Although most people would consider the Black Lillies a country band, Cruz Contreras, the front man and main vocalist, does not. He considers their collective sound—comprising harmony vocalist Trisha Gene Brady, multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor, bass player Robert Richards and drummer Bowman Townsend—the result of growing up in Tennessee. Here, influences run deep from Appalachian folklore. Paired with formal college educations in jazz study (a route most musicians take to make it commercially), their sound now gives way to blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll.
The Black Lillies’ experimentation and refinement deserves a special kind of attention. They’ve been garnering international acclaim, from playing NPR’s Mountain Stage, to being published in American Songwriter Magazine. This weekend they’ll sprout up at Wilmington’s very own 12th annual Lighthouse Beer and Wine Festival, a platform with its own hailed reigns, as it’s hosted bands like The Avett Brothers, Ryan Bingham and The Dead Horses and Langhorne Slim in years past.
Celebrating the recent release of their sophomore album, “Runaway Freeway Blues,” The Black Lillies have seen success already in the ranking on Billboard’s Top 200 and CMT’s top 12 requested videos. The band recorded the album while on the road in 2012, wherein their prolific tour mandated 200 gigs. In between shows, they returned to Wild Chorus Studio in their hometown of Knoxville, to work with luminaries like Scott Minor of Sparklehorse.
One of the most prominent distinctions between “Runaway Freeway Blues” and the Black Lillies’ previous releases, “Whiskey Angel” and “100 Miles of Wreckage,” comes in its mastering. Contreras tweaked songs they played numerous times while on the road in order to cultivate their true potential. “I know what this band is capable of,” he says. “I wasn’t convinced that this is what needed to happen in the studio. So, we just changed the circumstances, the environment, the process, and got a different result.”
Contreras brought in musicians like Josh Oliver, Matt Menefee, Levi Lowery and a myriad of Tennessee musicians to play horns, harmonica and percussion. The warm, folky vocals between Contreras and Brady, complemented by instruments, such as banjo and pedal steel, give way to a more laid-back sound—quite the opposite from their hectic touring schedule.
Contreras’ low-key demeanor paints an air of vulnerability, making it easier to converse with him. This attitude transcends into The Black Lillies’ music. A resolute homebody, Contreras admits utilizes music as a means of coping with struggles and understanding the world around him.
When he first started writing the material for what would be The Black Lillies’ first album, he did it without the specific motive of making it an album. During this time Contreras was going through a lot of involuntary changes, such as his career and an unexpected divorce. To get over such, he returned to the music community. One of the first songs he wrote was “Where the Black Lillies Grow,” containing autobiographical lyrics which contain a lot of imagery: “And I’ll go to my grave and I’ll lie down/In a bed for two under the ground/I’ll weep in vain for this I know/I’ll rest alone where the black lillies grow.”
This namesake is one Contreras sat on for some time, with unrelenting imagery of black lillies he could not shake from childhood. Growing up, he remembers his father watering the flowers in the front yard—or making him do it at least. Even so, he did not want to push this as a name for a band that he let organically form.
While mastering songs in Nashville, with Doug Landsfield’s help, Contreras found the confidence to dub the band the name he had been sitting on for six months: The Black Lillies. Landsfield told Contreras his voice was impressive, and he was surprised by his hidden talent—something which could be the making of a band.
“I started jumping up and down when he said we sounded like a band,” Contreras says. “When he asked if I had a name, I couldn’t wait to tell him. I knew it was meant to be.”
In the first couple of years, the line-up of The Black Lillies changed a lot. Contreras describes those early days more like a group of friends who would get together a couple of times a week to drink whiskey and pick acoustic around a campfire. They sounded like a string band, according to the front man. Here is where he met Trisha Brady; the harmony vocalist really proved herself by holding her own a capella.
Their first show at the Square Room in Knoxville sold out, a surprise to everyone in the group. Contreras contributes this feat to the locals’ desire to see new musicians and people from the area coming together. On the fast track, the band’s second gig came at the multi-stage, campfest of 80,000 people, otherwise known as Bonnaroo. One of the promoters happened to be from Knoxville and put The Black Lillies on his radar early. From there, the band spiked a national tour.
“The crazy thing was getting this idea [of] going on a national tour before anyone knew who we were,” Contreras admits. “It was gutsy and risky. It almost destroyed the band. But we survived it.”
Upon his return home, Contreras gave up his lease, and put all of his possessions on the side of the road—which vanished in 40 minutes. Today, his “bachelor crash pad” in downtown Nashville provides a different set-up. During the interview a passerby interrupts by telling Contreras hello. A live band plays in the background—a group Contreras describes as “bad ass” before settling into the back of his home. He begins to talk about how tech savvy his 9-year-old son is, especially in comparison to his own illiteracy when it comes to technology.
“If a kid asks you to do something that isn’t destructive or hurtful, you should just do it,” he says. This philosophy resonates from Contreras’ childhood in Franklin, Tennesee, when his older brother pined for a fiddle for years yet his parents signed him up for violin lessons instead. Once his brother started to win contests, it inspired Contreras toward music as early as high school.
“I remember coming into class one day and telling my friends I was going to be a musician, so I didn’t need to do any more schoolwork,” he says.
The highest ranked in his class, he let his grades fall well below what he normally received—until his father started to make him pay for classes at the private Catholic school he attended.
Today paints a more comfortable picture for the musician. While in the beginning the Black Lillies struggled to make money, pay their bills or hold it together (one member left the band), they managed to keep truckin’ through amazing memories. “I knew we were gonna stick this out and survive it,” Contreras says.
With a focus on not repeating the rut of grinding down inspiration or energy depletion, the band plans to take a year to recollect after touring—but not before playing for Wilmington fans this weekend. Tickets to the Lighthouse Wine and Beer Festival ensure a ticket to the show. The Black Lillies headline and Megan Jean and the KFB will open.
The Black Lillies
Lighthouse Beer and Wine Festival
October 19th, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
3400 Randall Parkway
Tickets: VIP, $55; GA, $45; designated driver, $13
Beer Fest Adds Wine: Lighthouse celebrates booze, music charity
On Saturday, October 19th, the Lighthouse Beer and Wine Festival will flood an empty field on Randall Parkway, with 5,000 people descending upon Wilmington’s biggest beer-and-wine tasting extravaganza. Always scheduled for the third Saturday of October, the festival runs from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and features over 300 craft beers and 20 wineries. Jason Adams, founder of the festival and owner of Lighthouse Beer and Wine, says the event allows people a place to try new and exciting beverages they would not have known about otherwise.
“It’s nice to have people come into Lighthouse Beer and Wine looking for their new favorite beer,” Adams says. “It helps promote Lighthouse Beer and Wine and craft beer in the community.”
This is a rewarding aspect for both Adams and the 350 talented volunteers that acquire all of the appropriate permits, contact the breweries and vendors, as well as deal with recycling and trash companies and everything in between. “We have put a lot of thought into this festival, and after 12 years of experience, it doesn’t get any easier,” he notes, “but I’ve managed to make the process a little smoother.”
Such methods include providing a guide that is available on the festival’s website, which lists all of the beers and their respective locations. By doing so, folks can navigate the festival with more ease and pinpoint specific breweries and wineries they wish to taste. Afterward, they’re likely to find the items at Adams’ Lighthouse Beer and Wine in Wrightsville Beach. He says the growing selection has helped put his store on the map as one of the best bottle shops in North Carolina.
“The statewide recognition is one of the reasons we work so hard to keep the selection at Lighthouse to the caliber that our customers have come to expect,” he says.
Ticket prices vary. VIP tickets allow guests entry onto the grounds at noon, an hour early, to sample the beverages with a limited number of people—which means no lines. General admission allows festival-goers a 1 p.m. entry. With glass in tow, they can try all the beverages they choose. A shuttle service is also available free of charge, so those attending need not worry about limiting themselves, as safety will be ensured.
Because both beer and wine is featured for the 2013 year, there are separate tickets for each selection. If folks want only grapes, they puchase the ticket for wine; if they want only grain/hops, that’s available, separately. A combo ticket is not offered. All tickets come with a complimentary glass to refill at one’s leisure.
In addition to heaps of libations, there will be food vendors set up, featuring many local favorites: Mellow Mushroom, Poor Piggy’s, Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn, Snack Wagon Concessions and Gone Jerky.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this event comes from the charitable cause it supports. Proceeds go to the Carousel Center, a nonprofit organization which works for the safety of abused and neglected children. The nonprofit helps kids and families overcome abuse, and holds abusers accountable for their actions. Events like the Lighthouse Beer and Wine Festival allow Carousel Center to consistently work toward raising awareness for child abuse prevention in southeastern North Carolina.
“When I saw this cause, I knew I wanted to support it because they were doing great things for the local community and seemed like good people,” Adams says. Since being involved with them, the Lighthouse Beer and Wine Festival has raised upward of $160,000.
In order to make the most of this Saturday, Adams recommends starting it off with a big breakfast and going with a group of friends. Carpooling is recommended, and plenty of parking exists. Most importantly: Enjoy the fun and act responsibly. Since the event ends at 5 p.m., free shuttles will stop around 6 p.m. —Chelsea Blahut
Lighthouse Beer and
Featuring headliners The Black Lillies, with openers Megan Jean & the KFB
3400 Randall Parkway
Tickets: VIP, $55; GA, $45; designated driver, $13
Free shuttles offered afterward for rides in the greater Wilmington area.