The Black Lillies
515-B North McDonough St.
Decatur, GA, 30030
Doors 9:15 PM / Show 9:30 PM
The Black Lillies
Over the summer of 2017, Americana darlings The Black Lillies launched an experiment … a songwriting challenge for themselves that forced them to be accountable to their fans.
“The Sprinter Sessions” began as a series of live videos broadcast via Facebook Live from the back of their Sprinter van while driving down the highway or at stops around the country, from the frozen cityscape of Philadelphia in late winter to the side of a Midwestern backroad with fallow fields stretching to the horizon. Besides a short break to make and release an album, they’ve kept them up – though the delivery mechanism has moved over to the group’s Patreon fan page. In various combinations, the Lillies — founder/songwriter Cruz Contreras, bass player/songwriter Sam Quinn, guitarist Graham Mallany, and drummer/songwriter Bowman Townsend — committed themselves to recording a brand new song every week. They aren’t lavishly orchestrated or fully fleshed out; sometimes lyrics were written mere minutes prior to the broadcast. The songs are performed on acoustic instruments still grimy from shows the night before, and the guys don’t bother to pick out their finest threads. Quinn, more often than not, plays shirtless.
“You’re putting songs out there that aren’t finished, aren’t perfectly arranged, and we might barely be able to perform them yet,” Contreras says. “We might be tired or hungover, playing them at a truck stop or wherever. It’s nort glamorous — but it has held us accountable to a rate of productivity that is really important, and it kept our fans up to speed with the evolution of the group — even if a lot of them did offer to send us clothes or food!”
More than anything else, “The Sprinter Sessions” set the stage for “Stranger to Me,” the latest album by the Lillies that dropped last fall on Attack Monkey/Thirty Tigers. The album is the band’s first since the departure of longtime member Trisha Gene Brady, and it’s one that has been highly anticipated by fans and members of the media who were curious to hear the “new” Black Lillies. The new record is the sound of a band that’s been renewed and reinvigorated, anchored to the traditions that made it so beloved by so many but chiseled down to the bare essentials:
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.
“Paring down the lineup has given these guys space to shine and grow and evolve, and the chemistry is incredible,” 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. “The 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, 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.”
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 was once a labelmate of the Avett Brothers during his time in The Everybodyfields; Mallany, a guitar wizard and Canadian transplant well-known for his shredding north of the border; 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.
“Bowman brought that positive attitude, that work ethic, and for me, he’s been the guy,” Contreras says. “When Sam joined the band, we were getting a rock star. This guy’s been around the block, done it all and succeeded. He’s written great songs, played big stages and had the band that will go down in music history as one of the seminal ones in the genre.”
“Stranger to Me” brought the group their greatest success on the charts to date, debuting at #5 on Billboard’s Folk/Americana chart, #9 on the Billboard Country Current chart, and #61 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart – no small feat for a band that chose a distribution deal with Thirty Tigers over a traditional label deal, so that they could maintain control of their sound. And what a sound it is: built on the foundation of the familiar roots rock of some of the greatest bands of the past, but altogether fresh, modern, sharp; swirling with psychedelic overtones, torch ballad longing, and an indie rock edge.
Despite the success, however, the guys still see “Stranger to Me” as a building block. Through the continuation of The Sprinter Sessions, they are hard at work on writing and debuting new material and already making plans for album number six. In the meantime, they continue their streak as one of the hardest touring bands in the business, averaging almost 200 tour dates per year worldwide. And when they play live, those harmonies … that energy … those guitars … those songs … they remind the audience just how incredible and life-affirming music can truly be. If any audience members are strangers to The Black Lillies when the show begins, they sure as hell aren’t by the time it ends.