News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Sounds: The Black Lillies are rising up in the country world
BY ANDREW LEAHEY
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
The Grand Ole Opry is one of country music’s oldest institutions. Held every week in Nashville, it’s a meeting place for superstars like Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts, who sing, pick and swap twangy songs on the same stage. WSM, the radio station that broadcast the Opry’s first show in 1925, continues to air each performance.
The music may be modern, but there’s an old-school vibe to the Opry. Cowboy hats are common, and most shows open up with a short set by Little Jimmy Dickens, the 91-year-old “hillbilly singer” who made his Opry debut back in 1948.
The Black Lillies don’t really fit into this sea of Stetsons and rhinestones. An Americana band from Knoxville, they’re just as influenced by rock ’n’ roll as country, and they bind those two genres together with a mix of bluegrass, blues and jazz. Over the past year, though, these black sheep have made nine appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, quickly becoming one of the show’s unlikely heroes.
“It’s definitely not the Nashville sound,” frontman Cruz Contresas said of the band’s music. “Sometimes, it surprises us that we’ve been accepted by that crowd. For them, terms like “the edge” and “the fringe” get used a lot. Our sound has enough of a country sound to be acceptable to those fans, but it also has a youthfulness and an edginess that catches people off guard.”
It’s been a busy year for the Black Lillies. Last Christmas, harmony singer Trisha Gene Brady quit her job at the University of Tennessee library, allowing the band to start touring full time. They’ve been on the road ever since, headlining their own shows one minute and sharing gigs with groups like Mumford & Sons the next.
Touring didn’t always go so well.
“December 2009 was our first tour as a band,” Contresas remembered, “and I had some really romantic notions about doing the full-time touring thing. I thought I was gonna hit the road for 10 years and never come back, so I gave up my lease and literally took all my possessions and set them out on the sidewalk. Then we got out there and it was a rude awakening.”
The Black Lillies played 35 shows during that 40-day tour. Some of the performances sold out; others were played to an empty room. By the time the tour wrapped up in early 2010, Contreras had become a businessman as well a musician, capable not only of creating songs, but also promoting them, selling them and investing every single listener.
“You just learn how to connect with the audience,” he said. “You learn what people can dance to, what works the best live, how to work with your band.
“And you learn where to play. We’d do a lot of tourist vacation spots, where you may play for 100 people who all live somewhere else, but they take your music back to their friends and families and communities. Things spread out exponentially from there.”
The Black Lillies’ tour dates are exponentially spreading, too. They’ll play three area shows this week, including their first stop in Ashland and a return to their favorite D.C. venue, The Hamilton.
What: The Black Lillies
Where: Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 N. Railroad Ave., Ashland; 8 p.m. tonight. $13–$15. ashland coffeeandtea.com
Where: The Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW, Washington; 9:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17. $25; thehamiltondc.com
Andrew Leahey is a freelance writer for Weekender and a musician.