Today’s Cool album of the day (#849 in the Series) is The Black Lillies, Runaway Freeway Blues.
This marks the band’s third album and I’ll say right here that you should go ahead and not just buy this new one, but first two , Whiskey Angel and 100 Miles of Wreckage as well. You will not be disappointed.
It might make sense to tell you a little about the band itself and then get to the details of this new album.
The Black Lillies are an independent “Americana” band. They consist of Cruz Contreras – lead vocals, guitar, piano, mandolin; Trisha Gene Brady – vocals, guitar, ukulele, hand percussion; Tom Pryor – electric guitar, pedal steel, dobro, banjo; Jamie Cook – drums; Robert Richards – bass. Together they create a sound that is fresh and timeless yet manages to have a classic appeal all at the same time. Have you ever had that feeling listening to a new song that somehow you already know it? This band does that to me all the time. You will find yourself singing along before the first chorus is even over.
They played SXSW this year and are going will soon be appearing at Merlefest. They previously played Bonnaroo back in 2009. There are more than a few bands that can probably say they played all three of those well-known festivals, but how many can add the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to their list? Not to mention that yes, they’ve graced that indeed historic stage at the Opry but have also headlined there as well.
Their music runs the gamut of styles that is associated with Americana music – there’s folk and country-rock, roots, Appalachian sounds, rock and roll and honky-tonk with some gospel thrown in for good measure. Somehow the band takes all of those influences and weaves them into a unified sound that stands on its own, because it is their own.
Runaway Freeway Blues was funded through a Pledge Music campaign. This allowed the band to produce their record and videos independently and in doing offer some extras back to their fans. It’s simple ..the more you pledged the more you got. Pledgers also received unreleased videos and song downloads while waiting for the record to be released. Pledges ranged from $10.00 for an exclusive download of live cuts and rarities to $3000 for a private show for up to 200 people and everything in between. By everything I mean everything from autographed CDs and handwritten lyrics to artwork created by Tom Pryor; handmade gourd shakers created by Trisha Gene Brady; personalized video requests; music lessons, the list went on and on. Personally, I am wearing my exclusive Black Lillies pledgers only t-shirt as I write this review. I also thought it was incredibly cool of the band to donate 5% of all the money pledges to a local music charity in Knoxville called “Joy of Music School” that helps underprivileged children receive private lessons and instruments for their music education. How cool is that?
I asked Cruz about the decision to fund the record this way. He responded “The pledge music campaign was a great success. I really like the sense of making a record with your fans. There’s a lot of support and energy that goes into that and I think it will really show itself on March 23rd at The Tennessee Theatre. The term independent, in our case certainly refers to not having a record deal, but without our fans support, we wouldn’t even have the opportunity to be independent.“
They played well over 200 dates last year in addition to recording the new album and yet still found time to film a couple of videos. This year’s tour schedule looks to be just as full, possibly even more so.
The way this is produced reminds me of albums of old that were meant to be listened to as a whole not just a track here or there. I’m not just referring to the songs themselves but also the order of the songs, the variety of styles and even the beautiful artwork and attention to detail. Each song flows easily from one to the next.
The opening track is “The Fall” – a wonderful example of the band’s strengths. It starts with a spare guitar part with Cruz and Trisha trading vocals. As the song builds the band begins to come in and the verses build in complexity. Cruz and Trisha begin to harmonize as the band smokes quietly behind them.
One of the most popular of the album is sure to be “Smokestack Lady,” of which Cruz tells the following story about its inspiration by his son Cash. “Cash didn’t write Smokestack Lady, but he certainly helped inspire it and enthusiastically approved of its completion! A few years back when I drove trucks for a stone company, I’m quite sure I’ve never been more of a hero in his eyes. He’s always asked me to tell him stories, trucking stories being his favorite, and it has been one of our bonds. The story I told from stage was one of Cash giving a go at songwriting himself. One night I was trying to get him to go to sleep. He’ll think of anything to stay awake, “I need a snack,” or “now I’ll brush my teeth,” well; he got me when he said he wanted to write a song. So he went to his room for a while, and when he returned he said, “I’ve got it!” I took a look at his paper and proceeded to read. “Why I am a truck driving man, because I like to haul that sweet cocaine across the country. I am a bandit.” Needless to say, I panicked. The first thing we did was change cocaine to moonshine. I didn’t realize he would take it to school the next day to share with his classmates. For the rest of the year he certainly was known as the songwriter of the class!”
The song’s rollicking beat features one of the best choruses in years – and Tom’s guitar work shines throughout. I have no doubt that there are already bands from all over the country sticking this into the repertoire. It will have people dancing in honky tanks and bars for years to come.
“Ruby” is probably as close the album comes to an all-out rocker, It cooks along for the first three minutes and then changes tempo into a really sweet musical passage before blasting back into the final passage to bring the song to a rocking end.
The band truly shows their versatility in the next song titled “By the Wayside.” Its sweet gospel Appalachian-style folk song that you would swear was an old Carter family classic that you had somehow just discovered. The harmonies are at times chilling. This song is just such a joy to close your eyes and listen to and smile.
My favorite is next, “All this Living” – I’m not sure if I understand it, but it seems to be a song about looking back at an old relationship that just didn’t work. But the sad song is put to a beat that keeps pushing. That along with the banjo and pedal steel and how they’re pushed by the rhythm section is I think what the song is about – that with everything we go through, we keep on pushing even though as the song says “All of this living sure can be hard on a man”
The centerpiece of the album is the beautiful “Catherine” a song that Cruz told me he wrote for his grandfather. “I’m very proud of the story behind “Catherine” on our new record. I wrote the song for my grandfather Bill Ackerman. He was a World War II Pilot, and flew a P-47 named after his mother Catherine. Each verse is a snippet of a much more detailed event.“ He also shared that “Sonically something just happened right. It seems like all the instruments work really well together. Also, my brother Billy, my grandfather’s namesake, played fiddle on the song, so that’s extra gratifying. A video is also in the works…it will feature 8mm footage of my grandfather and his experiences during World War II.”
It’s a beautiful, special song that defies any one category but could be played on any stage and be perfect.
The album closes with the quiet and peaceful “Glow.” A lullaby which promises to someone being left behind for a while. … that the singer will hold you in his heart while he’s gone. He sings, “Goodnight my precious darling, sleep tight – hold fast to your dreams. When the moon and the star glows from afar, know that I’m glowing with you.”
I’m not sure if a better album closing song has been written in a long, long time.
–– Rob Henry, Bethesda, Maryland USA
- The Fall 4:02
- Gold and Roses 4:16
- Ramblin’ Boy 4:15
- Goodbye Charlie 4:35
- Smokestack Lady 5:06
- Catherine 4:10
- Ruby 5:21
- By the Wayside 4:11
- All This Living 4:29
- Baby Doe 4:40
- Glow 4:28
Give a few songs a listen. Below is a playlist
Here are some additional favorites form earlier albums on a playlist
Here are more Americana albums that you might like!