If you go What: Mountain Stage When: 7 p.m. Sunday Where: Culture Center Theater Tickets: $15 in advance, $25 at the door Info: www.mountainstage.org or 800-594-8499 FYI: The lineup for Sunday's show includes Over the Rhine, Susan Werner, The Black Lillies, Vienna Teng and Brendan James.
Cruz Contreras would have made a great name for a baseball player.
Contreras tried, he really did.
"That was my first pursuit. I was pretty obsessive about it," he said. In his earlier childhood days in Michigan and then Ohio, he was an avid player.
Still, his parents were hopeful he'd find a place in his life for music. His dad came from a musical family and was a classically trained pianist, though it was mostly his hobby.
"Every time I'd sign up for baseball, he'd said, 'That's cool. But you have to sign up for piano lessons for me,' "Contreras recalled. "I think he knew I'd come back to it."
When his dad's job took the family to Tennessee when he was 12, the transition to music began. See how that all worked out when his current band, The Black Lillies, joins the lineup at Mountain Stage on Sunday.
It was teenage boredom that brought Contreras back to music.
"When we moved to Franklin, Tenn., my little brother Billy, who was eight years younger than I am, saw a video of Charlie Daniels playing the fiddle - it was probably 'Devil Went Down to Georgia' and he freaked. He said. 'I want a fiddle and I want to make sparks with it,'" Contreras recalled.
His parents relented and entered the child into a class that taught the Suzuki method.
"He's playing like a Kleenex box with a stick - he was a good sport about it. And after a year, he was like, 'Hello, I want a fiddle, like Charlie Daniels.'"
Contreras at this point was a bored teenager in a new town who didn't know anybody.
"So I sat down at the piano. And my brother comes home one day and he's won all this money at a fiddle contest."
A light bulb went off. He asked for his own stringed instrument - a guitar.
"And I spent my high school years traveling and doing festivals and contests and playing country music," Contreras said.
He went to University of Tennessee to study music.
"I had a lot of romantic notions about Eastern Tennessee and mountain culture, and Knoxville did not let me down," he said. While he studied jazz piano, he says he would have studied bluegrass if he'd known such a thing existed.
Still, he doesn't regret the degree.
"I think I have a more well-rounded musical education because of it," he said.
Before he was out of college, he was married to a fellow musician, Robinella Bailey, and holding down three jobs, playing lots of music under the band name Robinella and the CC Stringband. The run lasted nearly 10 years - during which time the two traveled extensively and had a son - before the marriage faltered.
"2007 was a rough year," he said. "It was hard for everybody involved."
He said he needed time to figure out what his life was going to be.
"My son, Cash, was 3 at the time, and I was very determined to be there for him. It crossed my mind how can I make a living around here - I can't start another band right now," he said.
So he took a job as a truck driver for a local stone company.
"It was a major life gut-check," Contreras said. "I thought, 'Music has ruined my life.' It was a grieving process of disbelief, anger, sadness, coping and starting to look for a bright spot."
He dipped his toes back into music by forming a weekend jazz trio, sitting behind the piano again.
"It was awesome - I went back to the basics," he said. Then he picked up a mandolin and then he stepped outside his comfort zone and started to sing.
"I had basically been convinced (early on) that I couldn't sing," he said. "I remember the first couple of times I got on stage to sing, thinking, 'What's going to happen here?' And I thought, 'If you don't know what to do, just sing like Merle Haggard.'"
And slowly, Contreras found his new way with music in The Black Lillies, which began with musician friends Tom Pryor and Jamie Cook. The sound evolved to Americana and bluegrass and even a bit of jazz and the blues.
"Before I knew what I wanted the band to be I knew I wanted to play with them," Contreras said of Pryor and Cook. The band's first album included his brother on fiddle and Leah Gardner on vocals.
"We had a rotating group of players," Contreras said. It currently includes him, Pryor, Robert Richards, Trisha Brady and Bowman Townsend.
Photo Cruz Contreras, second from left, is the frontman for The Black Lillies.
Contact writer Monica Orosz at email@example.com or 304-348- 4830.
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