The following is written by Katie Powderly and appeared in this week’s 72 Hours. She is a graphic designer and songwriter who currently resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Frederick. She has performed live on PBS and NPR and has criss-crossed the country touring from New York to Colorado and Texas to Tennessee. Her singing and harmonies have been likened to Gillian Welch (Isthmus, Madison, Wisconsin) and Gram Parsons (City Paper, Rochester, New York.) Katie is wrapping up recording her sophomore studio album with her electric Americana band The Unconditional Lovers. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Americana band The Black Lillies return to the Frederick area to perform Saturday in nearby Shepherdstown, West Virginia, at the Opera House. Hailing from Knoxville, Tennessee, the band is known for their roots-rock sound and dogged work ethic that allows them to survive a schedule of incessant touring, performing an average of 200 nights per year. That work ethic rocketed them from small taverns and honky-tonks to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, the holy grail for Americana and country musicians.
The Black Lillies have earned praise from “American Songwriter,” “Rolling Stone,” NPR, CMT, the Wall Street Journal, and “Billboard,” among others. Their résumé is impressive for an independent band without the benefits (and budget) of a major label.
Frederick folks will recall that The Black Lillies performed at the Weinberg Center’s Americana Festival in 2014, along with The Steep Canyon Rangers. Since then, the band has undergone numerous transitions, including multiple lineup changes. However, the engine known as The Black Lillies continues to chug down the track, gaining steam and momentum with each passing day.
The story of The Black Lillies has been one of constant change and evolution, explained Cruz Contreras, bandleader and the group’s most prominent songwriter, in a recent interview. The band, in its eighth year, has recorded four records to date, and performed approximately 1,000 shows.
The Black Lillies’ most recent record, “Hard to Please,” released in 2015, was produced by Grammy winner Ryan Hewitt and it was recorded at Nashville’s legendary House of Blues Studio D. The album earned praise from Rolling Stone Country, NPR, American Songwriter, and beyond, debuting at No. 12 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and No. 30 on Billboard’s Top 200 Country Albums list.
However, immediately before going into the studio to record it, Contreras remembered learning that, to his confoundment, that his two most veteran players, Tom Pryor and Robert Richards, decided to move on to other things in life. This left Contreras with multiple questions: Who will play on the record? Who will perform at the live shows and would they be the same people?
In a situation that has broken many bands, Contreras remained steadfast, opting at the time to bring in additional musicians to make the record while beginning the search for new band members. That process, Contreras said, would define the next two years of his life. At that point, the lineup consisted of only drummer Bowman Townsend, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Trisha Gene Brady, and Contreras.
Enter Sam Quinn.
The singer described Quinn as a “longtime East Tennessee singer, songwriter, artist, musician and generally all-around swell guy,” who made a name for himself as co-founder of The Everybodyfields. Quinn originally signed up to play bass with The Black Lillies for four shows, but as he showed up to rehearse, Contreras explained that there would be no time for practice because they had only a matter of days to write and arrange an entire record.
Together, the two spent 10 days arranging songs in the basement “for a record he didn’t even play on,” Contreras said.
Bassist Bill Reynolds, of Band of Horses, played on the final recording of “Hard to Please.” Within that time, The Black Lillies played their four shows with Quinn on bass, which included dates at the legendary Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, as well as the MerleFest music festival. The band was joined by longtime friend Megan McCormick, who is known for her work with Jenny Lewis, among others, on electric guitar. Asheville pedal steel maestro Matt Smith, who plays with Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls, as well as Asheville Americana darlings The Honeycutters, joined them temporarily as well.
Contreras described those four shows as “an absolute joy.” Overwhelmed by the feeling that he had stumbled upon something really special, Contreras reveled in the music, the chemistry, and the proverbial “hang,” which is a term people in bands use to describe how effortlessly everyone gets along.
Following that short tour, Contreras called Quinn to ask him to become a full-time band member. Quinn accepted.
Suddenly, according to Contreras, The Black Lillies had a rhythm section that “could sing, write, arrange, [who was] a general creative force, and had great hair.” From that point on, The Black Lillies began a rotation of electric guitarists and pedal steel players that included Mike Seal, Ethan Ballinger, Megan McCormick, Jonathon Keeney, Hans Holzen, Phillip Sterk and Dustin Schaefer.
Contreras looked back at this phase of the band fondly, as a period of profound growth.
“We all learned from each other and encouraged each other,” he remembered.
But a constant rotation of players did not allow Contreras time to write, as the band was forever relearning the same songs. Opportunities for new songs to be born and coalesce were scant.
“We had taken our songs to a new level, but without a consistent lineup, we couldn’t truly move forward,” Contreras said.
So, the question remained: How could he arrive at a lineup that would set The Black Lillies up for long-term sustainable success?
“Team mentality, ability, attitude, respect, natural chemistry, lack of ego, creative vision,” all influenced his decisions, Contreras said.
“We have arrived at our lineup,” he added.
The current four are Contreras, Quinn, Townsend and Schaefer, who rounds things out on electric guitar, and who just come off a spell with Mickey and The Motorcars before joining The Black Lillies full-time.
Contreras, who has been playing music professionally for 20 years, found himself in a brand-new situation.
“[The four of us] are a part of something I’ve dreamed of being a part of since I was a kid: a band,” he explained.
Unlike in his previous musical collaborations, Contreras said this iteration of The Black Lillies actually spends time together while they’re not on the road. They rehearse, write and workshop the songs they ultimately take out on the road.
“We challenge each other. We inspire each other,” he said. “We eat tacos together, talk about the vision of the band, and what we can do to improve. Everybody weighs in.”
Currently, they write a song every week, which they have been debuting via Facebook in a live video series known as “The Sprinter Sessions.” As of now, The Black Lillies have upwards of 10 new songs they have been performing on the road in anticipation of a new album to be recorded this winter for a mid-2018 release on the Thirty Tigers record label.
With talk of a new album amid the transition into a “real” band with multiple songwriters, can listeners expect the next Black Lillies album to contain these new collaborations?
“There is no single formula for writing the material for the new record,” Contreras explained. “Sometimes, we all write and perform on ‘The Sprinter Sessions’ together, sometimes as a duo or solo. The biggest question is, where do all these songs end up? They can’t all be on a Black Lillies record. Some will get cut. Some will be forgotten. Some will find life elsewhere on solo projects.
“Everything else at the moment,” he added, “is top secret.”
Inspiration for the songs The Black Lillies are currently writing contain little in the way of fiction, Contreras explained.
“We’re definitely leaning towards the autobiographical with a poetic twist,” he noted. “We tell stories that we have lived or are living. There is no shortage of stories to tell in this group.”
Though a life as a full-time touring musician is surely riddled with adventures and ample fodder for songs, does he ever grapple with writer’s block?
“Collaboration has been the perfect way to avoid dry spells,” he explained. “When there are multiple writers in a group, no one wants to be the weak link. If I can’t think of something to write in a moment, I find that a cup of coffee works wonders.”
And what about burnout?
“I won’t stand for it,” Contreras said. “I’m always looking for reasons to be inspired or driven. Family, making a living, self-respect, the thrill of a challenge. I try to stay mindful of how fortunate I am to do what I do. Ultimately for me, it’s to bring something real into this world, something people can experience and feel — the ups and the downs, and all the honesty. I can get behind that.”