Many thanks to West Virginia author Betty Dotson-Lewis, who has agreed to let us share her 2007 interview with Everett Lilly as a remembrance of his passing yesterday. It is excerpted from her book, The Sunny Side of Appalachia: Bluegrass from the Grassroots.
When I first began this project of documenting Appalachian Mountain culture and traditions I wondered how in the world I would be able to afford the time and money to travel to the far away corners of Appalachia to talk with total strangers whom I knew had the “big story.” As I lamented about the lack of time and money to do this, a friend informed me I needed to look no further than my own backyard. He was right it wasn’t long until I realized my pot of gold lay within walking distance of my home.
Shortly after my work began on this bluegrass book, the origin of the music and the role it plays in the lives of mountain people, someone told me, “If you are talking about bluegrass music, you need to talk to Everett Lilly. He and his brother Bea were the worlds’ original “Lilly Brothers.” I said, “O.k.”
I didn’t know how or where this meeting would take place until I picked up a schedule of events for our annual Potato Festival which is held in September, after harvest. I noticed “The Lilly Mountaineers” were performing on Saturday morning of the festival, September 29, 2007. On that Saturday, I simply got out of bed, dressed, packed my recorder and throw-away camera in a small bag, walked the 2+ miles to town and met Everett Lilly for the first time to get another “big” story.
We sat in his Subaru with his son, Daniel, in the backseat and Everett took me on a fascinating journey covering more than 60+ years of his life in bluegrass.
My conversation with Everett Lilly
Band: The Worlds Original Lilly Brothers
September 29, 2007
Nicholas County Potato Festival, Summersville, West Virginia
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 every 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?
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.
Lewis – When did people start calling the music Bluegrass?
Lilly – Well, I will explain it as we go so you will understand it. You see there used to be duets:
“Lilly Brothers” me and my brother.
Charlie and Bill, The Monroe Brothers.
Well the Monroe Brothers separated after cutting a lot of records for Blue Bird and Victor. They separated. Charlie went on his own way and Bill went on his own way.
Bill ended up on the Grand Ole Opry station and Charlie ended up in the Carolinas somewhere. It might have been North Carolina. He hired Lester Flatt to play mandolin and sing tenor. Later on after that, Lester leaves Charlie already having Charlie’s leading singing style and he went to Bill at the Grand Ole Opry.
So now Bill had him a good lead singer like his brother Charlie. One that was real good.
Me and Bea was in Knoxville, Tennessee, at that time with Lynn and Molly O’Day and who comes through Knoxville and went on Knoxville WNOX, “Lost John Miller and the Allied Kentuckians.”
So Lost John decided he would go to Nashville and get on the Opry. Most entertainers were trying to get on the Opry. He didn’t make the Opry but he did radio stations with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Bill already had Lester, so he hired Earl. They didn’t call it bluegrass music then. Bill didn’t call it bluegrass music then. No body called it bluegrass. It was either country or hillbilly. I have been called that too. They can say it to me, if they didn’t use it as a slur but if they did, it was not work either. I know when somebody is pickin’ my bones and when they are just sayin’ something.
Anyway to make this shorter I will just put it this way: Earl and Lester worked with Bill for a long time and got famous with him on the Grand Old Opry, they then left him. I don’t know exactly the reason. I heard to it but I won’t go into that because I wouldn’t know if it were true or not. Anyway, they left Bill and formed their own band. They went on station WCYB Bristol, Tennessee, and they really began to “blick the ice” on the music but they didn’t call it bluegrass.
The only reason bluegrass music was called bluegrass was, “I will point it out” Bill Monroe’s band was named, “Bluegrass Boys” because they were from Kentucky.
Why did Charlie Monroe called his band “Charlie Monroe and the Kentucky Partners”?
Lewis – Because he was from Kentucky.