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Black Lillies lead singer Cruz Contreras finds inspiration behind the wheel of a truck

By on July 6, 2015

As frontman of the Americana band the Black Lillies, Cruz Contreras has laid a musical foundation by tracing the history of America’s highways and byways. He draws inspiration from myths and legends he’s encountered down the open road.

“Stories are the biggest part of my life,” he says. “It’s an honor and a responsibility to be out there performing and telling other people’s stories.”

His own story is one of rediscovery. After a divorce from his wife Robinella, whom he had performed with for several years as a co-founder of the Robinella and CC String Band, Contreras stepped away from music and took a job in trucking. He obtained his Commercial Driver’s License and became a driver for a stone company in Maryville, Tennessee.

“I needed to make a living,” he explains. “I wanted to take care of my son. During that time I learned a bunch of new skills.”

While he grew to appreciate his new line of work, Contreras never lost the itch to sing and play.

“I had a lot of time to sit and think,” he says. “There was energy and adrenaline I wasn’t using. I don’t think I would’ve learned to really sing without having that experience.”

He reconnected with American roots music, which builds on a foundation of traditional country, blues and folk. Then Contreras reversed course again, forming the Black Lillies with like-minded friends in Tennessee.

Time to hit the road again

Creative-DetourThough they didn’t have a record out, Contreras started putting gigs together. As the calendar filled up he had to figure out how to get on the road and navigate a tour. It often meant 10 hours of driving in the middle of the night. And each mile brought more inspiration.

The band’s 2013 album, Runaway Freeway Blues, reflected that time on the road in almost every song. Fans particularly responded to “Smokestack Lady,” a humorous account of a big-rig driver fighting the “smokestack, hauling jack, switchback, kickin’ back, runaway freeway blues.”

Chugging along to an infectious, fastpaced rhythm, the song playfully describes the ups and downs of a long-distance relationship. Its quick tempo and longing sentiment are something that a lot of drivers can relate to. Contreras and his bandmates see that the freedom of the open road comes with certain dangers.

“Being gone from home is the No. 1 sacrifice of doing what we do,” Contreras says. “The whole country becomes your home. I’ve dedicated my life to music, and it requires you to figure out what you love and what your passion is.”

The Black Lillies seem to have figured it out. They have built a collection of songs they feel proud of and that their audience responds to.

Rolling along

Working alongside Grammy Awardwinning producer Ryan Hewitt (Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers), the Black Lillies have just finished recording their fourth studio album, Hard to Please, due out in October. Contreras believes that his time as a driver has endowed his music with greater meaning.

“We have a lot of vivid memories from being on the road,” he says. “It takes us to some of the most interesting places.”

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