The Black Lillies’ “Hard to Please”
Cruz Contreras had just written “Hard to Please,” the song that would eventually become the title track for the Black Lillies’ fourth studio album, when he asked his son, Cash, to give it a listen.
“I had originally written it on guitar with this sort of Bob Dylan folk approach,” Contreras says by phone from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. “I played it for my son because I wanted an honest opinion.”
When 11-year-old Cash compared the song to a record that ends up in a thrift store, Contreras realized that’s exactly what he got.
“I love thrift stores, so I thought he meant something good at first, but then I realized he meant it sounded old and not very cool,” Contreras says, laughing. “That’s when I played it for [drummer] Bowman [Townsend], whose opinion wasn’t too different, and he came back with a guitar riff, which became the hook.”
“I just thought, ‘What if we make it a cool little riff tune?’” Townsend adds. “I’m not a guitar player, but my roommate had this crappy guitar, and I plucked it out and took it over to Cruz. Once he heard the riff, it evolved from there.”
Contreras’ lyrics, aided by Townsend’s swagger-laden riff, lifted the title track of the Black Lillies’ latest album, released Oct. 2, to No. 7 on the Americana Music Association airplay chart. The album as a whole, meanwhile, is an alternately rip-roaring and deeply intimate record, showcasing both Contreras’ lyrical evolution as a writer and a more sonically sophisticated side of the band than has been heard before. For Contreras, the response has felt like a gift in a year that began with a dramatic shake-up of the band.
Rolling the Dice
While all the band’s members have clearly had a hand in shaping the Black Lillies’ sound, it’s Contreras who is its heart and soul.
He spent his childhood in Bridgman, Michigan, and was 12 when his family left for Franklin, Tennessee. He began piano lessons at the urging of his father, and first picked up a guitar when his younger brother, Billy, discovered the fiddle.
“He was 5 or 6 years old and saw a video of Charlie Daniels,” Contreras says of his brother. “He just hounded our mom until she finally got him some lessons. Of course, it was Nashville, so his teacher was really connected. The first week I had a guitar, I jammed with Bill Monroe. I literally knew one chord.”
Contreras went on to study jazz piano at the University of Tennessee with the idea that he could come to Nashville and become a session player. Instead, he married Robin Ella Tipton and formed Robinella and the CCstringband in 1999. Together they received national acclaim for singles “Man Over,” “Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down,” and “Honey, Honey Bee,” but by 2006 both the marriage and the band had dissolved.
“Everything that you thought was stable in your life is turned upside down,” Contreras says. “We were focused on music, and the relationship got neglected somehow. I went through some dark introspection there for a while. I thought music and chasing that dream had ruined my life.”
So Contreras took a break from music, concentrating instead on rebuilding his life. He spent much of his self-imposed musical exile driving a stone truck in Tennessee. It was during those long days driving and listening to the radio that Contreras rediscovered his love of roots and Americana music and assembled a group of musicians that by 2009 became the Black Lillies.
The band’s debut album, Whiskey Angel, which was recorded in the living room of Contreras’ North Knoxville home, was named best Americana album at the Independent Music Awards.
The 2011 follow-up, 100 Miles of Wreckage, spent five months on the Americana Radio Chart – four of them in the Top 15 – and claimed the No. 32 spot on the Americana Music Association’s Top 100 Albums of the Year. Runaway Freeway Blues followed in 2013, landing at No. 18 on the AMA’s Top 100 Albums of the Year list after spending three months in the Top 5 of the AMA radio chart. The album also hit No. 1 on the Roots Music Report, and No. 43 on the Billboard 200.
Then, last February, after a year of touring, longtime members Tom Pryor (guitar/pedal steel) and Robert Richards (bass) announced they were leaving to pursue other opportunities. Although the departures were amicable, the timing was less than ideal for a band that seemed to have found its musical stride.
"It was that poker game moment where you put it all in and either walk away with nothing or come away with everything.” - Trisha Gene Brady
The Black Lillies were planning a return to the studio, with Contreras handing the reins over to Grammy-winning producer Ryan Hewitt (The Avett Brothers, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers). It would mark the first time the band worked with an outside producer. But before Hewitt could even get started, the band’s momentum suddenly shifted.
“The first day I showed up for preproduction with the band, Cruz looks at me and says, ‘Can you give me 10 minutes?’” Hewitt says. “I went out of the room for awhile then he comes and sits down next to me and says, ‘Well the bass player and the guitar player just quit.’ I said, ‘You’re about to make the most important record of your career and half your band just quit?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah. That’s just what happened.’”
Faced with the very real possibility that this could end the Black Lillies, Contreras turned to remaining members Townsend and harmony vocalist Trisha Gene Brady for what he calls “a serious gut-check.”
“We literally had that meeting where if we are going to stop, if we are going to no longer be a band, now is the time to stop,” Brady says. “Bowman and I were all in. There was no question for me, and there was no question for Bowman. We knew Cruz wasn’t going to stop. He’s making music for the rest of his life no matter what. But it was that poker game moment where you put it all in and either walk away with nothing or come away with everything.”
For the remaining members of the Black Lillies, that everything was Hard to Please.
Shortly after Pryor and Richards left, Contreras holed up in his basement, aided in part by a snowstorm, and spent 10 days writing songs that stretched the Black Lillies’ roots-rock sound.
“I was very thankful for that snowstorm that kept him in his apartment,” Brady says, laughing. “We told him he should never stifle his writing in response to what he thinks the band is capable of. He needs to write thinking we’re going to step it up if he brings it to the plate. That’s what culminated on this album. Let’s just say it was a very timely snowstorm.”
Songs Waiting to Be Sung
Townsend, who lives about a mile away, joined Contreras at his apartment, as did Knoxville-area musician Sam Quinn, who’d kicked off his own career as half of the folk duo the everybodyfields.
“Hard to Please,” the band’s first co-write, emerged from those sessions, as did the delicate “Desire” and the Western duet “Dancin’.”
“Before I wrote it, I knew I wanted a song like ‘Dancin’’ on the album,” Contreras says. “I wanted something that was classic country, that felt good. As soon as we started playing it [in the studio], people just started smiling. It’s one of our feel-good songs.”
One of the last songs to emerge from those sessions was “Broken Shore,” a solemn, epic rocker that tells the story of Contreras’ paternal grandfather, who fought at Iwo Jima. Contreras had previously immortalized his maternal grandfather in another World War II ode, “Catherine,” on Runaway Freeway Blues.
“Grandpa Contreras was a Marine and fought in the South Pacific,” Contreras says. “I certainly wanted to honor him, but it was a difficult subject to tackle, probably the most difficult I ever have, I think. The song didn’t come to me right away. I didn’t give up, and I finally came up with the image – There’s a rock in the middle of the ocean – and then I realized the song didn’t have to be so literal.”
Some of the other songs that ended up on Hard to Please were years in the making.
“That’s the Way It Goes Down,” a country rock ode about lost love, was penned in a moment of self-reflection back in 2014, while “The First Time,” a tune about love’s possibilities, was a forgotten gem recovered from the bottom of a box that housed Contreras’ guitar gear.
“When he whipped that song out, it looked like it was going to deteriorate and blow away in the wind,” says Brady, who sings lead on the track, another first for the band. “I immediately felt the lyrics were so strong, and there was something different about the way he wrote it – the delivery of it. … The song took flight the minute we sat down and played it the first time.”
The up-tempo, optimistic tune is augmented by a horn section, driving beat, and slick guitars, but it’s Brady’s soulful lyrical rendition that makes it soar.
“Trisha sings leads on cover songs in our live shows all the time,” Contreras says. “It may seem like a bold move, but within the band, it’s a natural thing. … When we tried it right on the spot, for me it was like, ‘Duh, this is Trisha’s song.’ It’s just been sitting here waiting for her to sing it.”
Magic in the Studio
Hewitt set the recording sessions for Hard to Please at the legendary House of Blues Studio D, originally constructed in Memphis in the 1960s and relocated to Nashville in 2010. The room has hosted everyone from Isaac Hayes to Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Eagles, and is outfitted with a custom API console originally commissioned by Hewitt ‘s father, David Hewitt, for the Record Plant in New York City in 1978. The list of artists who have recorded on the console is a who’s who of music icons: Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, The Band, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Crosby Stills & Nash, Tom Petty, Prince, and on and on.
“The studio is really magic,” Hewitt says. “But Cruz and Trisha and Bowman came in with some really, really great songs. Everyone got really excited and the guest musicians were so talented that they pitched in and made the songs one or two notches even better in the end. Everyone was in the room together, trading ideas on the fly and making things as great as possible, and having a great time doing it.”
Hewitt invited Band of Horses’ Bill Reynolds to join the sessions on bass, while Contreras brought along pedal steel player Matt Smith (Indigo Girls, Amy Ray), Daniel Donato, a hotshot guitarist he discovered blowing the roof off Robert’s Western World one night in Nashville, and solo artist Jill Andrews, Quinn’s former partner in the everybodyfields.
“In the past, we had very much relied on all five of us to bring what we could to the table,” Brady says. “We didn’t know how we were going to replace that. We didn’t know if we could replace that. But when we went into the studio with these players who brought in this amazing energy and wanted to be there it was very validating. That’s when we knew we didn’t have to have all five of us to go on.”
"The sound of the band is more thick and lush than it’s ever been." - Cruz Contreras
Something from the Heart
“Cruz has so many different musical influences and so much life experience inside and outside music and love and loss and all the things you read about with troubadour-type people,” Hewitt says. “He comes at songs from many different angles. The trick for me for this record was to make a common thread for all these disparate topics and styles, but at the end of the day, you realize that the main thread is just Cruz.”
Since recording Hard to Please, bassist Quinn has become a full-time member of the Black Lillies, along with guitarist Mike Seal and pedal steel player Jonathan Keeney.
“The sound of the band is more thick and lush than it’s ever been,” Contreras says. “You put those guys together with what we have with myself, Bowman, and Trisha already and the chemistry is there on a personal level and it’s great on a musical level. … We’re still playing to fans who haven’t heard the new lineup, so we know we are still re-proving ourselves every night. But I think we’re doing that.”
“It’s a very brave situation to face,” Hewitt adds. “To pick up and carry the pieces with the remaining members and to come up with those songs and get into the studio and knock those out and go back on tour is really, really brave. It’s a powerful record. It’s tough sounding and it’s real and sincere. I feel it’s just proof that when you make something from your heart, people dig it. I think it also speaks to the level of seriousness of this band. They are a really, really badass group of people.”