Cruz Contreras, Tish Gene Brady finds groove in The Black Lillies

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By Mary Houlihan

For Sun-Times Media

Cruz Contreras once thought hard about giving up music. He’d spent most of his life pursuing it, but seven years ago he found himself at a crossroads not quite sure which way to turn. Luckily for roots music lovers, his path led to The Black Lillies.

Contreras grew up around Nashville with music on the brain and studied jazz piano at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville under renowned pianist/composer Donald Brown, who was open to letting Cruz follow his diverse musical instincts. In his 20s, Contreras co-founded Robinella and the CCstringband, an ace outfit that landed a contract with Columbia Records. As with many young bands, that relationship did not go well. Things began to further head downhill in 2008 when the band broke up while at the same time Contreras’ marriage to band co-founder Robin Ella Bailey also disintegrated.

“That whole time was a pretty comprehensive life-changing event,” Contreras recalls. “When someone goes through a divorce, they usually still have their job to lean on. I took a break but eventually realized I had the opportunity if not the necessity to start over.”

Contreras’ undying interest in string music would bring him around and the first incarnation of The Black Lillies was born. The band easily falls into the Americana genre but its sound is much more wide-ranging and defies simple categorization. Contreras’ inspired songwriting pulls inspiration from rock, blues, jazz, bluegrass and country.

The Black Lillies

With Birds of Chicago

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 29

Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $20

Info: lincolnhallchicago.com

In addition to Contreras, band members are Trish Gene Brady (vocals), Tom Pryor (multi-instrumentalist), Robert Richards (bass) and Bowman Townsend (drums).

Much of the band’s sound is built around the fine harmonies of Contreras and Brady, who replaced vocalist Leah Gardner in 2010. Their compatibility creates a special energy on stage.

“I’m partial to mountain style singing,” Contreras, 38, says. “It’s a little bit country. It’s a little bit Appalachian. It’s a little bit blues. It brings with it a rich musical heritage that Trish embodies; she knocks it out of the park.”

They first met around the popular after-show campfires in Knoxville, where Brady impressed Contreras with her sassy vocal style, which has become a crucial element of the band’s artistic growth.

“I’m all about a strong voice,” Brady, 37, says. “When I first started singing with a band (the all-female Naughty Knots), we covered a lot of old, classic country tunes by artists like Don Williams and Jimmy Martin. Things women normally didn’t do.”

Last year, The Black Lillies released its third album, “Runaway Freeway Blues,” an impressive collection of Contreras’ original songs (plus a cover of A.P. Carter’s “Ramblin’ Boy”). The band has pretty much been a touring machine over the past three years, and the album was written and recorded on the road or in quick visits to Knoxville. Yet it has the feel of a carefully assembled work.

“Most of the songs were written in different places around the country and many were influenced by our travels and regional stories we heard,” Contreras notes. One song, “Goodbye Charlie,” a fever dream about a soldier in Vietnam, has gotten great response from audiences.

“A song like this gets a very intense, emotional response,” Contreras says. “Whether it was someone who served in Vietnam or the parents of children who have served in more modern conflicts, they all relate to it on some level.”

While it’s been a crazy few years for the Black Lillies, band members have worked hard to move to the next level without loosing any of the integrity of a band that wants to do things their way.

“We’re just happy that Cruz is back making music and that we’re part of it all,” Brady says. “He has a true gift for being able to bring great songs to life.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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