New lineup gels, completes mature fifth studio effort
On their most recent tour of the western United States, The Black Lillies found themselves in a predicament when their beloved Sprinter tour van broke down outside of Salt Lake City.
Actually, given their collective history, the misfortune probably wasn’t all that surprising for a band whose ride has never been all that smooth. A decade ago, Cruz Contreras had to dust himself off in order to jumpstart his music career after ending his professional partnership with Robinella and the CC String Band when his marriage to frontwoman Robin Ella Bailey dissolved. He conceived of the new band while enduring bumpy rides around the outskirts of town driving a stone delivery truck by day and ambling around various Happy Holler haunts by night. Contreras and manager Chyna Brackeen threw their lots in together on a financial leap of faith in creating the first record “Whiskey Angel” in 2009 and went all in with a lineup that was shifting even as the first tour was coming together.
The Lillies continued to create an increasingly popular and critically acclaimed mix of jammy alt-country/rock, touring the country and growing a loyal and rabid fan base even as the lineup changed several more times. They lost drummer Jamie Cook in 2014 because of a loss in the family and string-section representatives Tom Pryor and Robert Richards due to burnout almost a year later, all of which occurred between releasing their third and fourth albums, 2013’s “Runaway Freeway Blues” and “Hard to Please” in 2015. Then, despite the popular additions of bassist Sam Quinn and drummer Bowman Townsend having helped to garner the latter album prestigious plaudits nationally, propelling it to strong Billboard charting positions and multiple Grammy nominations and achieving a high point in the band’s trajectory, harmony vocalist and fan favorite Trisha Gene Brady left the group after the 2016 New Year’s Eve hometown show at the Mill & Mine.
The band tried a few unsuccessful stabs at replacing Brady with a female vocalist before bringing in Texas native and Micky and The Motorcars alum Dustin Schaefer as new lead guitarist and harmony vocalist. And, oh yeah, there was that whole debacle involving their van, trailer and gear being stolen in early 2016. Suffice it to say that the band has been through some heavy heartache.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Contreras says of the trials and triumphs that have resulted from having gone his own way and having taken on the challenges with his friends. “It’s such a blessing to me … it makes my life rich.”
But back to that broken down van: A different feeling persisted this time around in Utah. As Quinn explains, “A sort of … professionalism?” He describes the band’s eerily calm efficiency; they’d been down this road before, knew what to do and formed a plan of action. Townsend hitchhiked and got in a car with some strangers to find help; the others waited with zen calm, patience and camaraderie. Everything was sorted out in fairly short order, and they soon were back on the road as if nothing had happened.
“It’s a strange lifestyle,” Quinn admits, citing homemade haircuts, fraying clothing, late nights in “sterile hotel rooms” with “feasts of paper” and writing late into the night when others have gone to sleep – a process which he actually seems to love sometimes because “it’s a nice disconnect.” He says, though, that “Stranger to Me” is “the beginning of the potential of this lineup. The whole band just flipped; it was kind of a whole new thing.”
Contreras, Townsend and Quinn all credit what they dubbed as the Sprinter Sessions, in which the band would gather for Facebook Live videos to test out new material or favorite covers, for helping drive the writing process. They believe that doing so helped them coalesce around their collective vision for the new material and get instant feedback that assisted them in pushing forward.
Accountability as a writer was important as well, Quinn says. “It’s a very welcome thing … it was a call to action. Learning to write with someone – it’s different every time. I’ve been lazy for a long time, so it was a nice exercise.”
Make no mistake: The Black Lillies’ brand has been well-established for years. From the get-go, it was forged by the members of those other bands like Robinella and the everybodyfields that had been signed by labels, had toured, had charted and were covered by national press. The Black Lillies started their first tour by playing at the Grand Ole Opry. They hit the Billboard Americana charts early and often. Those aforementioned Grammy nominations for “Hard to Please” were but feathers – albeit brightly colored plumage – in the band’s cap.
But listening to this fifth studio album and hearing how the group’s members talk about their process and their current state, it really does feel like they are just getting started. From beginning to end, this truly may be the band’s most vital, electrifying material to date.
Whereas the lineup that was co-fronted by the fiery Brady and influenced by Pryor’s groovy hot licks was often more of a fun, barn-burning, honky-tonk-meets-jam-rock type of act, this new iteration of the group with Townsend, Schaefer and Quinn is laser-focused in the songwriting, arrangement and dynamics departments in a way that pushes it toward a more captivating, emotive, Southern-inflected indie-rock.
Both Schaefer and Quinn are high-register harmonic vocalists and song-serving instrumentalists with psychedelic artistic sensibilities. Townsend has an apparent knack for rhythm writing; he wrote the “Hard to Please” riff and some of the key dropouts and buildups on this album, like the cool, faux-reggae ending on “No Other Way.” Together with Contreras, the band is poised to paint with a masterful palette and has potential for legitimate sonic propulsion; they really can get up and out there.
When Pryor was in the fold, he ripped and rolled with Richards’ and Cook’s grooves. Schaefer plays more like a pure classic-rock leading man; he produces signature riffs and solos that perhaps interact more intentionally in a theoretical way with dropouts, buildups and other cues with Townsend and the rest of the band, creating an overall intense dynamic.
Amazingly, Contreras cedes lead-vocal duties to Quinn on three original tunes (“Ice Museum,” “Snakes and Telephones” and “Weighting”) the latter penned, and many of Contreras’ tunes are flavored with Quinn’s harmonies, as well. Quinn becoming a writing force in the band was actually somewhat a part of the plan all along, though. Contreras spoke with BLANK at a house show in 2016 just as “Hard to Please” was about to be released and said then that he was excited to get Quinn in the mix as soon as possible.
At the time, as Quinn and Contreras acknowledge, Pryor and Richards had quit the band right before meeting with producers, and the majority of the “Hard to Please” material was written in full, so Quinn was serving to help bridge that gap by filling in on the recording sessions and then by playing that material suitably on the road. But as time wore on, the band knew they had to avail themselves of the musical abilities and songwriting acumen Quinn had developed through years of experience with the everybodyfields and as a solo artist.
“Everyone in the band was very aware we were only using Sam for only a fraction of what he was capable of,” Townsend says. “It only makes sense to pass the vocals around. Cruz was surprisingly gracious … ultimately what it came down to over the years is a … weird magnetism … [Sam] sings like an angel and can also write incredible songs … this is the record that co-writing shifted dramatically … it opened the door to a collaborative approach.”
Townsend is no stranger to this phenomenon, either, actually being the first band member other than Contreras to earn a writing credit for helping craft that aforementioned riff on the title track of “Hard to Please.”
“Everyone [in this current lineup] just loves to play,” he says. “It’s really invigorated us.” He adds that Contreras has “injected some of the old songs with a fresh new approach … a reshaping of the whole catalogue.” A prime example Knoxville fans may remember is the more epic, psychedelic, indie-rock takes on “Where the Black Lillies Grow” and “Tall Trees” at their two-night New Year’s Eve stand at the Bijou Theatre last year.
Schaefer is a singer-songwriter, as well, having left the Austin alt-country band Micky and The Motorcars to pursue a solo career in 2016, releasing “Playtime” in 2016 and “Disconnected” the following year and taking the gig with the Lillies in between solo efforts. Although Schaefer was off performing dates while the band was writing the skeletons of many of the songs, he still was instrumental in contributing several of the signature riffs and solos on songs like “No Other Way” and the single “Midnight Stranger.” Along with Townsend, he also helped Contreras write some bridge lyrics to “Out of the Blue.”
Contreras seems happy with all the other members stepping up, and he seems to foster that spirit of collaboration, as well. “It was a natural progression … at first it was out of necessity. It’s been a progression learning to work together, and when you have a heavyweight like [Quinn] … everybody weighs in on arrangements. It makes us sound and look like a band more than ever. I’m proud of everything this band has done in the past, but … these new renditions … I think everybody’s pretty happy with where they’re at. I think it’s a bigger sound, and we’re ready for bigger stages.”
Contreras himself, the leader and heart and soul of the band, seems to be letting himself be influenced by the new vision. Like a good team captain, point guard or quarterback, he’s shown how to get everyone involved, and he’s helped them shine while still remaining in the spotlight himself. He has written some of his strongest, most memorable and epic songs of his career on this album. “Ten Years,” “Earthquake,” “River Rolls” and “Midnight Stranger” all are notable listens because of their compositional tightness, relatable and hooky lyrics and dynamic vocal and instrumental arrangements. Contreras is an able writer of chorus hooks, as well as a deep story/verse writer. He is getting stronger at writing whole compositions, too: what register in which to sing, what key in which to play or whether he should play on acoustic, electric or keyboard. He has seemed to grow much more fluid and flexible in his range and style, especially on the last two albums.
The significance of the album-release location (Central Filling Station in Happy Holler) is not lost on Contreras, either. All the members call the neighborhood home when they’re not on the road, and it was near there, at Toots Little Honky Tonk, that he’d often finish off nights when he was first cooking up the idea for the band. In fact, he confirmed that Toots indeed was the setting for “Three in the Morning” on the “Whiskey Angel” record.
“I’m thrilled we’re taking it back to Knoxville,” Contreras says. “Bringin’ the hippies and the cowboys together, smiling and dancing.”
The Black Lillies release “Stranger to Me” on September 28 at Central Filling Station. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 the day of the show. Brian Paddock and the American Gentleman are opening the concert. The band again will hold a Hangover Bowl event the following day at Maple Hall like they did on New Year’s Day this year. The “Midnight Stranger” single is available now on all major streaming and downloading services.