Americana roots musician Cruz Contreras would agree with the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who has been credited with saying that “change is the only constant in life.”
“My style and approach to music is always changing,” said the frontman for the band The Black Lillies who will lead a songwriting workshop and perform solo on Oct. 22 as part of the Singer Songwriter Series at the Kentlands Mansion and Arts Barn, respectively. “It’s always about what’s next creatively, to keep it fresh, challenging and on fire.”
Contreras, who maintains he’s “not built to go through the motions,” reflected on the substance of his career, most of which “has been dedicated to learning and producing music, and hopefully always getting better.” His drive is evident in what he called an “obsession with making the best art I’m able to. I have a fear of going through life and not being great at something.”
As such, since childhood, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based singer-songwriter has studied and found inspiration in a variety of musical genres and instruments. He credits his father as his first musical influence. “Each evening, he’d come home from work and set down to the piano and play songs he’d learned from sheet music he’d buy at the music store—tunes like (Elton John’s) ‘Crocodile Rock,’ (Billy Joel’s) ‘Piano Man,” (Ben E. King’s) ‘Stand by Me’ and (Mozart’s) ‘Rondo a la Turka,’” Contreras recalled. “I learned to play (piano) by ear before I could read music. … every time I signed up for a (baseball) season, he said I could as long as I continued studying piano.”
When his family relocated from Baroda, Mich., to Franklin, Tenn., in the summer of 1989, Contreras began composing songs. “I had a lot of time on my hands and was desperately homesick. I played and composed to make myself feel better,” he said. Until seventh grade, he studied “traditional and classical piano,” proceeding at age 15 to bluegrass and swing guitar, “playing with my brother Billy, a fiddler, and really got hooked on country music.”
At the University of Tennessee, Contreras studied jazz piano, and played banjo and mandolin. With fellow student, ex-wife Robin Ella Tipton, he formed Robinella and the CCstringband in the late 1990s, releasing three progressive bluegrass and jazz blues albums, and then as Robinella, an album that got into pop and funk. Contreras began singing at age 31, which made him realize that “you never know what might be around the corner.”
For The Black Lillies, which Contreras founded in 2009, he does it all—writes and arranges songs, sings and plays acoustic and electric guitar, keys and mandolin. The band, which has produced four albums, generated what he sees as “the proudest moment of my career: playing The Grand Ole Opry, and returning 40 more times.” The Black Lillies made its debut appearance on that Nashville stage in June 2011.
The musicians Contreras listens to may offer clues as to the range of genres he is exploring. “Looking at my iTunes most played,” he said, “I see Bob Seger, Bonnie Tyler, Brandi Carlisle, Chris Stapleton, David Bowie, Josh Oliver, Keith Whitley, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, and Mel McDaniel.
For the Kentlands show, Contreras plans to “play a mixture of Black Lillies songs, other originals new and old, and a variety of covers–and hopefully, all interspersed with mind-blowing wit and humor,” he said. “The workshop will explore songwriting and its influence on–and by–social change.”
And then, he will return to his current focus “on becoming a better singer and writer, and maturing as an artist,” as well as his hope “that the world gets along and we all remember that we’re living on the same spinning rock, and that everything we do affects someone else… (and) that we can live our lives and pursue our dreams.”
The City of Gaithersburg’s Singer Songwriter Series, presented by O’Hair Salon + Spa, will feature a 1 p.m. workshop at the Kentlands Mansion and a 7:30 p.m. concert at the Arts Barn. Lauren Calve, a Washington Area Music Association-nominated singer-songwriter, will open. Tickets are $50 for both the workshop and the concert, $30 for the concert only. Call 301-258-6394 or visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov/leisure/arts/concerts/singer-songwriter-concert-series. Click here to view this event on CultureSpotMC.