It's no wonder The Black Lillies' third studio album bears the title Runaway Freeway Blues—it was conceived and recorded on the road around 230 gigs during the band's 2012 tour. On first listen, lead singer Cruz Contreras' deep, old-timey vocals—reminiscent of Randy Travis—and his storytelling lyrics seem to put this album smack on the classic country side of Americana. It's chock-full of more mandolin and banjo than you will ever need in a lifetime. Trisha Gene Brady provides pure, concise harmonies, and on tracks like the fast-paced "Smokestack Woman," you can't help but think of Johnny and June going to Jackson.
The more you listen, the more the album does fit into that strange Americana category: not folk, not country, not blues or bluegrass, but a hybrid of these genres. It manages to pull together country music's propensity to put darker lyrics to upbeat picking and plucking and folk's trick of placing a strong message amidst sweet harmonies and intricate strings. "Goodbye, Charlie" sounds like the quintessential country music story of young boys and war, but contains a deeper message of protest. "The Fall," a folktale filled with images of star-crossed lovers and journeys across desert and ocean, rounds out the album. And "Baby Doe" brings in a horn section that, mixed with keyboards and a simple melody, puts a strange '80s James Taylor blues spin on things. With the combination of these songs, Runaway Freeway Blues fulfills all the requirements of a solid Americana album.
While it does accomplish all that, it doesn't possess the heartache and personal appeal of the band's debut album, Whiskey Angel, which was written on the heels of the breakup of Contreras' marriage and his former band Robinella and the CCstringband. This makes me wonder: Can you really claim the "blues" when you've spent the year touring with your band and being asked to sing at the Opry?
The Black Lillies play the Missoula Winery Sun., Nov. 17, at 7:30 PM. Doors open at 6:30. $13/$10 advance at ticketfly.com.