The Black Lillies’ Cruz Contreras Promises Surprises at Bonnaroo and Reveals the Best Place to Swim in Knoxville

By Justin Korn,

“Staring into the Chesapeake Bay, at tankers, sailboats, and about every floating device you can think of” sounds like a lyric stripped from a track off The Black Lillies’ latest album Runaway Freeway Blues. But it isn’t. It’s actually just the Black Lillie’s founder and frontman, Cruz Contreras, sketching a scene of Annapolis, Md., in between the cracks of touring when he and the band are able to wander off from the soundstage.

The band was profiled in Rolling Stone’s “10 New Artists You Need to Know: Summer 2014.”  Next week they’ll be continuing their summer tour in the state they call home, Tennessee, at this year’s Bonnaroo music festival as a solo act and part of the the Bluegrass Situation SuperJam with comedian/banjo player Ed Helms directing the ole-time fiddlin’ traffic.

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Catching up With The Black Lillies

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With so much to see at Bonnaroo, what advice do you have for a Bonnaroo first-timer looking to get as much out of the festival as possible?

CC: The elements are certainly something to consider: it’s out on a farm and it’s the middle of summer; it’s hot; it can pretty easily become dusty; it can rain; it can be muddy. Make sure you got plenty of water, sunscreen, and a good attitude. You’ll hear more music in one place than you’ve ever heard before, that’s for sure.

Cruz Contreras

Cruz Contreras
Photo credit: Brian Wagner 

Two of the most popular cities for lodging at this year’s Bonnaroo are Chattanooga and Nashville, which one would you recommend?

CC: Oh, gosh. I know the area really well. I lived about six years in Franklin. I’ve just been all over Tennessee. I hesitate to tell you where the best place to stay is because I still have to make a couple more reservations myself.

As far as those two cities go, I feel like you’re a little closer to Nashville. I could be wrong about that. But there’s so much going on in Nashville right now. So if I were Room5g out a town right now, I’d definitely check out Nashville.

For someone that knows Tennessee as well as yourself, what tourist spots do you recommend for the 80,000-plus concertgoers visiting your backyard?

CC: There’s a place called Fall Creek Falls, which probably is about an hour or less from Bonnaroo and it’s amazing. Like, when they remade the movie “The Jungle Book,” they filmed a lot of it there. There’s thousands of caves, lush foliage, waterfalls, hiking.

Falls Creek Falls

Falls Creek Falls
Photo credit: Ben Prepelka

Nashville seems like a bustling place and a focal point for a meld of many different grass-roots American music genres. Which landmarks do you recommend Room5g out if you’re in the area?

CC: Maybe check out Robert’s Western World in Nashville down on Broadway. That’s always been a favorite of mine. It’s an old honky tonk and they have music around the clock there. Always got to give a nod to Robert’s Western World and if you’re into bluegrass, check out the Station Inn. The inn is in this area known as The Gulch, which is kind of this newly developed area. Of course there’s the Grand Ole Opry, if you’re into country music.

Robert's Western World

Robert’s Western World
Photo credit: nashvillemusiccity (CC)

And moving along to the place you call home, Knoxville. As my tour-guide, where are you sending me?

CC: Knoxville has a really great history and tradition. There’s a great radio station there, WDVX, and they play American roots music and they do a show every weekday called The Blue Plate Special. It’s a free, live radio show with usually two acts. It’s a great thing to catch. And my favorite place to eat at is called the Tomato Head. Yes, the Tomato Head. It’s awesome. It’s local, you got organic pizzas, salads, sandwiches, calzones. If you’re ever in Knoxville, you’re definitely gonna wanna check out the Tomato Head.

The Black Lillies at the Blue Plate Special

Photo credit: KnoxvilleUrbanGuy (CC)

And we’re right next to Smoky Mountains, so if you’re into Room5g out the national park, you’re close. There’s even, and,  this is super cool:  Knoxville use to be known as the Marble City and so there’s a lot of quarries–abandoned quarries–and they’re great for swimming. There’s one in particular which they made legal in the past year, and it’s called Fort Dickerson. If you took a picture of the quarry and you just like put it out there and was like, hey people, where in the world is this place? You would never guess it’s next to downtown Knoxville. It could be anywhere in the world. College kids, locals go down there and jump off the rocks. It’s absolutely beautiful. Everything’s really laid back here, and really convenient. We’re steadily growing. I’m really proud of it.

Fort Dickerson

Quarry at Fort Dickerson
Photo credit: Flickr Alan Farmer (CC)

Do you recommend Room5g out Graceland in Memphis?

CC: For music, it’s just unbelievable. All the types of music and art that comes through there. We got to record at Sun Studios a year or two ago, and they have what’s called the Sun Studio Sessions. It’s an online production. They get artists to come in and record there and it’s the same studio that Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded at. We love Memphis. The barbecue is as good or better than they say it is. The music is great. We’ve had some good times down there. But at the same time, it’s like a lifetime away from Knoxville.

So does that mean you’ve paid your respects to Elvis yet?

CC: Oh, man, I have not. I’ll tell you what, well, we’ll put that on the to-do list here. We’ve driven by really close. I kind of can’t believe we haven’t done that yet. But we will.

Any last things you’d like to share about Bonnaroo?

CC: The jam, the SuperJam, is going to be one complete surprise. And I’ll just say that there’s probably going to be some cover songs you’d not expect. You know, artists doing songs you’d not expect them to do. That’s all I’m gong to say. It’s not my baby. I don’t wanna get into trouble.

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Bonaroo Packing List Essentials

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 What you need in your festival bag according to The Black Lillies’ frontman Cruz Contreras:
  • Sunglasses.
  • A hat, a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Probably just give up on underwear, don’t even bother bringing underwear.
  • A camera.
  • I’d bring some snacks, like for hiking. The food can get pretty expensive.
  • Deodorant, optional?
  • A compass is always good in case you get lost.
  • Bring a couple handkerchiefs, in case it gets really dusty.
  • Pop rocks.

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Ultimate Soundtrack on the Road to Bonaroo

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Cruz’s hand-picked playlist that should be blaring all the way to Bonaroo!