Back To The Ozarks from Lillyanne McCool

From Mountain View, AR comes Lillyanne McCool, a very talented young singer, songwriter, and banjo player with a new album, Back To The Ozarks, in tow. It consists of a mix of bluegrass and old time music, vocal and instrumental, with half of the songs and tunes being her originals.

At only 17 years of age, she is already an accomplished three finger and clawhammer banjoist, having grown up in a family of bluegrass pickers. Her dad is a banjo and guitar picker, and mom plays bass, with an older brother on the mandolin. 

Lillyanne says that there was never any doubt that she would learn to play as well, though she didn’t feel pressured to do so.

“Now, it should be said that I was never forced to play any instrument, but the extreme measures taken by my mother at the time in order to have a fiddle player are too humorous to not dramatize. My entire family is musically gifted and have been very supportive. I attended my first jam when I was 1 day old, and I attended my first show on stage at 6 days old. (My mom wore me in a baby backpack during a show.) Several months later, I would take my first steps on the same stage.

My first attempt at playing an instrument occurred when I was 5 or 6 years old. After my brother’s refusal to play the fiddle, I was my mom’s last hope. She was desperate to have a fiddle player in the family and began teaching me at a very young age. I couldn’t bear the sour notes (a part of every fiddle player’s journey) and soon followed in my brother’s footsteps, casting away the devil’s instrument. It wouldn’t be until 4th grade that I picked up another instrument. The coercion of my earlier years had left a disdainful sense against the fiddle and lead me to choose the fiddle’s one true adversary: the banjo.”

And there she has excelled. McCool plays bluegrass and old time banjo equally well. She was run the competition circuit for several years, where she says she has had hits and misses, but cherishes the many friendships she has developed along the way. She won the National Old Time Banjo Competition in 2018.

She also shows great promise as a crafter of songs, another trait that runs in the family.

Here’s the title track from the new record, which Lillyanne wrote with her mother, Crystal, had written some years back.

“This song was the first song that I ever wrote with my mom. Mom started writing the song one summer while we were at Midwest Banjo Camp in Olivet, Michigan. She was missing the hills of home, and was trying to find a way to be productive while I was taking classes during the day. She had the first verse and chorus written and then she laid it aside and didn’t mess with it again until fall.

She picked it back up and was having me play the banjo on it. I asked her if I could write a verse and she was thrilled that I was showing an interest in songwriting, which is a passion she inherited from her mom. When I came back with the second verse, she cried. The second verse is about how the musicians and folks gather in the evenings around our court square to jam every night, weather permitting.

The square is packed with different groups of people jamming, singing, dancing, and enjoying the music. I’ve grown up falling asleep while my folks were jamming into the middle of the night on the square. I use to crawl inside my mom’s bass case and zip myself up to sleep. Now, I’m jamming right along with them. The music we share brings us together and creates bonds between people. Mountain View, AR is the self-proclaimed Folk Music Capital of the World and we take a lot of pride in trying to live up to that title.”

Crystal is on bass, and dad, Jackie, is on guitar, with Mary Parker on fiddle, and Clinton Johnson on mandolin.

Here’s a banjo feature from the album, an old time classic called Last Chance. It offers a whole other side of this young lady’s musical experience, with a driving feel and some clear technical expertise on the old five.

Lillyanne is supported by the same musicians on this tune, with the exception of Jared Keen on mandolin.

This is a young artist with tremendous ability, likely to contribute a great deal to our music over the rest of her life. Anyone with an interest in either clawhammer of Scruggs-style banjo ought to give her a listen.

Back To The Ozarks is widely available now wherever you stream or download music online. Radio programmers can get the tracks via AirPlay Direct.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.