Farewell to The Colonel

I hated to read on Bluegrass Today that the “Colonel,” Everett Lilly, had passed away. Growing up amidst New England bluegrass as I did, we heard a lot about the Lilly Brothers, and I was fortunate enough to see them perform live a few times at the old Boston Area Friends of Bluegrass events. They hit those mikes like the Johnson Mountain Boys did later — they had DRIVE!

I don’t have to say anything more about their music, those who heard it would just nod, and those who haven’t heard it wouldn’t believe it nor understand probably. Suffice to say, if they’d been blessed with a really good and permanent bass fiddle player, and had stayed together as the bluegrass festival season took off in the 1970s, who knows how far they might have risen? Instead they remain a local treasure around the Boston bluegrass scene, thankfully captured in some old festival movies.

But as far as the Colonel hisself? Wow, here was a man who could tell stories, and is also the subject of hundreds or thousands of tales in the bluegrass world, and not just in Boston! With his distinctive high-pitched tenor emcee voice, West Virginia accent and old fashioned phraseology, Everett is one of the most imitated bluegrass personalites, right up there with Monroe and Flatt.

And he was, uh, “talkative,” so there’s plenty of material for consideration. If you can, check the original bootleg full recording of JD and the New South in Japan, with Ricky Skaggs’ loopy emcee work, including a take on Everett Lilly instructing JD not to worry while in Japan, “Just leave ever’thang to Robert.” (Robert Tanaka, the booker and Everett’s partner) Shoot, even Lester Flatt used imitate Everett, as in… “He always said ‘I wouldn’t ride a airplane for a million dollars!’ Earl took him up the other day and he eat three packs of Rolaids!” (in the highest pitched, breathiest register Flatt could muster).

I went on a week tour with Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys back in 1982, and Joe sat in the front seat “doing” Everett Lilly the entire trip! Many of these stories can’t be repeated because they were so, uh, “frank,” but one I especially remember was when Joe was picking banjo with them and they went to do a radio show in Boston, and the Colonel was fussing about something and just as they reached the studio he refused to go in with them, and sat alone in a diner or bar across the street. The remainder went into the studio to do the gig, I forget if Joe was playing mandolin then or not and subbed for the Colonel. When they left the studio they went in the diner/bar to pick up the Colonel and he was sitting there listening to the station on the house radio. Someone said “what did you think?” or something to that effect, and the Colonel solemnly replied “Thet wuss the wurst I ever heard — the Lilly Brothers…” (I’m sure Boston area readers are correcting my mistakes right now.)

There are great stories about Everett working with Lester and Earl (both times). Little known fact: Pray for the Boys which was recorded in 1953 with Flatt on lead and Sechler on tenor, was originally a feature number for Everett to lead! I’ve heard one ancient tape of them doing this live, probably 1952, where Flatt says this number is mighty popular up Virginia-way. Everett pipes up in that airy tenor and belts that song right out of the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if Flatt sang tenor on it originally. Apparently the second time Everett was in the band, Uncle Josh made it his life’s work to torment Everett, involving massive clandestine doses of No-Doz. In his No-Doz state Everett nearly rocked a rocking chair right through the floor an old porch!

And let us also say, both times Everett worked with Lester & Earl, he was an eager and enthusiastic taker of mandolin breaks! His split break on I Have Found the Way teaming with Earl, Paul and Uncle Josh is a thing to behold (about 1958). And the Colonel knew how to mike his old F-4 (the Boston folks called it “the big mandolin”) for full effect. You could ALWAYS hear him and that machine gun style!

I got to play banjo with the Brothers once at a little festival in New Hampshire. While they were warming up I was mostly impressed with how bursting with music Everett was! The stuff they did to warm up was some of the most powerful bluegrass I had ever been amongst, and they didn’t do any of it on stage! (I was especially impressed by their driving version of City on Mt Zion.) Playing on stage with them was like riding in a speedboat.

Everett and his son Everett Alan (a fine fellow in his own right, still involved with bluegrass music as a professor/teacher) dropped by the Roots & Branches stage shindig at IBMA when it was in Louisville. Everett Alan had brought the old man over from the Mountain State just for a visit. The Colonel thought no one would remember him. Well that fantasy didn’t last long, they were immediately dragooned into performing with borrowed instruments. The old traditional musicians who were performing on that show nearly trampled each other to get on stage and accompany them. Young Laura Weber from Nashville (now Mrs. John Carter Cash) was on the bill singing a Molly O’Day number and she couldn’t believe she was on stage with a member of Molly and Lynn’s old troupe from the 1940s. The reception the Colonel got was heart-warming, and there were plenty of “glistening” eyes after.

To this day I can’t listen to NPR’s Click ‘n’ Clack (Boston bluegrass fans in their own right!) give out their address in Cambridge (“our fair city”) without thinking of the Colonel, who NEVER pronounced it any way other than “Camm-bridge.” (He always called Reno & Smiley “Renno & Smalley”, too)

Anybody out there reading Bluegrass Today who’s got any stories about Bea or Everett, please get them to me. Someone’s got to archive this stuff – everything about those ol’ boys was just a scream! (This isn’t the time or place to get started on Bea…)

In closing, from offstage at the Hillbilly Ranch, when someone introduced Scott Stoneman to the Colonel “he’s a great fiddler!” (however Scott Stoneman was in pretty rough shape at the time), Everett replied, “THET is a fiddler??? Thet looks lak the runnin’ gearss of destruction!.” But he put him on stage regardless!

RIP Colonel.

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About the Author

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden is a VERY traditional bluegrass picker and fan from New England, who makes occasional contributions to Bluegrass Today representing the old timers' viewpoints.