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The Black Lillies grow with the flow 

Sprouting seeds along the way

Stress looks good on Knoxville-based Americana/country rock act The Black Lillies. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but in the wake of looming song deadlines and band member departures, the band has blossomed. 2015's Hard to Please is an account for the rewards that can come from pressure and the comradery that can come from loss.

But that's nothing new for the band, who went through a whirlwind of hardships when it started out in 2009. After hitting the road, full of optimism and back-to-back tour dates, the group faced a quick realization: Life as musicians isn't all fun and games. The song "40 Days and 40 Nights" on Hard to Please reiterates the critical "make-or-break" period the band faced in those early days.

"You know it just comes down to the challenges of the road," frontman Cruz Contreras says. "Every day, every one of us has to say 'Is this worth it? Is it worth the sacrifices of being away from home? Am I tired of sleeping on floors and eating junk food? Am I tired of not sleeping? Is the music worth it?'"

But, as we all know, not all challenges result in bad things. The band's sassy and soulful songstress Trisha Gene Brady replaced its first female vocalist after she quit during what Contreras describes as a "brutal" first tour back in 2009. Brady, who has since sung duets and backing vocals with Contreras, is a fiery force behind the group's eclectic honky-tonk-esqe soundscapes. She shines alone for the first time on Hard to Please, where she coincidently sings solo on the track "My First Time."

"I always felt like it was a song for a female vocalist and it just came to life when she sang it. It was meant for her," Contreras says. "You know, before I was a singer or even much of a writer, I was a musician in a side band and some of my earliest dreams were just to be a piano player or guitar player in a great band. Being a band leader is something I enjoy doing, but it's really cool to step aside and feature someone in your band who is just an amazing talent in their own right. The entire band is like that. Everyone can really step up and entertain on their own, so that's something that over time you'll see more and more of."

This is a small step that's emerged from a larger band transformation in the last year. Prior to hitting the studio to record Hard to Please, two longtime members — guitarist Tom Pryor and bassist Robert Richards — announced they were leaving the Lillies.

"Everything changes, but losing players like that is a big deal because they're your friends and family," says Contreras. "You spend more time with them than anybody, but it's also the nature of it. If you want to keep going with music you have to adapt and deal with change."

Bassist Bill Reynolds of Band of Horses was one of the musicians who stepped in to fill shoes in the studio. Contreras made calls between recordings in order to find musicians who could embark on a tour with the band after the record was complete.

"It was a balancing act. It's been a lot to navigate and it's been one challenge after another, but we've just taken it one at a time instead of getting overwhelmed by the whole thing," says Contreras, who was also sad to see his former band mates go.

The band's live lineup, which will rotate among available musicians, has since grown in size with folks like Mike Seal (Jeff Sipe Trio, Larkin Poe) and Jonathan Keeney (Robinella) stepping in for Pryor, who doubled playing traditional guitar and pedal steel guitar, and Sam Quinn (the everybodyfields) on bass. These new recruits who will join The Black Lillies for upcoming shows are part of an interesting transition, as the band continues to evolve in new ways, both outside of and inside of the studio.

Unlike, 2013's Runaway Freeway Blues, which was written primarily while the band was on the road, most of this year's Hard To Please was written in a rush after extensive touring and pre-booked studio time in Nashville's swanky House of Blues studio with Grammy-winning producer Ryan Hewitt.

The band, who is independent and doesn't have a record deal, raised money through a PledgeMusic Campaign, which allows fans to support the band's recordings. From handwriting song lyrics and taking photos to playing house gigs, the group earned enough to record outside of their hometown in Knoxville, Tennessee. They'd done previous recordings in a small studio, a living room and a school — an environment that lent a raw, live show feel — with touches from sound engineer Scott Minor (formerly of Sparklehorse).

Contreras explains that the band experienced a fresh recording dynamic in the Nashville studio, which has it's own historical heritage. It featured an API console built by Hewitt's father, David Hewitt, who specialized in mobile recordings and recorded some pretty legendary artists — Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, David Bowie and Prince to name a few — with the device in his time. The studio was also physically moved to Nashville from Memphis, where it originated.

"You could feel the history in that room. Part of the lineage and history of that and the music puts you on your best behavior," Contreras says.

Behaving well was a tactic that came in handy when Hewitt pushed the band harder than ever before. Rather than recording a song in three takes or so and picking what they liked the best, Hewitt challenged them to record around 13 takes for songs before selecting the final version.

"I'm pleased with the result," Contreras says. "I feel like this last record has opened a new big door for us. I think it's made us a lot more confident and experienced, but it also reminds me that a live show is a live show and a record is a record."

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