Following the dissolution of both his marriage and his first band, The Black Lillies’ founder Cruz Contreras spent a year on the road as a truck driver for a stone company in East Tennessee. Thus, after playing more than 200 shows in 2012 upon the release of The Lillies’ critically acclaimed debut, Contreras has lived a relentlessly nomadic existence. With its mix of pedal steel guitar, banjo, and crystalline harmonies, the melancholic and modern Appalachia-meets-Americana sound of second LP Runaway Freeway Blues is firmly rooted in the wandering spirit of a restless heart on the run.
Contreras shows off his songwriting chops at the front of the album with four of his most graceful offerings: “The Fall,” “Gold and Roses,” “Ramblin Boy,” and “Goodbye Charlie.” Runaway Freeway Blues eschews the U2-sized ambition of Mumford and Sons in favor of classically understated production from Scott Minor of Sparklehorse. While instantly hummable melodies crackle with longing and desperation, The Lillies aren’t shooting for stadiums but rather for that timeless country music element of salvation. Embedded in the elegiac lyrics and crisp song structures, Contreras and his band mates play like they have to, as if the act fortifies their emotional ability to stay on the road because as they “say goodbye to [your] loved ones/by the wayside they will fall.” On “Baby Doe” The Lillies break out and strut through a lithe groove punctuated by trumpet and trombone stabs, a brisk impression of The Band. The whip-smart drumming and harmonies of Jamie Cook highlight “All This Living.” Here, Contreras laments the toll his road life takes on his heart and summarizes Runaway Freeway Blues: “So I shoot em while I got em/Give it all till I’m dead/Oh those storm clouds are risin’/Lightning flashing ahead/And I keep on driving over every mile of this land/All of this living can be hard on a man.”