all of his family over the long holiday weekend.
“This is our time off of the road, but I consider this my ‘Family Turkey Tour,’” he says with a laugh. “Me and my son are in Nashville visiting my mom today, we’ll see my dad in Bowling Green tomorrow, and then we’ll head back to Knoxville. We’re having a good time.”
Knoxville has been an important city for the Lillies, who play the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh Friday. Contreras moved there at the age of 18 to attend the University of Tennessee, where he met fellow music lovers from all corners of the country. Studying jazz piano, he was introduced to new forms of music, and by the time he left college he had formed a band and gotten married. To hear the guitarist explain it, it just made sense to lay down roots in a town that loved its musicians, but didn’t offer the same Faustian deals that are common in neighboring Nashville.
“There’s no music industry in Knoxville, or at the very least, there’s nothing comparable to what you find in Nashville,” Contreras explains. “You don’t have the publishing-writing industry, the record label offices on every corner, or the recording studios every five feet. We’re a smaller town, with UT pumping out great musicians every year. Some decide to stay, others leave, but there are always great musicians and bands playing gigs around the city. It forces (musicians) to create their own sounds, because there isn’t that much of a signature sound around the Knoxville scene to emulate. There might be great music, but the chances of there being another band within such a small scene having the same sound as you is practically nonexistent.”
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During their seven years, the Lillies have never been labeled derivative. With an outstanding catalog of songs written during that time period, the majority of their lifespan has come with the yoke of “Next Big Thing” hung on their shoulders. As an Americana band with praise from cultural institutions like Vanity Fair and CMT, the pressure to break through doesn’t seem to have dampened the bandleader’s enthusiasm for performing.
While the recording of their critically acclaimed 2015 release “Hard to Please” saw two senior band members leave the group, Contreras says that it was just another aspect of today’s music business climate.
“Two members did leave while we were on tour and trying to raise money to record the album, which was a big deal within the context of this very transparent drive to get fans’ financial support of the new record. It felt like I was saying, ‘We’re very excited about this new album, and we need your help. Oh, by the way, two of our members are done,’” he says. “That was a challenge. Luckily there wasn’t a falling out; it was just the toll that touring over two hundred dates a year takes.”
This understanding tone comes from an artist who clearly doesn’t expect to get rich from his music. Contreras understands that his songwriting efforts could go toward more cookie-cutter material, something with just the right amount of rural stereotypes to make record labels in Nashville take notice and offer a contract.
But his musical genre of choice almost necessitates that he continue leading the Lillies down the road on their current journey, and toward the hope that stardom is found through hard work.
“For me, Americana has just become shorthand for ‘roots music,’ and roots music just means the opposite of commercial music,” the guitarist says. “I think most artists who find themselves considered Americana artists fell in love with making music for the sake of making art, for the song and instrumentation – and their first priority in becoming an artist wasn’t to make money.”
What: Black Lillies
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Lincoln Theatre, 126 E. Cabarrus St., Raleigh
Info: 919-821-4111 or lincolntheatre.com