For the Americana/folk/counrty band the Black Lillies, all of their success can be traced back to one show at the Preservation Pub in 2009.
It was there in that Market Square haunt, that Cruz Contreras approached a microphone with a new intention. For the first time he took the stage front and center, instead of in the background playing. He was the face and the voice of his own show.
For those who are well versed in Knoxville's music scene, Contreras' name is not a new one. But rather, while this former bandleader for Robinella and the CCstringband — a folk/Americana band that always seemed to be on the cusp of "making it big" — has a familiar name, it is his newfound voice that is making waves.
"I booked the gig out of the Preservation Pub, and I thought that I would do this one time and my friends would tell me it sucked," Contreras mused. "But it didn't. And from there it kept going on and on."
For Contreras, however, his relationship with music hasn't always been that easy. Following the break-up of Robinella and the CCstringband, and ultimately his marriage (Robinella and Contreras were married) over five years ago, Contreras took time off from music. Using the skills he had garnered from his early days as Robinella's tour bus driver, he eventually became a truck driver for a local stone company so as to stay close to his son.
"It was a big gut-check," Contreras said. "There was a minute where I thought that music had ruined my life... But once I started driving, I started listening again to the music that had gotten my fire going when I was younger. And I was like 'Man, I love this stuff..." And I started playing again."
Following the success of his show at Preservation Pub, Contreras became convinced that he needed to accomplish a lifelong goal of his; he needed to make a band.
After a year of searching for the right musicians, Contreras assembled the first incarnation of The Black Lillies in his living room and recorded an album. Their work, which was dubbed "Whiskey Angel," was released to a warm fan reception locally, and garnered the band a spot at Bonnaroo and Tennessee Shines at the Bijou.
"We just kept going from there, and today, we just keep going," Contreras said.
Following a national tour, Contreras and the Black Lillies returned to the studio to record their second album "100 Miles of Wreckage," which spent months on the Americana charts, and was in the running for Best Americana Album from the Independent Music Awards. It was during this time that the band's current locally-themed line-up was forged with Contreras at the lead, Trisha Gene Brady on backing vocals (also a former employee UT library employee), Tom Pryor on guitar, Jamie Cook on drums and bassist Robert Richards.
All members of the band are local, and together their sound has created a potent mixture.
"I really love their music...," said Roxanna Shohadaee, a Spring 2011 graduate in Studio Arts. "I worked with Trisha at the studio (at UT) and she would tell me 'I have a band, come check them out.' And one day she got me tickets to see them at the Bijou and I was just blown away."
The band's sophomore album received a lot of attention from the country music scene, but Contreras is quick to dissuade any attempts to label his band's sound.
"It's unfortunate that you have to describe the music you play," Contreras said. "We say 'Americana,' so that we have the freedom to play whatever the heck we want. It's a conversation everyday for us, whatever we are... I really don't want to limit musically what we do... We like to have options."
Those 'options' are something that fans like Shohadaee view as one of the highlights of the band's appeal.
"Their music is such an interesting mix of folk, country and Americana," she said. "But there's also jazz in it and it is definitely one of my favorite parts of the flavor of their music."
Despite the success of the band's first two albums, Contreras is not happy with simply resting on his laurels. But rather, the band is already working on a third album, as of yet unnamed, which will not only consist of material similar to the first two albums, but also some new content that will push them into different musical boundaries.
Unlike most bands, however, the Black Lillies are using fan support and donations through Pledgemusic.com, to try and fund the entire album without having to be attached to a record company.
"I haven't had any interest in doing a record deal with this thing," Contreras said. "Robinella and I tried the deal with Columbia records back in the day... This allows us to reach out to fans more and find people that like our music."
Contreras' and the Black Lillies path has not been a linear one, but that doesn't seem to matter.
"How would I know what I know now if I hadn't been where I've been," Contreras said. "It's a little weird to be 30 years old and singing for the first time... I used to have dreams of grandeur of singing at the head of a band, and I grew up and was like 'That's not going to happen.' But one day, for me, it did happen."