If any further proof is needed that bluegrass has extended its worldwide reach, one need only look to Lilly of the West, a band that’s brought an archetypical American sound to Eastern Europe and beyond. Founded by singer, songwriter, and producer Lilly Drumeva, the band has been going strong since 1996, touring consistently and releasing no less than ten albums in total. Their latest, Going Strong was released in March 2016.
A Fullbright scholar who attended college in Nashville,TN, Drumvera boasts an impressive resume even on her own. In addition to being a successful concert promoter, she’s also a journalist, deejay and author of In The Mood With Lilly – 50 Music Themes, a reference book written in Bulgarian.
She first became interested in bluegrass and American country music while a university student in Vienna. Her boyfriend at the time happened to be in a country band. “He took me to a concert by Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers,” she explains. “I saw an elegant, stylish blond lady playing a huge Gibson guitar and singing beautiful ballads. That’s who I wanted to be — Emmylou Harris. Then I heard that this acoustic country music is called bluegrass. I started buying CDs and studying the genre.”
She was obviously a quick learner, It was the mid ‘90s and when she returned from Austria after graduation, she resettled back in Bulgaria and began looking for other musicians who shared her same passion. Her goal was to form a bluegrass band. The three individuals she found – Rosen Hristov (banjo, dobro), Rayko Pepelanov (guitar, mandolin), and Tsetso Vlaykov (bass) – have been with her ever since.
Taking their handle from several sources – her name of course, the Irish folk song famously covered by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and the particular flower itself – the band has since toured nearly every country in Europe and twice performed in the United States.
While the band writes most of its own material, they also make a point to include a traditional Bulgarian song on every album, arranging it in a bluegrass style.
“Our Bulgarian music is very unique,” Drumvera insists.”We have unusual rhythms – 7/8, 9/8 and others. We incorporate them in the tunes.”
Consequently, while Lilly of the West count themselves as the only bluegrass band in Bulgaria, Drumvera says the reaction at home has always been very positive.
“They treat it as cowboy or western music,” she says of their audiences. “We are often booked to play in restaurants where they serve American food.”
The kudos have continued outside Bulgaria’s borders as well. France’s Le cri du coyote wrote, “Lilly possesses a voice of astonishing purity and sweetness. I don’t know anyone in the European acoustic scene who sounds quite like her.”
Maverick magazine in the U.K. described their sound as “Delicate Bluegrass-flavored acoustic music that is highly recommended… Lilly’s voice really shines as she sings with confidence and emotion.”
Birmingham’s Evening Telegram added its kudos, declaring “Sample a taste of Bulgaria…the four piece band revolves around lead singer Lilly Drumeva and is at the forefront of Bulgaria’s country music scene…Lilly is a talented singer/songwriter and accomplished guitarist. Tsvetan Vlaykov plays a solid bass and adds some strong lead and harmony vocals. Rayko Pepelanov plays guitar and mandolin in a unique style. Rossen Hristov provides skilful contributions on banjo, dobro and mandolin…”
In 2006, Bluegrass Today’s esteemed editor John Lawless Jr. wrote, “Our hats are off to Lilly the trailblazer, for her work spreading the music, as well as her entrepreneurial spirit. May her efforts bear great fruit for bluegrass.”
Twelve years later, those good wishes remain intact.