published Friday, July 15th, 2011

Black Lillies bring Appalachian folk to bear at Nightfall


Q&A with Cruz Contreras, lead singer of The Black Lillies


What: Nightfall Concert Series, featuring The Black Lillies.

When: 8 p.m. today. Moon Slew opens at 7 p.m.

Where: Miller Plaza, corner of M.L. King Boulevard, Cherry and Market streets.

Admission: Free.

Phone: 265-0771.

Venue website:


2009: “Whiskey Angel”

2011: “100 Miles of Wreckage”


Moon Slew local bluegrass/Americana band featuring Jessie Jollie (vocals/guitar), Joey Harris (vocals), Jeff Joyner (guitar/vocals), Barrett Taylor (mandolin) and BJ Hightower (bass/vocals). For more information, visit their Facebook profile at

Plenty of artists claim to find inspiration for their songs while they’re on the road. For Cruz Contreras, it wasn’t just songs he found behind the wheel; it was his voice.

Originally a founding member of Knoxville’s progressive bluegrass band CCstringband, Contreras spent many years backing up his wife, singer Robinella Bailey. When their personal and musical relationships ended in 2008, however, Contreras began driving a truck, turning his back on music — for good, he thought.

“That was definitely a difficult time,” he said. “For a little while, I was convinced that music had ruined my life.

“I was like, ‘Oh no. I’ve made a deal with the devil. Look where it’s got me.’ ”

But as the miles rolled by, Contreras said, the radio was a constant reminder of what he was missing. Though he continued to sit in a cab for a living, he began experimenting with various musical groups, first a jazz piano trio, then a mandolin trio.

A lifelong instrumentalist, Contreras said he could tell the music needed vocals. At a friend’s insistence, Contreras did something he said he never considered before and volunteered his own vocal cords.

“I was driving down the road singing with the radio, and I taught myself a few songs,” he said. “Every time I sang a song, I expected someone to say, ‘Dude, you really don’t need to be doing that,’ but no one ever said that.”

The combination of Contreras’ powerful, plaintive wail and his raw emotional state was potent.

“I just kept going and started writing some songs,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s just been one step right after the next, and here I am.”

Contreras’ musical 180 from sideman to bandleader took less than a year. By the end of 2008, he was heading up a new group, The Black Lillies, who will take the stage tonight as this week’s Nightfall headliner.

In short order, Contreras and company have made their mark across the country, earning slots everywhere from Bonnaroo and Rhythm & Roots to a Grand Ole Opry debut earlier this month.

Although he’s new to the role of frontman, Contreras said he’s getting used to the idea.

“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “When I was in the CCstringband ... I wanted to be a sideman and take solos on an instrument. Really, I thought that’s all I wanted to do.

“I certainly love backing people up, but I think I’ll always do this: write and sing. It’s personal, and it’s not difficult to remember lyrics when they’re true stories. I love to make something I can step back and see or hear. I’m very satisfied doing it.”

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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