Squeezing Lemonade from Adversity
Squeezing Lemonade from Adversity
A Q&A with Cruz Contreras Of the Black Lillies
By Geoff Gehman
Cruz Contreras specializes in turning scrap metal into sculpture. The founding frontman of the Black Lillies wrote a lively, tail-wagging song, “40 Days and 40 Nights,” about the band’s first tour, a mess of roadblocks and wrong turns. The vibrant, vital tunes on the Lillies’ first album, “Whiskey Angel,” emerged from a time when he was divorced, separated from his young son, jobless and homeless. Even the band’s name grew from a dark patch where he saw no color in a favorite flower.
The Lillies’ latest record, “Hard to Please” (Attack Monkey), is another case of Contreras squeezing lemonade from adversity. Two band members told him they were leaving on the first day of pre-production. He had to adjust to their replacements and write up a storm at the request of the group’s first outside producer, Ryan Hewitt, whose partners range from Johnny Cash to the Avett Brothers. Trials by fire produced the Lillies’ most roaming, robust CD, a percolating blend of Appalachian folk, country-rock, newgrass, Memphis soul and psychedelic soundscape. The most tingling track is “Broken Shore,” an incantatory, almost hallucinatory tale inspired by Contreras’ paternal grandfather, who fought with other Marines on the desolate, decimated island of Iwo Jima, one of World War II’s Pacific prisons.
On Aug. 12 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host the Lillies, a favorite act at the Grand Ole Opry and the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, both major venues in their home state of Tennessee. Below, in a conversation from his home in Knoxville, Contreras discusses learning improvisation from his pianist father, turning parking tickets into pledge-drive gifts and promoting world peace by putting an end to highway tolls.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul? Mine was the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which sounded even better cranked up in a ’65 Mustang convertible.
A: You mentioned hearing music coming out of a car. I remember I was on a middle-school swim team practicing at a high school when this baby-blue Chevelle comes ripping into the parking lot blaring Guns & Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” I just stood there with my jaw dropped, thinking: Woah, what is that? My parents didn’t listen to much rock; classical music was much more popular in our house. So I’m pretty sure I thought the devil himself was rolling into town in this vehicle.
There was another time when I was much younger, sitting in a high chair in a restaurant in Niles, Mich., when “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” came on and I just flipped out. My mom remembers that I wouldn’t stop jumping up and down and dancing. She says: ”That’s when I knew you had music in you.”
Q: Your dad was an avid piano player who taught you, your brothers and your sister a lot about singing, arranging and improvising. What was the best musical lesson you picked up from him?
A: I wrote an unrecorded song about him that tells the story of him coming home from working at the Whirlpool corporation and us waiting for him to play. He’d quickly go to the piano and he played from sheets of the popular music of the day: Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” a [Henry] Mancini love song, [Dave Brubeck’s] “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” He could play well enough from the sheets but he liked to improvise. He would start out simple and then get more complicated, playing octaves, playing faster, and we would run around in circles shouting “Faster–play it faster!” His hands were a blur and I remember thinking: “My dad has really fast hands.” I was in kindergarten and first grade and I learned a lot about embellishing a simple melody and rhythm, just by watching him do it. I remember picking out melodies on the piano when I was tall enough to see the keys. I also remember this cartoon that featured the Hall & Oates song “Maneater”; I picked that out on the piano, too.
We were all required to play piano; that’s something that comes from the Contreras family. Me and my youngest brother Billy were the only ones who became musicians. He’s a world-class jazz fiddler; we’ve made a lot of music together over the years. In fact, my brother has a lot to do with me getting into country music and bluegrass. I was in the seventh grade when I began following him on the fiddle circuit and the bluegrass scene. That’s when I really stopped my classical-music studies and really got into what he was into.
Q: Your love of bluegrass was sealed when you discovered “Telluride Sessions,” the 1989 album from Strength in Numbers, the super-duper newgrass band that included banjo player Bela Fleck, violinist Marc O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer. Why did they bowl you over?
A: That was when I had the strangest transition. It was during a time when my brother was getting into bluegrass fiddling and I came home one day and found him playing with John Hartford in my living room; at the time I didn’t know who John Hartford was. When I was 15 someone basically gave my parents a cassette of the Strength in Numbers album and I popped it in and I was just frozen. These musicians, these songs, this way of playing—it was all new and very exciting to me. The record had this awesome energy and intensity that made me think: I’m listening to Guns & Roses, except I’m not.
That was kind of the rabbit hole for me. The next week I had records by all of these guys [the five members of Strength in Numbers] and each of those records had five guys who were new to me. That sort of kicked off my high-school frenzy of discovery. I got a guitar when Billy needed somebody to back him up on guitar. But it wasn’t just the music; what really clipped me is that we started going to these bluegrass festivals and playing with interesting characters in cool, beautiful places. I was 12 when we moved from Michigan to Franklin, Tenn. and I remember feeling awkward for a couple of years in my new community. When I joined the bluegrass circuit, I felt like I had found my people, my tribe.
Q: How and why did you settle on the name the Black Lillies—with that extra “l”?
A: The term “organic” gets mentioned a lot with our music and it’s pretty legitimate. We’re roots oriented and natural and in the moment and honest. When you’re an artist sometimes good things happen simply because you don’t overthink. The No. 6 song I wrote [for the band] was “Where the Black Lillies Grow.” It was just an image that spoke to me. My mind went back to my dad, who in addition to playing the piano also did a lot of gardening. We lived in the country and he would get a box of lilies out of a ditch and my job was to water them. When I was writing the song it was a dark time in my life, so I saw the lilies as black.
The imagery was so good, so strong. It was something I hadn’t heard before, and I said: There it is; there’s the name. It sounded like the band sounded at that time; back then we were mainly an acoustic string band. The strange thing is, the band has evolved so many times that if you told me today I had to name it the Black Lillies, I would say “No way.”
Q: You created “Hard to Please” in a white-hot fever, hiring replacement players for two band members who suddenly exited, writing a ton of material during a snow storm, and working with an outside producer—Ryan Hewitt–for the first time. Did Ryan lead you to any new routines and routes?
A: We had to make up our mind and mindset to trust him to do his job, as scary as that can be. I met him in Nashville and played him my new songs on guitar and piano; I remember I played “Mercy” and “That’s the Way It Goes Down.” I thought I had enough songs for the record. He told me: “These three here are great. Now I want you to write other songs as strong as these.”
Q: That must have been strong stuff for even a seasoned songwriter to swallow.
A: But I respond to a challenge; I like to shake things up. A lot of people will tell you “That’s great.” It’s more valuable when someone calls you up; what they say is often what you need to hear. So I went back to the drawing board and wrote more songs. Ryan then came to Knoxville to meet the band. He was upstairs when two of our guys told me they were leaving the band. He came downstairs and I smiled at him and said “Guess what? We lost two band members.” And he smiled back at me and said: “Alright, cool.”
In life and music you’re going to have obstacles to overcome and we did. The two band members ended up touring with us; it was a busy winter with cruises and festivals at ski resorts. Since they hung in with us I thought: Maybe we can record five songs with this lineup and five songs with that lineup. I decided not to; you learn the writing’s on the wall if someone’s energy and focus are elsewhere.
For a time I didn’t have the confidence to bring in other players. What happened is that I called up our now bass player, Sam Quinn, a member of the Everybodyfields from Knoxville, Tenn. I asked him: Can you fill in for a few gigs in March? I told him that we couldn’t rehearse because I had a week and a half to write. He said “That’s cool.” When I had the songs, he and I and our drummer Bow[man Townsend] worked on arrangements. Here I am playing new material with a different player and different arrangements and I thought: Hey, this sounds good. I just needed to get into that mindset where you remember that the songs are bigger than you.
Ryan brought in Bill Reynolds, a great bass player from a great band, Band of Horses. I brought in Matt Smith on pedal steel—he and I had worked on records together–and Daniel Donato, a young guitarist from Nashville I had really liked at Robert’s Western World; he’s one of those players who can literally blow the roof off the place. The new lineup turned out to be a magical combination, with these great veteran players working with this wild-card guitarist, a 19- or 20-year-old kid who after every song would say “Dude, righteous, man.”
Q: One of my favorite tracks on “Hard to Please” is “Broken Shore,” which was inspired by your grandfather, who fought on Iwo Jima during World War II. You and the other band members really stretch it out until it becomes incantatory, hallucinatory, even psychedelic.
A: Let me backtrack a bit. I once wrote a song called “Catherine” about my [maternal] grandfather [Bill Ackerman], who was a pilot during World War II. He flew a P-44 that he named Catherine after his mother. I grew up around him and I looked up to him; he was certainly a hero of mine. I gave “Catherine” that feeling of the exhilaration of flying through the air, the exhilaration of American soldiers liberating Europe. Those soldiers were welcomed as heroes instantly. They could roll into Paris and grab a bottle of wine and celebrate.
It was a very different situation for my [paternal] grandfather [Ciprian Contreras] and other Marines who fought on Iwo Jima. Imagine traveling a great distance to a rock where you have to fight an enemy who’s going to fight you to the death. When I tried to wrap my mind around that in a song, it was bleak and challenging. Actually, challenging is an understatement: the subject of the song was the antithesis of music.
Honestly, all the music I was hearing was heavy metal, the textures and the sounds. I thought it might be a little out of our realm until I came up with the metaphor of a rock in the middle of the ocean. Using the natural elements lent itself more to my style of writing and our style of music. So we came up with a unique song for us, a through-composed piece of music with the repetitive chorus “Which way is heaven and which way is hell?” When we play it live I’ll switch between the guitar and piano; sometimes I’ll even pick up a mandolin. It really perks up the ears and takes people on a ride, us included.
There is a long tradition of Marines in the Contreras family. My grandfather was a Marine; my father was a Marine. I broke the family tradition by going into music, although I’m still strongly connected to that tradition. “Broken Shore” not only honors a family member, it puts [a famous military campaign] into historical, personal context. It allows us to share an important story and an important message.
Q: On “Hard to Please” the Lillies tiptoe into Memphis soul for the first time. Was that the spiritual residue of recording in House of Blues Studio D in Nashville, which began life in the ’60s in Memphis, and working with a fabled console commissioned by Ryan’s dad for the even more fabled Record Plant in Manhattan?
A: What are the odds of making a record with Ryan on a console designed by his dad? That was insane. I remember that the studio had all these ads for the console, which used to travel in a semi-truck all over the world for some of the most famous live records. If you think of the hundred biggest bands in the world, that console recorded all of them. That magic can’t be reproduced. It was perfect timing for us, in many ways.
Q: You and singer Trisha Gene Brady have a real vine-twining mix of voices. She’s said that she wants to sing like “Jimmy Martin with tits.” What wish do you want the vocal genie to grant you?
A: I need to come up with a quote to rival that one [laughs]. Jimmy Martin is a big man around here. He’s got that no-frills, down-home, east-Tennessee humility yet a kick-ass mentality. That’s something that Trisha really brings to the group, that down-home, east-Tennessee, natural, God-given, didn’t-study-music voice. I first met her drinking moonshine and picking and singing around the fire. There were guys I call “bulls,” really confident singers who hog up the space, and she really got in their space and held her own with no microphones, no nothing.
Q: Trisha offered her handmade gourd shakers as gifts to donors to the Lillies’ first PledgeMusic drive, which helped fund the band’s third record, “Runaway Freeway Blues.” Your main contribution to the drive was pretty damned novel: your parking tickets, autographed.
A: I was living in downtown Knoxville because it was convenient. Unfortunately, downtown Knoxville was being rebuilt, so every couple weeks the parking spaces would change. I tend to neglect important matters like that, so over a year or so I racked up probably $1,500 in fines. Hey, I didn’t want to park far away and risk getting my windows smashed out.
We signed those tickets, auctioned them off, turned a negative into a positive. We posted it on Facebook and our mayor chimed in: Yeah, we need to talk about those parking tickets [laughs]. It was little bizarre. I hadn’t paid them off at that point and I thought: Are we in trouble? But it evened out. I paid the fines. We made a record. And our fans got a ridiculous keepsake.
Q: Is the band working up any new covers to go along with “Soulshine,” your juicy take on the Allman Brothers’ bluesy confession?
A: That was one of our PledgeMusic tunes. That’s not an easy song to play; I need to tidy that up a little more. We haven’t tried out new covers recently because we’ve had so much turnover; with a new guitarist and pedal-steel player it’s tough enough to maintain our own material. Although Trish has been doing a great job on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
I’ve got a concept for a solo record where I would basically sing songs written by friends of mine, including people I’ve played with in Knoxville. None of them are smash hits but all of them are on my play list. If you find the right song that fits in your wheelhouse, people assume you wrote it. That’s not the point, but it’s a nice throwback to the way that country and blues records were made. I’m thinking of the Waylon [Jennings] record where he’s singing Willie [Nelson] songs, or Eric Clapton covering a J.J. Cale song, where both versions are equally good but one artist really puts on a distinctive stamp.
Q: What tops your Bucket List? I’ve had musicians tell me everything from traveling around the world to securing world peace.
A: What if you could accomplish both at the same time—world travel and world peace? I remember we were playing the Red Wing Roots Music Festival and we met this one kid from Saudi Arabia. Here was this foreigner in Virginia at a festival with lots of alcohol, partying and having a really good time, and I thought: Wow, this is fascinating. I’ve never been to Saudi Arabia. I really want to pick his brain.
These are the experiences you have on the road that are really enlightening. I remember we took a cab back to the hotel and our driver was Kurdish. That fascinated me because a lot of Kurds moved to middle Tennessee when I lived in Franklin as a kid. I wanted to know why he moved here and what it’s like for him.
At that moment I was really grateful that I’m a musician. Traveling the world and encouraging world peace sounds ridiculous and over the top but with music you can combine the two goals. Music is at the center no matter how old you are, no matter what country you’re from, no matter whether you’re conservative or liberal. We can have a good time and find common ground; we can meet in the middle.
You get a few hours on stage to facilitate a place for people to be free–to think, to ponder, to dance, to feel. I really believe we’re making a positive impact on this world. When you travel around you get to go to the places where problems are national or even international sensations. When you come face to face with them, it takes away some of the controversy and mystery; it doesn’t feel so foreign.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List? Musicians have told me they’d like to say “Fuck off” to everything from Donald Trump to snakes.
A: I don’t think Hawaii has snakes, although it does have an awful lot of chickens. The top of my Fuck It List would definitely be tolls; tolls really go against my grain. If you grow up in the South, as I did, you are not used to paying tolls. Up North they charge us by the axle. Man, we go up to New York and we spend hundreds of dollars zigzagging around.
What makes it worse is that I can’t get an E-Z Pass that works everywhere. Maybe it’s time for a campaign for a National E-Z Pass and If You Can Grow Your Own Tomatoes, You Can Grow Your Own Pot. Actually, I think the legalization of pot is more likely to happen than tolls disappearing.
Cruz Contreras: The Scoop
He studied jazz piano in college.
He and his former wife Robin Ella Bailey led the band Robinella and the CCstringband (later Robinella), which in 2003 released the hit song “Man Over.”
He produced “Whiskey Angel,” the Black Lillies’ first record, over a weekend in his living room, with his brother Billy playing fiddle.
“Two Hearts Down” won him the 2012 Independent Music Award for best story song.
He once worked on a new song pretty much all night in a hotel lobby in Oklahoma City, then received an ovation from front-desk workers.
He isn’t sure if he’s going to write a song about the January theft of the Black Lillies’ van, trailer and equipment from a motel parking lot in Houston. “I have to think about how to angle that one. It’s tough to write about something so bad when it’s still so fresh; I may need some distance. One of my rules is don’t write a song you are not willing to sing every day for the rest of your life. We’ll see, we’ll see.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His father taught him and his sister to sing harmony to the Christmas tune “Silver Bells” in the car in the summer, a boot-camp exercise he hated at the time but now loves. He can be reached at email@example.com.