Cruz Contreras couldn’t wait for 2016 to arrive.
Last year proved to be a challenging one for the Black Lillies, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based alt-country band that Contreras fronts. Last February the band got off the Cayamo Cruise — a cruise-ship music festival featuring singer-songwriter acts like John Prine, Lucinda Williams and John Hiatt. It was a nice respite before the band went into the studio to work on a new record. Except two things happened that threw a monkey wrench into the works.
“My two most veteran members were leaving the band; the cruise was their last show,” Contreras told City Paper on a drive back from Houston to Knoxville (more on that in a minute). “Right after that, we were scheduled to go into the studio to make this record with producer Ryan Hewitt, and I lost two of my players and I didn’t have the songs ready to record. We were supposed to start preproduction, and I told Ryan what happened and he just sort of laughed.”
But a conversation with Contreras’ 11-year-old son turned things around. “He told me to go write this record and then let’s go buy a farm. My boy was counting on me, so I called Ryan and told him we’d be ready.”
That record, Hard to Please, was released in October and offers listeners the perfect mix of country, blues, rock and bluegrass for a distinct sound. So as they headed out on tour, Contreras says he knew 2016 “would be smooth sailing.”
Then on the morning of Jan. 26, the band were leaving their Houston hotel when they noticed their van and instrument trailer were gone.
“My first thought was, hmm, I must have gotten X-ray vision overnight because I can see right through our van,” Contreras laughs now. In addition to the vehicle, the band members lost all of their instruments, from custom-made mandolins to Contreras’ 1952 Gibson J-45 guitar.
“The minute I picked it up, I knew it was my lifetime guitar,” Contreras says. “I had plans for that to be the one. I’m still holding out hope that it will come back around to me. Somebody somewhere is going to see that guitar and realize that it just looks like it’s being missed.
“People asked us why I don’t take a junk guitar on the road, but we travel with our good instruments because those vintage instruments are part of who we are and how we get our sound.”
But the band members didn’t flinch. They know how to handle adversity. “There was no crying,” Contreras says. “We rented some cars to get back home for a show, we borrowed instruments and we got on the stage. Then we went on the cruise again this year. We definitely needed that time.”
Things are already looking up for the band. While the instruments are still missing, the van was found and Contreras was driving it back home during this interview.
“The music business is tough; touring is tough, but we’ve developed the ability to deal with the challenges no matter how difficult they are,” Contreras says. And what if 2016 decides to remain rocky? “Bring it on, we’ll deal with it.”