Cruz Contreras Taps Old Friends For Ambience On Solo ‘Cosmico’
East Tennessee is an American musical goldmine that’s influenced Nashville music for decades, often subtly and sometimes with asteroidal impact, i.e. Chet Atkins or Dolly Parton. When I think about modern Americana, a few artists stand out. R.B. Morris is a brilliant bard and poet out of Knoxville. Scott Miller crushed it with his band the V-Roys and as a solo artist. Ed Snodderly keeps it real in Johnson City as an artist and proprietor of the famous Down Home club. During my 20 years covering roots music, two bands hit pretty hard from the region - Robinella and the CC Stringband and the Black Lillies. And those who follow this stuff know that a key reason those bands were great was the same guy - singer and songwriter Cruz Contreras.
Recently, Contreras, 47 and living what he calls a new chapter in his life and work, came over to my studio during AmericanaFest to talk about an important milestone - the release of his first solo album, a swirling, western-tinged, semi-psychedelic country rock project called Cosmico. In a story that didn’t make the final cut of Episode 265 of The String, Contreras told me about the epiphany that set the project in motion.
Cruz ran into his old friend Megan McCormick, the crafty guitar player, songwriter, recording artist, producer, and recently, trusted side woman to rock star Jenny Lewis. The setting was a party on a lake near Bristol, TN in 2019, and he was reminded that since their days in the Knoxville/Johnson City scene, they’d been talking about collaborating on an album. And he picks up from there:
“It was kind of one of those all-nighters. The band played late. We're all out on this dock out on the lake, having a very inspired evening. And we saw the sun come up. And I remember I'm on this boat. And I remember jumping off a boat when the sun came up. And then I walked back up and I was like, Hey, we're gonna do this thing, right? (Megan’s) like, Yeah, let's do it. And man, I tell you what, I felt something I’ve very rarely felt in my life. And that was just complete. It was like an anchor landed in my gut and just said, this is the right thing to do. You're in the right place at the right time. This is the right person. And hey, we're good.”
The other person who naturally slipped into this creative nexus was etherial guitar player Ethan Ballinger, veteran of tours with Miranda Lambert and Lee Ann Womack, among other adventures. They played down the songs Contreras had been writing at an AmericanaFest showcase in the fall of 2019 (almost figuring them out as they went, says Cruz) and then flew out to Idaho to make the record. The plan was a big release and the solo Cruz rollout in 2020, but we all know what happened next. The artist bailed on the release schedule and found himself in a strange place - not only off the road, but nesting with a new family. During lockdown, he met and married his wife Molly, and they welcomed a new baby boy in the fall of 2022.
“A lot of change ensued during that time,” he says with understatement. “We moved to Maryville just outside of Knoxville. I have a house with a fence and a dog. And those are drastic steps for me. I mean, going from a perpetually touring, single artist nomad (to) I have a fence! Like what happened? It's been wonderful. I'm healthier. I'm happier. It's been better for my career and my life.”
In our talk, we cover that journey, including his early musical life after being moved in his school years from a rustic setting in Michigan to the suburbs of Nashville after his father got a new job. He played guitar and piano, and his father was astute enough to find a teacher who schooled him in the art of improvisation when Cruz found himself playing extemporaneously as self care when he was low. Also in the picture was his younger brother Billy Contreras, who emerged as a prodigy on the fiddle. Today he’s a busy and remarkable instrumentalist who plays with a variety of artists including Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.
Cruz attended the University of Tennessee to study jazz, but when he met art student and folk musician Robin Ella Tipton, they became a couple in life and music. Their progressive acoustic roots band, with the exorbitant name Robinella and the CCstringband, landed a major record deal with Columbia, toured with Bob Dylan, and released five albums before it - ensemble and marriage - was all over. The next chapter for Cruz was The Black Lillies, one of the most respected bands of the 2010s out of its region. With electric instruments and drums - as well as the vocals of Trisha Gene Brady - the Lillies toured from 2009 to 2019, leaving an important Americana legacy. But that came to an end as well, setting the stage for a solo Cruz Contreras.
“You can imagine all the processing and the challenges over the past few years,” he says. “How do I release this record? When? Have I missed my opportunity? Now that I've gotten to where I'm at now, I'm convinced the timing is right. It took time for people to understand that I'm a solo artist. And I I think the sound applies right now and seems relevant.”
Sound is the operative word. The first thing we hear on Cosmico is an analog warble, an unrecognizable spectral blurb that ushers in a waltz-time ballad with doo-wop sway. The song is “Flashing Light,” a sort of film noir scene that unfolds with church-like reverb. We feature track two, “Doin’ Time,” which bolts a smoldering country rock foundation to a high lonesome bluegrass vocal. We also feature “Let Somebody Love You,” one of the album’s singles that struts gracefully like a mix of JJ Cale and the Dead. Throughout, the collaborators conjure a layered and lovely atmosphere with crafty use of guitars and effects.
Cruz’s discussion of how McCormick and Ballinger (“total tone junkies”) influenced the way he heard his own song is one of my favorite sections of this entertaining interview. The split show shares time with Logan Ledger, making his second appearance on The String to talk about his equally atmospheric new album Golden State.