Establishing New Roots: The Black Lillies Return With Stranger To Me

The Black Lillies keep their fans guessing. Since emerging from Knoxville, Tenn., in 2009 the evolving roots-rock outfit led by singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras has featured more than a dozen members. Equally hard to pin down has been the band’s sound—a fluidly shifting blend of earnest Americana that visits various eras of country, folk, and soul. This versatility is a reason the group has been able to fit on a variety of stages, from Bonnaroo to the Grand Ole Opry, and accumulate a loyal following across the country with a hard-touring work ethic.

In the past two years, though, the band’s personnel has appeared to finally stabilize. Following the departure of singer Trisha Gene Brady at the end of 2016, Contreras is now fronting a smaller four-piece band, and while a loss has been the powerful male-female vocal dynamic that’s been a driving force of the group’s sound since inception, a gain has been a newfound sense of cohesiveness in the stripped-down unit with a focus on creative democracy. The band’s first album since 2015, Stranger to Me, was released in late September, and in a statement about the record Contreras said of his bandmates, “These guys have become not just sidemen or guns for hire; they’re invested. Their opinions count, and their creativity is as much a part of this record as mine.”

The Lillies’ line-up is now rounded out by guitarist Dustin Schaefer, drummer Bowman Townsend, and bassist Sam Quinn—a top-notch songwriter in his own right and former member of lauded roots group, the everybodyfields. The reconstituted band somewhat publicly woodshedded songs for the new album with a series of online videos called “The Sprinter Sessions,” which featured the group playing sketches of developing tunes in their touring van. The exercise offered the opportunity to view songs like “Snakes and Telephones” in acoustic infancy. On the album, the Quinn-led tune eventually became a denser country ballad with a shimmering atmospheric chorus.

Another standout is the album opener, “Ten Years,” a taut, twangy rock tune with lyrics about realizing it’s time to move on from a troubled relationship. Hopefully this version of the Black Lillies stays put for a while.

The Black Lillies perform at the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mountain, Va., on

November 16, the Southern Café and Music Hall in Charlottesville, Va., on November 17, and the Grey Eagle in Asheville, N.C., on November 30.