The Black Lillies with Kentucky Struts

Tuesday • Fountain Square

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If Cruz Contreras’ name sounds familiar, you may remember his stint with Robinella and the CCstringband, the jazzy Bluegrass group he co-founded with his wife Robinella Bailey in the late ’90s (he was “CC,” naturally). Sadly, the band and marriage collapsed almost simultaneously, and Contreras took a career break, accepting a job as a truck driver for a stone company.

But music has a way of bubbling back to the surface; in the year that Contreras spent hauling rock, his truck cab became the crucible where he formulated the songs of heartbreak and remorse comprising the first Black Lillies album, 2009’s Whiskey Angel, on Contreras’ own label, North Knox Records.

Whiskey Angel, a highly personal response to his marital/musical woes recorded in Contreras’ living room, was clearly a surprise to fans of the CCstringband, where Contreras’ role as bandleader put him in a spotlight largely overshadowed by his wife’s place on the marquee and the stage.

At the forefront with The Black Lillies, Contreras earned comparisons to Randy Travis, Rodney Crowell and even Ralph Stanley for his impassioned vocals and heartfelt determination.

But in the midst of a Whiskey Angel tour leg, Contreras lost co-vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Leah Gardner and bassist Taylor Coker; he pushed on with pedal steelist/guitarist Tom Pryor and drummer Jamie Cook until returning to Knoxville, Tenn., where he found bassist Robert Richards and vocalist Trisha Gene Brady.

The rejuvenated Lillies recorded the band’s equally melancholy but hopeful sophomore follow-up, 2011’s acclaimed 100 Miles of Wreckage. (Cook eventually departed for a solo career and was replaced by Bowman Townsend.)

The Lillies concocted the patently excellent Runaway Freeway Blues in 2013, which hit No. 43 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart; they subsequently landed a national Twizzlers commercial and placed three tracks in Country Music Television’s Top 12 requested videos. In addition to the string of festivals and wide-ranging dates The Black Lillies have played over the past five years, they’ve graced the Grand Ole Opry stage nearly two dozen times, historic for an independent group.

Contreras and The Black Lillies understand adversity, but they also know how to overcome it and they possess the passion, drive and talent to succeed regardless of the obstacles. You hear it in every note they play.

THE BLACK LILLIES play Fountain Square on Tuesday, June 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets/more info here.
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