The Black Lillies

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 Bowman Townsend – 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’ve still managed to conquer the Billboard Top 200 charts (Runaway Freeway Blues debuted at #43), put three tracks in Country Music Television’s top 12 requested videos, and film a nationally broadcast commercial for Twizzlers. They’ve been featured on numerous television specials and played festivals as widespread as Bonnaroo, Rochester Jazz Festival, MerleFest, 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 twenty 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.

Since their start in 2007, Yarn's original Americana sound has developed into music that seekers of the unique see as the soundtrack to their lives. Yarn's first four albums were recognized by the AMA's and R&R radio charts, spending time in the top 5 at their highest point. Yarn has become one of the hardest-working and harder-touring bands for this generation's digital natives and new music folllowers.

2012 brings this grammy-nominated roots band into the music revolution, inspired by today's music devotee's hunger for artists to believe in and follow, they are giving it to the fans everyday in everyway possible. Yarn's devotion to their fans is realized in online and social sharing of their music, whether it's daily video posts, premiering fresh songs on local radio, or performing live in small town venues across the country. They are bringing songs to American music lovers, and the music lovers are responding.

Yarn's devoted followers, affectionately called the "Yarmy", answered the band's request for aid when they funded their new record through Kickstarter. Raising in excess of $5000 of the $15,000 needed, the "Yarmy" proved their allegiance to Yarn and their music being heard in 2012.

The fans have spoken, and on March 20th, Yarn releases their new album, Almost Home, produced by the multi-Grammy winning, Bil VornDick, who has worked with Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Bob Dylan and many others. VornDick came across a Yarn performance at "Music City Roots", Nashville's progessive live music show that showcases some of the best of the Americana music scene. Although they didn't come together that night, VornDick and his wife heard Yarn on a Virginia radio live remote a few days later as they were traveling. VornDick decided it must be a sign and the rest is Yarn history.

Yarn's mojo continues to provide as they will be making their first appearance at SXSW in the New Frontier Showcase, and traveling in the "On the Fly" RV, courtesy of their 2012 sponsorship with Firefly Vodka. "It seems every good connection leads to another," says Christiana, "our fan following has really put us in a place to get noticed and we want to repay them for the huge faith in us." Yarn's good karma keeps building, being in the right place at the right time. They were recently featured on CNN's Out Front, during a cover story on Firefly Distilleries. The band just happened to be in town and their music made a believer out of CNN host, Erin Burnett, who, (as she sings along with the band), proclaims, "They are playing good music and living the American dream. We think Yarn is going to make it big!"

Yarn is led by singer/songwriter and cult-master, Blake Christiana, who carries the torch for the fan-following that will transport Yarn into the promised land. "Our fans are like family. We are so grateful to people that love music and will help support us in creating it. It's just remarkable," Christiana says. "That's half of my love of the road; we've got what feels like family in tons of cities across America."

Yarn's devoted "family" has them following in the fine tradition of The Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic, whose fans will go to any length to see them live, and this year Yarn's fans will see them plenty. Their rigorous tour schedule has them out on the road for more than 150 dates per year since 2007 and they are not slowing down.



For Yarn, discussion of life on the road goes right back to the audience and the fan's benevolence. "They want us to survive and to keep creating music, so they will bring us into their homes, let us sleep in their beds, cook for us...the level of generosity is unbelievable," says Christiana. The Yarn sextet doesn't hold back when it comes to rewarding their followers for their loyalty. "We are so exposed to our fans...we don't sit on the bus or hide in the green room, we are hanging out, drinking beer with them, going out after the show...if anyone wants to get to know us on a more personal level, it's very easy," admits Christiana. They also make sure that all their live shows are recorded and online for fans freely. "We have been doing that for a few years, and the fans love it," says Christiana, "whatever it takes, we want to do for anybody that comes out to our shows."

Is there a mark of success for Yarn? Christiana states it well, "To live comfortably and make music for our fans. I just want to be able to do what I love and eat...so maybe I'm already there," he laughs, "we want to make good music and hopefully that makes someone else's life better."

Stay tuned, 2012 looks like Yarn may unravel the American dream.

$10.00

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The Black Lillies, Yarn

Friday, March 7 · 8:00 PM at World Cafe Live - Wilmington Upstairs