Everett Lilly: ‘A True Life’

[imgbelt img=Everett-Lilly.jpeg]’Me and Bea were not from Kentucky so we called our music plain American Folk Country Music…It is about something, isn’t it? If you sing it you are singing about something that really happened.’



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.

Betty Dotson-Lewis

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

Everett Lilly and his mandolin.
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.