At the beginning of 2015, things had never looked better for The Black Lillies. Winning legions of fans through relentless touring and riding a wave of critical acclaim, the band had already successfully surpassed their PledgeMusic fundraising goals, selected a producer and booked studio time to record their new album when frontman Cruz Contreras was hit with unexpected news: two of the group’s five members would be amicably moving on. Contreras contemplated the group’s future and faced down a looming deadline to finish writing the new album for a yet-to-be-determined lineup.
“In the past, I might write a song once a month when I felt inspired, and at a much more leisurely pace,” explains Contreras, “but this time around, I realized I would have to write an entire record in two weeks before we hit the studio. I felt confident I could do it, but I also had no proof.”
The proof is now etched into vinyl with ‘Hard To Please,’ the band’s fourth studio album. It’s an alternately rip-roaring and deeply intimate record, showcasing both Contreras’ lyrical evolution as a writer and a more sonically sophisticated side of the band than we’ve heard before. Whether it was due to the pressure of the ticking clock, the injection of creative energy from recording with new faces, or simply the steadfast desire of a hardworking band to always outdo themselves, the album stands as the finest yet in The Black Lillies’ outstanding catalog.
When it came time to record, the bar had already been set high with the group’s previous releases, which were hailed as “buzzworthy, genre-mashing roots music” by Rolling Stone Country and praised everywhere from Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal to CMT and Entertainment Weekly. Their last album, 2013’s ‘Runaway Freeway Blues,’ climbed the Billboard country charts, landed on more than a dozen Best-Of lists, and dominated Americana radio, spending a whopping three months in the Top 5. The sound reflected their raucous live show, which prompted NPR’s Ann Powers to name them a top pick at SXSW, and has earned them festival slots from Bonnaroo to Stagecoach, as well as the honor of playing The Grand Ole Opry more than any other independent band in history.
In addition to the unusually compressed writing timeline, ‘Hard To Please’ is also unique in that it marks the band’s first time recording with an outside producer. Contreras handed the reins over to Grammy-winner Ryan Hewitt (The Avett Brothers, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers), who led the band into the legendary House of Blues Studio D, originally constructed in Memphis in the 1960’s and relocated to Nashville in 2010. The room had hosted everyone from Isaac Hayes to Stevie Ray Vaughan to The Eagles in its storied history, and it was outfitted with a custom API console originally commissioned by Ryan’s father, David Hewitt, for The Record Plant in New York City back in 1978. The list of artists who recorded on the console is a who’s who of music icons: Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, The Band, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Crosby Stills & Nash, Tom Petty, Prince, on and on.
Hewitt invited Band of Horses’ Bill Reynolds to join the sessions on bass, while Contreras brought along pedal steel player Matt Smith (Indigo Girls, Amy Ray) and Daniel Donato, a hotshot guitarist he discovered blowing the roof off of Robert’s Western World one night in Nashville. The new faces joined Contreras, Hewitt, and the band’s remaining members—drummer Bowman Townsend and vocalist Trisha Gene Brady—to craft the ten gripping tracks on ‘Hard To Please.’
None of it—the lineup, the studio, the producer, the console—would have made a lick of difference without the songs, though. Contreras penned part of the album during a bitter winter storm that hit the band’s hometown of Knoxville, TN.
“We got snowed in, so I just set up shop in the basement,” remembers Contreras. “Usually we tour so much that the instruments don’t get out of their cases when we’re home, but I had time there to set everything up in a circle around me and get to work.”
The album opens with the biting title track, one of several tunes written while Contreras was snowed in, which has been called “a funky barn burner shot through with blasts of brass and blues guitar” by Rolling Stone Country. It sets the tone lyrically and musically for a band that can weather any storm and accepts nothing less than their very best (no matter the pressure), as Contreras sings, “We got a long way to go and a short time to get there.” The driving drum intro and catchy guitar hook came out of a collaboration between Contreras and Townsend, which he describes as “a perfect example of sharing the creative process with other people and the band being stronger for it.” That collaborative spirit pays off in spades later on the record, when Contreras hands over lead vocal duties to Brady on the appropriately titled and utterly infectious “The First Time.”
While several songs came out of those snowstorm writing sessions, including the heartfelt, delicate “Desire” and “Dancin'”—a duet that’s sure to indulge audiences’ love of getting on their feet at Black Lillies shows—some of the songs were actually years in the making. “That’s The Way It Goes Down” was penned in a moment of unflinching self-reflection back in 2014, while “Broken Shore,” a solemn, epic rocker, tells the story of Contreras’ grandfather, who fought at Iwo Jima. “Bound To Roam” was written fittingly enough in a van, and the rollicking “40 Days and 40 Nights” recounts the band’s misadventures on their first national tour.
“I gave up my lease and put all my possessions on the sidewalk, and in 45 minutes they were gone,” says Contreras with a laugh. “That was a lot easier than moving. The very first show was actually at the Ryman Auditorium and then we played two other great gigs and it all went downhill after that. We had 40 shows in 40 nights. It’s not too funny when you’re in it, but time heals that way and now that we’re six years out I can joke about it.”
It’s nothing short of remarkable how far the band has come in those six years, both in terms of miles and in terms of personal and musical growth. Through the ups and the downs, they’ve established themselves as one of the hardest-working and most dynamic bands touring today. With a re-imagined six-piece live lineup that includes new additions Sam Quinn (the everybodyfields), Mike Seal (Jeff Sipe Trio, Larkin Poe) and Jonathan Keeney (Robinella), it won’t be hard to please Black Lillies fans, and with a an album this great, they’re sure to bring a whole lot of new ones into the fold, too.