Everett Lilly: 'A True Life'
Everett Lilly died Tuesday afternoon in Clear Creek, West Virginia. He was 87 years old.
Everett Lilly, along with his brother Bea, was a pioneer of what has become known as Bluegrass music. The two were born in Clear Fork, near Beckley, West Virginia. They began performing professionally in 1938 on WJLS, a Beckley radio station.
Everett played for two years with Lester Flatt and Early Scruggs. Everett and Bea joined with a neighbor, banjo player Don Stover, to form a band that toured the U.S. and Japan. For 16 years the band played nearly every night in Boston, at the famous Hillbilly Ranch.
The Lillys and Don Stover are credited with introducing bluegrass music to New England. Everett, Bea and Don Stover were inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 2002.
In September 2007 I had a chance to talk with Everett Lilly at the Nicholas County Potato Festival in Summersville, West Virginia. Here is a portion of that interview.
Lewis - I would like for Everett to tell me what it was like growing up in the coalfields, what his family did and about how music came into his life.
Lilly - You know a lot of people ask me that question how was the music when you was a growing up. I will tell you the truth. When I started growing up there was no music much around. There might have been an old time 5-string banjo or something like that. Most of the music we ever heard was on the radio. That was when the Grand Ole Opry first started out. It had people like Uncle Dave Macon on it. People like that.
We would gather up on Saturday night and go to a neighbor's house because we didn't have a radio to start with, no television, so we would go to a neighbor's house. It was only the radio, no television. Of course there were a few others but I can't remember their names.
Nobody like Bill Monroe had ever come to the Grand Ole Opry then. I am speaking of the old days.
People like Grandpa Jones was around. He was kinda like Uncle Dave Macon but he was a newcomer like we was in the bluegrass field, me and my brother Bea, but they didn't call it Bluegrass Music back then. We called it American Folk Mountain Country Music and that is exactly what it was. And the reason we looked at it as Country Folk Music is because mainly it was just country people who was doing those old folk songs and strumming a guitar or something like that. That is kinda the way we started.
Lewis - What did your family do to make a living?
Lilly - My dad was a carpenter. He worked for himself. He didn't work in no coal mine or nothing like that. Me and my brother Bea spent just a little bit of time in the coal mine but found out we didn't fit that place. We would rather play music. We headed off to Knoxville, Tennessee, WNOX with Lynn and Molly O'Day.
Lewis - How old were you?
Lilly - I don't remember exactly how old I was. I may have been 17 or 18 years old by then because me and Bea had been on the radio stations around home. We kinda started off around Charleston, West Virginia. They had a show on Friday night called the "Old Farm Hour."
I remember we rode in the back end of a pickup truck to the "Old Farm Hour" and took our guitar and mandolin. A man by the name of Brown Turner took us. We went down there and they started putting us on the "Old Farm Hour." They even paid us to come.
Lewis - What did you sing?
Lilly - Oh, gee, I don't remember. We did the old familiar. That has been a long time ago. I am sure it would have been stuff from the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers. At that time we did a lot of that stuff.
Lewis - That was about the same time those musicians were coming into popularity wasn't it?
Bluegrass Today Lilly - Yes it was. Monroe Brothers was pretty young at that time and already on the radio. As well as I remember they used to be on WTPF in Raleigh, North Carolina. There was another station they played on in Charlotte. Me and my brother Bea would go to an old man's store house early in the morning, that is when they had their program, and knock at the door and see if we could come in and listen. We didn't have a radio.
Course later we finally had a radio of own. Of course, we were on the radio and that made a difference....
Me and Bea were not from Kentucky so we called our music plain American Folk Country Music.
Lewis - Is that what Ralph Stanley refers to as old-time country music?
Lilly - I guess so because he wasn't from Kentucky. He might have resented being called bluegrass, I don't know. I don't resent being called bluegrass. I accept it and I always did but I don't forget where I come from. I didn't come from that state and I never will now. I love Kentucky and I love the people but I am not a Kentuckian. I am a West Virginian. There is nothing the matter with it is what you do and how you do it. Anyway, now we see where the name originated from.
Now, Bill Monroe and bluegrass. That bluegrass name is not quite in yet. Lester (Flatt) and Earl (Scruggs) began to go out and play (after leaving Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys) the shows and they hired me to play the mandolin and sing tenor with them.
People would say to Lester, “Lester you and Lilly do us one of them Old Bill Monroe tunes.”
Lester didn’t want to hear Bill Monroe’s name mentioned. People looked at that, so they approach you in another way, especially if you get mad.
“Hey, Lester, you and Lilly do us one of those old bluegrass numbers.”
“Hey, Lester, you and Lilly do us one of those bluegrass dances.” Well, you are making a bluegrass name there whether you know it or not, cause you got to be what they want. Well, that way is alright so really the bluegrass name got its name started just like that and because Bill Monroe’s band name was bluegrass: now the people has began to call it bluegrass and my opinion, it always will be “bluegrass” but that’s alright.
Now, that’s my story of how bluegrass music got started. It was really unintentional in the beginning but it comes down to brass tacks and you’ve got a lead with it so I’m bluegrass but that’s alright. I may be a bluegrass but I’m one of the good ones and I’m one of the originals....
Lewis – That is why I like the kind of music you do so much – It tells a story. It is about real people in a real world and working class.
Lilly – It is about something, isn’t it? If you sing it you are singing about something that really happened. Somebody wrote it. A lot of songs we sing have almost got tears in it because it is about something. That really happened and we are singing about that. Many of the old songs was wrote about a tragedy that really happened and even when you get in the love songs of the old songs. That was a true happening in love. You know love and marriage, etc.
Lewis – Now, you moved. Did you move away and then come back?
Lilly - Oh yes, me and my brother moved to Boston, Mass. We spent about 16 years up there in Boston. Of course a lot of people got the idea we had this one place we played at the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston. Which we was obligated seven nights a week but that don’t mean we played every night but when we was there we were playing.
But a lot of times we was out in Chicago playing at a university or Ithaca, New York, or somewhere like that. We played at universities but we hired a band to come in and play in our place. We didn’t have to pay them, the Hillbilly Ranch paid us and we paid the band. But we could go and come as we needed to but we wasn’t the type to take off. Unless it needed to be.…
Lewis – So after 16 years you moved back to West Virginia to your home place?
Lilly - Yes, I had a son who got killed in an accident in 1970 and you know that really hit us hard. We brought him back to West Virginia to bury him and we had that feeling that we ought to be back here.
Lewis – So, you did start performing in West Virginia?
Lilly - We went on the radio at WOAY and had a TV show. We worked there awhile and then my brother went back to Massachusetts. His wife was the main leader of that. But you know I look over all of that too but nevertheless that is the way it happened...
Lewis – Where do you get a lot of music you do?
Lilly - Most of what we done was old music like what you got out of the church song books. We went to church a lot and they did these old numbers in the church. My and my brother had a style and we kept that style.
Lewis – Now, I did an interview with Jessie McReynolds. Is he the first one to do cross-picking?
Lilly - Yeah, I think he originated that. He is the first one I heard do that.
Lewis – Do y’all do anything special like that?
Lilly - Everything I do is kinda special because I have never heard nobody yet that can do what I do. I am even teaching in a college. Believe it or not, I find it hard to teach people now. The reason is, knowing a tune to a song is one thing but putting the stuff in it that I do is two more things. And it is hard to do and I find it is hard for them to pick up.
I can tell you this: everything I do and everything I play on the mandolin you are going to find it different. If you listen to it. You will find that nobody can do the same song – they will not be doing the same thing. That is not to say I am right about it but those are my thoughts about it is. So if people want my thoughts if they want to learn it I will try to teach it. I have little tricks in my mind that I do, that nobody knows.
Lewis – What was like performing in Nashville on the Grand Ole Opry?
Lilly - Well, it was great when I first went to Nashville. I went with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and I knew everyone was trying to get to the Opry but me and my brother Bea didn’t care that much for it because we had the chance to go but we didn’t go and anybody else would have paid money to get to go. But when I went to Lester and Earl, they were great musicians I thought, “Yeah, you are standing with another one too.” So, it didn’t hit me like it hit other people. I just knew when me and Lester and Earl was on the stage, me and Lester was going to do things right because we both knew how to sing and how to play. That is not saying Earl wasn’t deeply in the picture because he was the picture but there was something else but that is just the way music is. I respect the guys in my band if they can play because if they ain’t no good you are not any good.
Lewis – When you first began performing, was that how you made your living?
Lilly - More or less because we played all our life. Getting in the money part of music is kinda strange.
At first you are not doing it for money. We would go to square dances and play for nothing. They would always have a big table of food for the square dancers and musicians. We would go and eat. I remember going to a man’s house down where we lived, Jessie Toney, his boy played the fiddle for me. That morning I got up and ate five eggs for breakfast and that like to tickled him to death. He never did quit laughing about that. You could see through me I was so thin back at that time. It always was a funny thing for me to think about.
Lewis – How do you see yourself in the world of this music? How would you like to be seen or remembered?
Lilly - Well, I guess I would like for people to see me as the “Greatest there ever was.” You asked me and I am giving you the right answer. Not speaking for myself – If I was going to be one of the greatest ones, I would have already been but I answered that question the way people who like to play, like to see it.
Lewis – So you think this type of music will go on and on?
Lilly - I think it will. It will never die out because of what it is about. If it was not about something, you could look any day for it to fade out but it is not like that.
You know rock n’ roll music is what they build it up to be but this kind of music we play, you are not building it up. “It is and always will be.” Look at it this way, even the medicine we have, it is the advertising that sells it but when you come down to brass tacks, I don’t believe you could prove to me that one is any better than another especially if they are the same brand. So, how are you going to prove it to me. Here is what I have to tell you, “I took some once in a while but I don’t see much change when I take medicine.” That is kinda the way the sound is. When the sound can identify itself. That is good or better.
Lewis – What about someone who wants to play bluegrass? What would you tell them – it is a hard life?
Lilly – No, I would tell them it is a true life, get in on it and be serious. Don’t take it as a fun-making thing because it is a serious thing. It is good. It is good for you. And it is good for the listener.
Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia writer.