Saturday, August 24, 2019
Doors: 6:00 PM; Music: 7:00 PM
Advance tickets: $30 (Will Call Only)
Tickets also available at Forde Nursery or 5th & Wine
Day of Show: $35 at door
Rootboy Productions presents ROOTSFEST 2018 at Forde Nursery with co-headliners The Black Lillies and Western Centuries. Join us for this very special night of outstanding Americana music! Attention: Be sure to checkout the first The Black Lillies video, its really cool!
Over the summer of 2017, Americana darlings The Black Lillies launched an experiment … a songwriting challenge for themselves that forced them to be accountable to their fans.
“The Sprinter Sessions” were a series of live videos broadcast via Facebook Live from the back of their Sprinter van while driving down the highway or at stops around the country. In various combinations, the Lillies — founder/songwriter Cruz Contreras, bass player/songwriter Sam Quinn, guitarist/songwriter Dustin Schaefer and drummer/songwriter Bowman Townsend — committed themselves to recording a brand new song every week. They weren’t lavishly orchestrated or fully fleshed out; sometimes lyrics had been written mere minutes prior to the broadcast. The songs were performed on acoustic instruments still grimy from shows the night before, and the guys didn’t bother to pick out their finest threads. Quinn, more often than not, played shirtless.
“You’re putting songs out there that weren’t finished, weren’t perfectly arranged, and we might barely have been able to perform them,” Contreras says, “We might be tired or hungover, playing them at a truck stop or wherever. It wasn’t glamorous but it held us accountable to that a rate of productivity that was really important, and it kept our fans up to speed with the evolution of the group — even if a lot of them did offer to send us clothes or food!”
More than anything else, “The Sprinter Sessions” set the stage for Stranger to Me, their new album. The band’s first since the departure of longtime member Trisha Gene Brady, it has been highly anticipated by fans and members of the media who were curious to hear the “new” Black Lillies. It’s been a slow roll-out, but the new record is the sound of a group that’s been renewed and reinvigorated, anchored to the traditions that made it so beloved by so many but chiseled down to the bare essentials: Four men. Four friends. Four artists, each of whom could rightly put out a solo record tomorrow, tied together by a bond to something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
“Paring down the lineup has given these guys space to shine and grow and evolve, and the chemistry is incredible.” says Contreras, who in another life was the mandolin-shredding bandleader of Robinella and the CCstringband. “The 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. There are songs that I wrote, songs that Sam (a veteran of the Americana group The Everybodyfields) wrote, and songs that we wrote in any combination and all of us together.
“It’s pretty simple, when you get down to that romantic notion of having a band. We rehearse together, we travel together, we hang out together because we’re dedicated, and I think the music is really showing that now. For me, it’s been years of learning to set your ego aside, but experience teaches you that you have to.”
Making room for other voices in the band was vital in rekindling Quinn’s creative fires. The winner of the 2006 Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest and a respected solo artist after The Everybodyfields folded, the well had dried up for him back home in Knoxville until a spot opened in The Black Lillies. Working with Contreras, Townsend and then Schaefer, Quinn says, “Was akin to tossing gasoline on the smoldering embers of his songwriting chops.” “It’s like, when the itch hits, that’s the time to scratch it.” he said, “Office Depot is now my favorite place. I’m always buying paper and pens and destroying them, because I write all the time.”
The Black Lillies were conceived during a particularly emotional period in Contreras’ life. A divorce, a disassembling of his old band and a 9-to-5 job driving a truck left him with days of turbulent thoughts and nights alternating between pen-and-paper and a guitar to put them into some semblance of order. Whiskey Angel, released in 2009, was a springboard to a whirlwind career revival, and within two years, the band had notched several national tours, landed on the hot list of countless publications and appeared everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Other records — 100 Miles of Wreckage, Runaway Freeway Blues, and Hard to Please — helped define a sound that was rooted in distinct male-female harmonies, intricate instrumentalism, and emotionally charged lyrics that look toward the hope of a new day dawning, regardless of the darkness of broken hearts and bereft spirits.
Around the making of Hard to Please, however, the band faced its biggest challenge to date — losing key members, integrating new ones, and facing a future that meant changing musical directions. Contreras, however, rose to the challenge, drawing inspiration from some of the titans of the genre in which the Lillies often find themselves categorized: The Eagles and Wilco, just to name a couple.
“We think about those favorite records of ours, those masterpiece records, and they’re no filler, all killer.” he says, “We grew up listening to records like that, so we thought, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s stack it.’ It should be nothing but keepers, and there really shouldn’t be five seconds of ‘Oh, they didn’t know what to do here.’ Everything should be purposeful.”
When the dust settled, he found himself with the right set of players: Quinn, who was once a labelmate of the Avett Brothers during his time in The Everybodyfields, Schaefer, a guitar wizard and a veteran of the Texas alt-country band Mickey and The Motorcars, and Townsend, the youngest member of the band who was brought in on drums in 2015 and has quickly become the group’s veteran anchor.
“With all of us together, we just hit the ground running.” says Contreras, “I think there’s mutual respect there on a creative level — we’re very different personalities, we make very different types of music and have very different writing styles, but we recognize that when we work together, we come up with something new and different that none of us could do on our own.”
“We just don’t want to be a throwback band. We want what we do to sound new and fresh and modern, and I think even the album cover of Stranger to Me represents that. It’s sharp and it’s smart and the mountains are a nod to both recording in Asheville and the house we did a lot of the preproduction in, which was this 1960s, modern-nouveaux place that looks like it belongs in the Hollywood Hills. And that ties back into the fact that while there’s a mountain quality to this record, it’s a departure as well.”
“We’re venturing out from a pure East Tennessee sound, and hopefully that comes through.” he adds, “Our voices, especially mine and Sam’s, are unique to the region, but production wise, we wanted this to really reflect the direction in which we’re going.”
When did country music start to sound the same? The first generation of country artists borrowed from everything around them: Appalachian string band music, Texas fiddle traditions, cowboy songs, Delta blues. In an era of unprecedented access to our musical pasts, shouldn’t country music be even more diverse than it was in its infancy? Honky-tonk supergroup Western Centuries surely understands this. They aren’t bound by any dictum to write songs in a modern country, or even a retro country style, Instead they’re taking their own personal influences as three very different songwriters and fusing it into a sound that moves beyond the constraints of country. Part of the reason they can make music with this range of influences is because of their roots in city life. Both Cahalen Morrison and Ethan Lawton, two of the three principal songwriters, live in Seattle’s diverse South end, and the third songwriter, Jim Miller, spends most of his time in and around New York City. The urban landscape is rarely mentioned in country music, but it makes for a refreshing sound that draws as easily from modern R&B as it does George Jones.
With their latest album, Songs from the Deluge, Western Centuries brings three songwriting voices together into a more unified sound than ever before. Over the past year of heavy touring (since the release of their last album), they’ve pushed each other hard as songwriters. But with a band this well tested on the road, it’s the sonic and lyrical place where each artist’s styles depart that is most interesting.
Ethan Lawton, known for his earlier work with Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, loves to pen imaginative parables about people living at extremes. “Wild You Run” by Lawton tells the story of watching someone you love deteriorate with a crippling addiction. The subject chases his temptation, but loses his soul as Lawton cries out helplessly “I won’t tell mama what you done, go have your fun….” Lawton’s “My Own Private Honky Tonk” is a rambunctious new take on the drinking alone narrative which finds Lawton dancing and playing music until the downstairs neighbors call. It’s a boogie-woogie flavored tune à la Fats Domino that highlights the upright bass work of Nokosee Fields, the band’s newest member. With the opening track, “Far From Home”, Lawton wails “mother, dear mother, won’t you spin a yarn about the way things were.” It’s about the dark days that young men found abroad in Vietnam and the personal wars they had to fight when they returned back home.
Cahalen Morrison, known for his earlier duo work with Eli West, is the country boy to Lawton’s urban cowboy, inspired by his love for cowboy poetry and the New Mexican desert where he grew up. He’s got a knack for bending words around stories until they’re as funny as they are tragic, as fantastic as they are real. His songs grow like mesquite in the desert, they twist and turn. On “Earthly Justice”, Morrison sings of bar flys and their troubles, remarking sardonically “if earthly justice just don’t get them in the end, there’s always a heavenly trial on its way” as vocal harmonies and pedal steel two step all around him. On Morrison’s album closer “Warm Guns”, he waxes quixotic about loss in love, singing in Spanish about being a victim of his own flaws.
Jim Miller, known for his earlier work with Donna the Buffalo, is the resident psychedelic poet. Like the best country songwriters, Miller’s sense of communion with nature turns his songs into works of magical realism. On “Wild Birds”, a song about a road-bound band, he consults the moss, befriends the tide, and survives fire all while asking for prayers to guide his band home to the end of their migration. “Borrow Time” features Louisiana accordion legend Roddie Romero, and the album’s best harmonies between the three lead singers. Some of his most beautiful lines happen on “Time Does the Rest” as he sings “Your heart knows what’s best / Hold her close, the lips will confess / Let it rise let it fall, time does the rest.”
Western Centuries’ music crosses vastly differing geographies–the city, the southwest, and the metaphysical. And their musical influences are equally as diverse. Together, they weave a tapestry of western music, without sacrificing their hard-earned country dance hall sound. Songs from the Deluge will levitate heavy hearts, turn spilled beer into ballads, and bring country music home as literate, epic odysseys from parts unknown.