By MARINA WATERS
There might not be a song for every story, but there is a story to every song. And the Knoxville-based Americana rock band, The Black Lillies, plan to bring both to kick off this year’s Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough.
The band will take the stage in Jonesborough on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. before the three-day festival begins in Tennessee’s oldest town.
International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah said the event isn’t just to build excitement, though that’s part of the plan.
He said the band’s focus on stories and love for Northeast Tennessee made The Black Lillies the perfect fit to celebrate the beginning of storytelling.
“We’ve always tried to emphasize that music is a form of storytelling, especially here in this region,” Sirah said. “A lot of their material is inspired from personal stories from their life. And they’ve got international recognition but they’re also local so it was a perfect kind of match. We’re really pleased to be able to bring them this year.”
For the four-member band, the show serves as a sort of extension of a hometown show, while also helping start the tour to promote their album “Stranger To Me”, which was released Friday, Sept. 28.
“A gig like Jonesborough is great for keeping your connection to home,” Cruz Contreras, the band’s lead singer said. “It’s a great reminder for us because we’ve spent our lives making music in East Tennessee. Jonesborough, Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol — this southern Appalachian region has been a big influence and part of our lives. We’re lucky to make music here.”
The band has played throughout Knoxville through the group’s almost 10 years of existence while also playing at some of the country’s largest stages such as the Grand Ole Opry and at music festivals such as Bonaroo and MerleFest. But its also seen its share of changes in recent years.
After the exit of three band members throughout the years and a string of substitute band members to follow, Bowman Townsend (drummer/songwriter), Sam Quinn (bass guitarist/vocalist), and Dustin Shaefer (lead guitarist/songwriter) joined forces with Contreras to round out the group. Nowadays, Contreras said, The Black Lillies is more of a rock band than ever before, while never completely abandoning the folk side of the band’s sound.
“It’s a rock band,” Contreras said. “I grew up playing bluegrass and country music and that’s certainly one element I bring to the table, but the other guys are all coming from different schools of thought. “Early on in the transition, someone would be like, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ And I’d say, ‘Rock ’n roll.” But in the back of my mind, we were still this and still that.
“Now I feel very comfortable telling people (the band plays rock) now. Even the new renditions of old songs, they’re delivered with the new robust sound we’ve got. We’ve got this thing ready for big stages.”
But the band’s stop in Jonesborough isn’t just another set of old and new Black Lillies songs; Contreras said he felt the Storytelling Festival gig is one that embodies what the band shoots for in its songwriting. And that all centers around a story.
“It’s great because we’re storytellers and songwriters also,” Contreras said. “To be a part of an event like that that has a great reputation is a good way to start off this tour as we get ready to travel the country and tell our story. “You have the storytelling aspect of what we do. I’d imagine that was a part in someone’s choice of having us there.”
As for those who put together the festival in Jonesborough, the storytelling capital of the world, having a folk rock band take the stage is yet another way to support storytelling in different styles and mediums.
“(Music in storytelling) has kind of been an interwoven thing,” Sirah said.
“Culturally we tell our stories through the oral tradition, but we also tell our stories through music and through song and we tell our stories though dance. There are many different ways we tell our stories. Interweaving that into the festivals, it’s important to do that.”
Sirah added that while festival goers can catch numerous storytellers such as Josh Goforth and Sheila Kay Adams, who oftentimes weave stories and songs together, the festival will also offer stories at the Oak Hill School house behind the visitors center for younger guests. The festival will also bring back the Swapping Ground, which serves as an area for folks to try their hand at telling their own stories.
“(The Swapping Ground) is really beautiful because it’s a very intimate space,” Sirah said. “More and more we see an excitement and this draw to not just listen to story, but engage and learn how to tell your own story. Whether you’re a member of the clergy and you delivering sermons or collecting stories from your families background … it doesn’t really matter. It’s all about how we learn to tell these stories in a meaningful way.”
At its heart, Sirah added that from the concert kick off to the stories shared under those enormous white tents throughout town, the Storytelling Festival honors stories in all forms that bring people together.
“The festival is the flagship for storytelling,” Sirah said. “That connects us to our humanity. And our humanity connects us to things like suffering and joy, the yearning to love and to be loved. You can feel a sense of belonging, a connection and a sense of purpose. What storytelling does, it does exactly that.
“It helps us to connect to these real human values and concepts that connect us across boundaries and the idea that we can share common ground.”
Tickets for The Black Lillies — as well as Festival weekend passes and other special ticketed events — can be purchased online at www.storytellingcenter.net, by phone, or on the Festival grounds.
For more information or to make reservations, call ISC at (800)952-8392, ext. 222.