Black Lillies front man Cruz Contreras knows a thing or two about the road.
After co-founding Robinella and the CCstringband with his wife, he spent nearly a decade traveling the road and making music from coast to coast. When his marriage – and the band – dissolved in 2007, he returned to the road … this time, as the driver of a truck for a stone company. It was here, over a year spent rolling down the highways of East Tennessee, that the songs and sounds that would form the nexus of The Black Lillies were conceived.
And “Runaway Freeway Blues,” the band’s third studio album, was realized exactly there … on the road. When the Lillies weren’t playing their 200-odd gigs during 2012, they were in Wild Chorus Studio in their hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., working with Scott Minor of Sparklehorse to craft a beautiful ode to restless spirits and rambling hearts. Rooted in the mud-rutted switchbacks of Appalachia, “Runaway Freeway Blues” is the sound of a band that’s becoming something of a phenomenon across the country.
Contreras and his bandmates – harmony vocalist Trisha Gene Brady, multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor, bass player Robert Richards and drummer Jamie Cook – have grown from a few friends sitting around campfires and living rooms to a band that shows up in far-flung cities where folks to whom they’ve never played before already know the words to the songs. Eschewing record labels, they still managed to put a track from the last record (“Same Mistakes,” off of “100 Miles of Wreckage”) in Country Music Television’s top 12 requested videos for four months. (Its predecessor, “Two Hearts Down,” was a top-requested video on CMT for three months.) They’ve been featured on numerous television specials and conquered festivals as widespread as Bonnaroo, Pickathon, and CMA Fan Fair. Despite trafficking in a richer, more authentic brand of country and Americana than what gets played on mainstream country radio, they’ve still been invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry more than a dozen times – a record for an independent act.
The Black Lillies, in other words, have come a long way from those early days, when Contreras channeled heartache and regret into a stunning debut. “Whiskey Angel” was the sound of a man drowning his sorrows, and an introduction to someone who had languished behind the scenes for too long. As the guy who loaned out his initials to Robinella and the CCstringband, which flirted with national fame a few years ago with a hit (“Man Over”) on Country Music Television, an appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in 2003, and albums on both Sony and Dualtone, he was known best as a mandolin virtuoso and bandleader.
Starting over, he stunned friends and peers in the East Tennessee music scene with a voice that makes you think of Randy Travis or Dan Tyminski or even the great Ralph Stanley in his prime: steeped in regret, seasoned with pain and tempered in the fires of hard times. It served “Whiskey Angel” well, and when “100 Miles of Wreckage” was released in 2011, the band seemingly burst onto the national stage – spending five solid months in the Americana Music Association’s radio charts (four of them in the top 15).
That record was the sound of a man taking stock of his life and his past, regarding the pain and the turmoil with a measure of wistful acceptance. Which brings us to “Runaway Freeway Blues,” which finds the band focused on the horizon, filled with the nervous energy of excitement at the unknown future waiting on the other side of that distant hill, enthusiastic about the journey as much as they are about the destination.
The emotional arc of the new record is brilliant, so vivid and detailed with lush harmonies and instrumental virtuosity that’s as powerful in the quieter moments as it is explosive during jubilant ones. You can cherry-pick any number of songs from “Runaway Freeway Blues” and find gold. Banjo, pedal steel, piano and everything else lift this record up on wings of uncommon grace and stunning vitality, and when Contreras and Brady combine their voices, it calls to mind classic duets from times long gone: George and Tammy. Gram and Emmylou. Johnny and June. From gentle Laurel Canyon folk rock to the honky-tonk heartache of classic country to winding jams, “Runaway Freeway Blues” is an album that defies easy categorization.
It was conceived on the road, inspired by the road and completed there as well: Contreras mixed the album while on tour, by phone and email, coordinating overdubs and guest instrumental appearances (Josh Oliver, formerly of the everybodyfields; banjo player Matt Menefee, who’s toured with Mumford & Sons, Levi Lowery and Big & Rich; and a host of Tennessee’s finest musicians on horns, harmonica and percussion) while playing into the wee hours of the morning, driving all night and setting up in the next city to do it all over again.
It’s breakneck, brazen and beautiful. It’s the sound of a band that’s rooted in East Tennessee but more at home piled into a van stacked with gear, windows down and aimed toward the next gig. It’s an album that lets long-time fans as well as relative newcomers to the Black Lillies phenomenon know that this train isn’t stopping anytime soon.
released March 26, 2013
What often begins with only the strum of a guitar or the stroke of a pen truly requires the efforts of an entire "village" in order for it to be fully realized. Runaway Freeway Blues is a testament to this! Our manager Chyna recently informed us that we played 230 engagements in the past year, coast to coast ... and I'm quite sure our backs and bellies believed her. So, for a record seemingly made from the road, perpetual thanks to my van-dwelling family ... Trisha, Tom, Jamie and Robert. We sure have covered some miles! Thank you Chyna for all that you do, often seemingly behind the scenes - your dedication, expertise, and integrity are greatly respected and appreciated. Sincere thanks to ALL our advocates ... specifically, Darrien Thomson, Hayden Brackeen, Leah Ross, Michael Carroll, Greg and Jennifer Dunn and family, The Purple Fiddle and Thomas, WV, Mark Youngquist and Dolores River Brewery, Josh Oliver, Pablo Wheeler, Sarah Kennedy, Bill Alexander, Rachel Williams, Micah Davidson, Casey Driessen, Matt Menefee, Bowman Townsend, Jason Thompson, Billy Contreras, Ian Thomas, Kyle Campbell, Joe Limardi, Joe McGuire, Scott Minor, Carey Balch, Justin Helton and Status Serigraph, Nothing Too Fancy, my father Fred Contreras for inspiring and supporting my musical dreams, my grandfather Bill Ackerman for being a real-life hero, and of course my son Cash... for his patience, understanding, and trucker expertise!
Produced by Cruz Contreras
Executive Producer: Chyna Brackeen, Attack Monkey Productions
Recorded and mixed by Scott Minor at Wild Chorus Studios in Knoxville, Tennessee in October of 2011. Scott was assisted by Carey Balch.
Mastered by Scott Hull at Masterdisk in NYC
Artwork by Justin Helton, Status Serigraph.
All songs except “Ramblin’ Boy” written by Cruz Contreras. Copyright 2012 Black Lilly Music (BMI). “Ramblin’ Boy” lyrics were written by A.P
. Carter and are in the public domain; music arranged by Cruz Contreras.
Our heartfelt appreciation to the many people who made this album possible – first and foremost, our amazing fans. We’d like to extend a special thank you to the following people:
Imogene Fowler (Trisha’s Granny!); Jimmie and Caren Warwick; Will Tullock; Polly Ailor Tullock; Reenie Kennedy-Mooney and Edwin Kennedy; Bill Foster (who deserves double thanks because we forgot to credit his photos in the 100 Miles of Wreckage packaging!); Stephany Shinpock; Theresa Heule; David S. Barlow; Lunasea; Martin Stapleton; Rusty and Dana Soop; Warren Spector; Dennis George; Sally Mitchell and Crispin Spencer; Teri Butler Dosher and Zoe Dosher; Phil and Clarissa Ragland; Lori and Jason Turner; Whitney Caudill; Bill and Rosemary Pryor; Peri Meadows; the Schroeder family; Sheila Vaughn; Kim Carter and Vannessa Carter; Chris Godkin; Mike and Judy Duncan; Dan McCord; Scott A. Ballard; Kathleen Di Rosato; Brian W. Tuzik; Ryan Maier; Becky and Steve Hancock; Adam Goodwin; our biggest fan – Mike Sigers; Chris and Lisa Nichols; Everett Green; Jeff Prater; Jack Goodwin; Greg Brown; Bradley Anderson; Dennis and Tammy Double; Pat and Karen Terrell; Rob and Ashleigh Bergstrom; Green Frog Acoustic Tavern and Amanda Bettis; Brian Brinkerhoff; Krista Thompson; Stuart Martin; Trina Nicholson; Joni Harrison; Matthew Gilhuly; Robert, Laura and Avery Marshall; Matthew Smith; Brandon Barnes; Jake Mabe; Kimberly Brown; Fran Harwell; Zoe Marie Moreira; Jessie Bailin; Bruce and Sharon Court; our families; and everyone who makes it possible for us to make music for a living.
Visit us online: www.theblacklillies.com
2012 North Knox Records / Attack Monkey Productions
all rights reserved