Known for their captivating blend of rock & roll and country, ‘The Black Lillies’ have become one of Americana music’s biggest success stories; an internationally-renowned band of roots-rockers, armed with songs that blur the boundaries between genres.
Four men. Four friends. Four artists, each of whom could rightly put out a solo record tomorrow, tied together by a bond to something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
“Going from a six-piece to a four-piece, it’s given these guys space to shine and grow and evolve, and the chemistry has gotten better,” says Contreras, who in another life was the mandolin-shredding bandleader of Robinella and the CCstringband, once signed to both the Columbia and Dualtone labels. “These guys have become not just sidemen or guns for hire; they’re invested. Their opinions count, and their creativity is as much a part of this record as mine. There are songs that I wrote; that Sam (a veteran of the Americana group The Everybodyfields) wrote; that we wrote in any combination and all of us together.
“It’s pretty simple, when you get down to that romantic notion of having a band. We rehearse together, we travel together, we hang out together because we’re dedicated, and I think the music is really showing that now. For me, it’s been years of learning to set your ego aside, but experience teaches you that you have to.”
Making room for other voices in the band was vital in rekindling Quinn’s creative fires. The winner of the 2006 Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest and a respected solo artist after The Everybodyfields folded, the well had dried up for him back home in Knoxville until a spot opened in The Black Lillies. Working with Contreras, Townsend and then Schaefer, Quinn says, was akin to tossing gasoline on the smoldering embers of his songwriting chops.
“It’s like, when the itch hits, that’s the time to scratch it,” he said. “Office Depot is now my favorite place. I’m always buying paper and pens and destroying them, because I write all the time. Right now, I’m looking at four legal pads, a notebook, a journal and a bunch of stolen hotel paper. It’s a bit of a neurosis, I’m afraid, but I want to be a better writer, and this band is an outlet to become that.”
The Black Lillies were conceived during a particularly emotional period in Contreras’ life. A divorce, a disassembling of his old band and a 9-to-5 job driving a truck left him with days of turbulent thoughts and nights alternating between pen-and-paper and a guitar to put them into some semblance of order. “Whiskey Angel,” released in 2009, was a springboard to a whirlwind career revival, and within two years, the band had notched several national tours, landed on the hot list of countless publications and appeared everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry stage to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Other records — “100 Miles of Wreckage,” “Runaway Freeway Blues,” “Hard to Please” — helped define a sound that was rooted in distinct male-female harmonies, intricate instrumentalism and emotionally charged lyrics that look toward the hope of a new day dawning, regardless of the darkness of broken hearts and bereft spirits.
Around the making of “Hard to Please,” however, the band faced its biggest challenge to date — losing key members, integrating new ones and facing a future that meant changing musical directions. Contreras, however, rose to the challenge, drawing inspiration from some of the titans of the genre in which the Lillies often find themselves categorized: The Eagles and Wilco, just to name a few.
“We think about those favorite records of ours, those masterpiece records, and they’re no filler, all killer,” he says. “We grew up listening to records like that, so we thought, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s stack it.’ It should be nothing but keepers, and there really shouldn’t be five seconds of, ‘Oh, they didn’t know what to do here.’ Everything should be purposeful.”
When the dust settled, he found himself with the right set of players: Quinn, who won songwriting awards and was once a labelmate of the Avett Brothers during his time in The Everybodyfields; Schaefer, a guitar wizard and a veteran of the Texas alt-country band Mickey and The Motorcars; and Townsend, the youngest member of the band who was brought in on drums in 2015 and has quickly become the group’s veteran anchor.
“We just don’t want to be a throwback band. We want what we do to sound new and fresh and modern. We’re venturing out from a pure East Tennessee sound, and hopefully that comes through,” he adds.