Listening to the opening notes of “The Fall,” the leadoff track on The Black Lillies’ stellar new album Runaway Freeway Blues, it might be easy to initially lump the group in with folk/Americana world dominators Mumford and Sons. It seems only natural when you hear that rolling acoustic sound nowadays. But then you hear that voice and the rest of the songs on the album and the stories they tell, and your perception changes.
That voice belongs to one Cruz Contreras, who not only has one of the coolest names ever, but also wrote all but one song on the album—a truly outstanding take on The Carter Family’s “Ramblin’ Boy.” Contreras’ voice sounds as if from another era, but still modern. At times, especially on slower numbers such as “Goodbye Charlie” (about a boy named Joe who ends up becoming a soldier in Vietnam), it veers into territory that brings to mind the deep richness of Merle Haggard. Rounding out the band is Trisha Gene Brady on harmony vocals (she also duets with Contreras on a couple tracks), bassist Robert Richards, drummer Bowman Townsend, and multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor. Pryor’s pedal steel prowess on Runaway Freeway Blues is so good that it will make you want to boot-scoot across the floor one moment and bask in lonesomeness the next. (Side note: Pryor toured with the now defunct band The Everybodyfields for a bit around the time of their final record release in 2007, Nothing Is Okay.)
The songs on Runaway Freeway Blues are pure Americana, and I’m talking about a lot more than genre. Stylistically they range from roadhouse blues and Appalachian folk to traditional country and New Orleans big band. Lyrically the songs are uniquely and classically American, not just in their content but in the way the stories are presented. They are straightforwardly told and certain lines are repeated for effect. All of these elements combined create a beautiful and poetic tapestry of distinctly American tales. My personal favorites include “Gold and Roses,” which uses a rollicking rhythm laced with banjo and pedal steel to tell the story of an Eastern Kentucky man who sets out to seek his fortune mining gold but keeps coming up empty. “By the Wayside” is a beautiful, melancholic spiritual number that could break the heart of both the devout and the debaucherous. “Ruby” contains a stunning musical interlude about halfway through that brings the tempo and noise way down only to end in an almost Drive-By Truckers-esque rock out. “All This Living” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on country radio in the late eighties or early nineties.
This Knoxville-based independent band has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry over twenty times and released two albums prior to Runaway Freeway Blues (2009’s Whiskey Angel and 2011’s 100 Miles of Wreckage). They play genuine country music with one foot steeped in tradition and one steeped in innovation, so far removed from the Nashville machine that it’s almost frivolous to mention. Working as a truck driver for a time hauling stones—after a divorce and the break-up of his previous band—is when Contreras came up with the idea to form The Black Lillies. Truck driving is one of those occupations which calls to mind the notion of freedom on the open road and rambling through different parts of the American countryside. But it also conjures up sadness, loneliness, and desolation. Runaway Freeway Blues has that same quality, and balances those emotions with nuance and skill. As Contreras sings in the gorgeous closing track “Glow,” “You’re making your way through this mean old world/ Riding on an ocean of blue/ But the sun and the sky shine in your eyes/ Lighting the way for you.” This is quintessential American music.