Born in 1924, musician Everett Lilly has been going strong for nearly 85 years, living just a stone’s throw from the Clear Creek property where he was born. A casual observer might not realize that Everett, together with his late brother “B,” traveled the world over, performing and promoting the music of his Raleigh County home.
The Lilly Brothers, playing with neighbor Don Stover, introduced countless new fans to the down-home music of southern West Virginia at the peak of their popularity during the mid- to late 1960’s. Singing tight, “brother” harmonies and playing at a breakneck tempo on guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle, they are generally credited with bringing authentic mountain music to New England in the 1950’s and then, in the 1970’s, to Japan.
One of seven children born to Burt and Stella “Stell” Lilly, Everett describes himself as one of the family’s “middle” children. He had four sisters: Flossie, Strossie, Ella, and Zettie. His older brother was named Michael Burt “B”; the youngest child in the family was brother Vivia. The ancestors of the Lilly family were among the earliest settlers to that part of West Virginia. [See “The Lost Village of Lilly,” by Jack Lilly; Summer 1998.]
Everett’s family farmed and lived without indoor plumbing or electricity, as did all of their neighbors. Burt was a carpenter by trade. He built houses, including the house where Everett was raised. He also taught Everett the carpentry trade; Everett himself built his current home, as he points out with a note of pride in his voice.
While he was growing up, Everett and his family spent much of their time at the local Methodist church, where Burt Lilly sang and played the pump organ. This was Everett’s introduction to music, he says. Many of the old hymns sung at this church, most taken from an old Shape Note hymnal, became integral to the Lilly Brothers’ repertoire in later years.
There was an old pump organ in their home, as well, and two of Everett’s sisters became proficient at playing it. “I had a sister. Her name was Ella,” Everett recalls. “She could really play an organ. She’d play all such stuff as ‘Ridin’ On that New River Train.’ She could tear it up!”
But keyboard music didn’t hold a deep attraction for Everett personally. “We never cared much for the organ and pianos,” Everett says. “I like them now more than I did in those days.” Instead, Everett and B were drawn to string music, which was becoming increasingly popular in their area.
At the age of four or six years old – Everett isn’t sure exactly how old he was – Everett and B began singing together. As Everett recalls, he initially sang the melody while B played guitar and sang harmony. The pair of precocious youngsters sang at church and entertained neighbors at family and community gatherings, singing hymns and traditional songs. Though Everett had already begun to teach himself to play the guitar, his father bought him a mandolin, which quickly became Everett’s main instrument. In addition to taking up the mandolin, Everett also taught himself to sing tenor harmony, leaving B to carry the melody on most songs and establishing the core of the distinctive “Lilly Brothers” sound they would carry with them throughout their careers.
Everett feels there is something unique in the sound of sibling harmony. “It’s just something you feel from one to another, you know, if you’re family,” he recently told Suzanne Higgins of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “We was putting it right in the people’s ears. And we knew that. We could feel it. We could feel them taking it in. It was easier to do that a-way.”
As youngsters, Everett and B built a local reputation as musicians. They performed whenever possible, joining in local music gatherings and playing for square dances. They also practiced diligently. “In our younger days, early of the morning, we’d sit in the kitchen,” Everett recalls. “One of us on the stove door, the other one on a chair. We’d sing and play, maybe for an hour before we’d quit. And this went on just about every day. So they say, practice makes perfect. In our case, we put in the time.”
They also spent time with various musicians from their area. Some were strictly amateur, Everett says, while others were highly skilled. Paul Taylor was an accomplished drop-thumb banjo player who performed with Everett and B for some years. Singer and banjo player Jiles “Valley” Williams was reportedly quite talented, as well. Everett recalls that Valley did an excellent job on traditional numbers, such as “Little Birdie” and “Old Reuben,” and also sang a little-known song called “The Very Scenes of Winter,” which Everett hopes to record on an upcoming CD. (“In the very scenes of winter/Entwined with frost and snow/Dark clouds around me gather/Oh, the chilly winds do blow.”)
Eventually, Valley Williams became Everett’s father-in-law, when Everett married Joanne Williams, 60 years ago. The couple later named their son Jiles after Joanne’s father.
In addition to local and family influences, Everett and B were drawn to the popular recording and radio artists of the day. Some of these included the Delmore Brothers, Callahan Brothers, Mainer’s Mountaineers, the Blue Sky Boys, and the Carter Family. Though the Lilly family did not own a radio at the time, Everett and B found ways to hear the music they loved. “A man that ran the store where we bought groceries, he had one,” Everett told journalist Penny Parsons, as quoted in a recent issue of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. “Me and my brother used to go over to his store early of a morning and get him to turn his radio on so we could hear the Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill.”
Everett and B also listened to 78-r.p.m. recordings, learning many songs off of those records. In addition, they attended performances by their heroes whenever they played nearby. Everett recalls a memorable show put on by Mainer’s Mountaineers, which he believes was one of his first exposures to professional entertainment.
The thought of making a profession of performing mountain music was never far from Everett’s mind. “It run through our mind once in a while that we’d like to make a good living at that,” Everett recalls. “I think anybody [who] plays and gets pretty good and gets around gets an idea that they’d want to make a living with [their music].”
After Everett and B each had a taste of coal mining, and after witnessing the hard labor their father undertook building houses, the boys were anxious to accept offers to perform for money and to play over live radio. They began to appear at local churches, schools, shows, theaters, and radio stations. While still teenagers, they appeared several times on WCHS radio’s Old Farm Hour in Charleston. In 1940, they helped to open radio station WJLS in Beckley. [See “Principal Influences on the Music of the Lilly Brothers of Clear Creek, West Virginia,” by James J. McDonald; April-June 1975.]
In 1944, Everett and B worked with Huntington musicians Molly O’Day and Lynn Davis over WJLS. [See “‘Living the Right Life Now’: Lynn Davis & Molly O’Day,” by Abby Gail Goodnite and Ivan M. Tribe; Spring 1998.] They worked with Lynn and Molly again in 1947 over WNOX in Knoxville. In 1948, they went to WWVA in Wheeling, joining the popular Saturday night Wheeling Jamboree, working their own early morning time slot, as well. At WWVA, they appeared with Kentucky banjo player Red Belcher and fiddler Tex Logan, performing as the Kentucky Ridge Runners. According to Everett, their morning shows were very popular, owing much to Belcher’s prowess as a pitch man. As Everett recalls, the main products sold on these early morning shows were baby chicks.
The group’s Saturday night spots were also well-received and were broadcast over WWVA’s powerful 50,000-watt signal, aimed at New England and Canada. Everett recalls that they received frequent letters and fan mail from Canada. He feels that their time in Wheeling opened many doors for them and introduced their sound to a much wider audience.
A couple of years later, a financial dispute led to the Lillys departure from Wheeling. They headed to Fairmont and WMMN for a brief stay before returning to Clear Creek.
Everett and B had met and befriended many well-known musicians, who had been playing the same radio stations and personal engagements as the Lilly Brothers had played. In early 1951, Everett received a call from Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, asking Everett to join their popular Foggy Mountain Boys band. Leaving B in Clear Creek, Everett hit the road with Flatt and Scruggs for a little over a year. During this time, he worked in Kentucky, Oak Hill, Roanoke, and Raleigh (NC). In addition, Everett recorded 14 songs with Flatt and Scruggs, including several that today are considered bluegrass music classics.
Everett missed traveling and performing with his brother, however, and in the summer of 1952, had a conversation with fiddler Tex Logan, whom Everett and B had known from their Wheeling days. Tex was a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, and he encouraged Everett to consider forming a new band with him and coming to Boston. Everett and B discussed it. Though they were interested, the brothers felt they needed to find a suitable banjo player to join them.
During the time Everett was away, B had begun playing with a young neighbor and banjo player named Don Stover. When B asked Don if he wanted to join them and go to Massachusetts, Don was enthusiastic. “He was working in low coal, so daggone right he wanted to go!” Everett recalls. Within a week, Everett, B, and Don packed into a 1941 Chevrolet and headed to Boston.
Coming to Boston was a bit of a shock for the Raleigh County musicians. “When we went to Boston, it was sort of like going to a foreign country,” Everett told interviewers Carl Fleischhauer and Tom Screven in 1975. [See “We Sing About Life and What It Mean to Us; A Conversation with Everett Lilly,” by Tom Screven and Carl Fleischhauer; July-September 1975.]
Nevertheless, the new band set to work performing at various nightclubs and theaters in and around Boston. At Tex Logan’s suggestion, they called themselves the Confederate Mountaineers and dressed in Confederate officers’ uniforms, with boots, riding pants, dress shirts, ties, wide-brim hats, and badges that read “CSA.”
“Oh yeah, I fit a few battles,” Everett recalls with a chuckle. “I had a fight or two over that. I don’t think it’s really over that. I think it’s just bully-ers come around, seeing how much you’ll take.”
Within a year, the Confederate Mountaineers settled into a regular, seven-night-a-week engagement at a honky tonk called the Hillbilly Ranch, located next door to the Trailways bus terminal on the edge of Boston’s entertainment district. They also performed a daily 15-minute program over WCOP radio and appeared each afternoon on the station’s Hayloft Jamboree. Other engagements followed, and the band built a strong local audience for their brand of authentic mountain music.
“The music and our style of singing, for the folk and country [music], it was for real. So we were for real when we played and sang. And that made our music dominant. Didn’t matter where we played. We really meant that music,” Everett says. “It’s telling about somebody’s life. [If] they was good or bad, or if they was having a hard time or a good time,… we were singing about that. We put our heart and soul in it. And the people could feel it.”
Soon, Everett, B, and Don moved their families to Boston and settled in for the long haul. Though the winters were rough and the culture was something new to them, the musicians were determined to make a living with their music, and staying in Boston seemed to afford them their best opportunity.
In 1956, Tex Logan took a job in New Jersey, leading Everett to step in and learn the fiddle. Everett had played fiddle casually as a boy, fiddling on occasion for square dances back home. He now became serious about the fiddle, and it soon became an important part of the band’s music.
In the summer of 1958, Everett left Boston briefly to rejoin Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, but returned after about six months. “Lester and Earl was good to work with and good to work for, [but] I just missed B,” Everett says.
During the 1960’s, the band, performing as the Lilly Brothers, became part of the national folk music revival, appearing at colleges and festivals, particularly in New England and the Midwest. Everett says they were careful about scheduling these trips, however, mindful of their steady work at the Hillbilly Ranch.
About once a year, Everett says, the boys would return to West Virginia for about a week at a time. They also enjoyed occasional visits from their families to Boston. When Everett’s father-in-law, Valley Williams, came to Boston, he would bring his banjo and join the brothers on stage. “He didn’t play professional-like,” Everett says, “but when he got around me an B, he got to playing some with us. We had him on stages different places. We had him professional before he knew it!”
As their families grew, some of Everett’s sons joined them on stage, as well. At various times, Everett’s sons Jiles, Charles, Mark, Everett Alan, and Daniel have been part of his band.
Sadly, in 1970, 16-year-old Jiles was killed in an automobile accident. Six months earlier, Everett’s youngest son had been involved in a near-fatal accident. These tragedies hit Everett hard and caused him to reconsider his decision to live so far from Clear Creek. “I came back to West Virginia, thinking I wouldn’t even play,” he recalls. “I believe anybody, when anything bad happens, I believe you want to go home. At least long enough to get a hold of yourself.”
After 17 years, Everett and his family returned to West Virginia. Everett did quit playing music temporarily and set about reestablishing his life in the place where he was born. For a time, he drove a school bus. By 1971, however, he, B, Don Stover, and Tex Logan began appearing at a few bluegrass music festivals around the country.
In 1973, something unexpected happened, when two old acquaintances from Boston named Robert and Jerry Tainaka invited the Lilly Brothers to be the first professional bluegrass band to perform in Japan. Everett and B had met the men some years earlier and had given them permission to record one of their live performances at the Hillbilly Ranch. The Tainakas had released this recording on an LP to Japanese listeners, and it had attracted a good deal of attention.
When the Lilly Brothers landed in Tokyo in September 1973, they were surprised by the reception they received. Crowds were gathered to see them at the airport, and they treated them like “rock stars,” Everett says. “They wouldn’t even let us carry our own instrument cases.”
They returned to Japan a few years later, and Everett helped to book, promote, and manage a subsequent tour of Japan for Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. To this day, the Lilly Brothers remain quite popular in Japan and are credited with introducing bluegrass music in that country.
Back in West Virginia, Everett continued to play music, though mostly in churches and at local gatherings, and primarily with his sons and other local musicians. Brother B and banjo player Don Stover returned to Boston, reuniting with Everett a few times a year to play some of the bigger shows or festivals.
Recordings of the Lilly Brothers continued to be reissued and kept their music in front of the growing audience for roots and traditional music. Everett feels that there is a steady audience for his style of music due to its sincerity and the stories that are told in the songs. “They seem to like it ‘cause of the stories they told,” he says. “The songs are about something. When they heard a song, it’s like telling them something. When we’re singing a song, it like we’re giving them a message, either good or bad, you know. I think that’s where they really picked up on it.”
The band’s rural roots were another attraction to audiences. “They didn’t figure they was hearing some pass-me-by,” Everett says. “[They’re] hearing somebody that’s real. That often comes up when you’re playing music. ‘You guys are for real, ain’t ya?’ ‘Yeah, you’d better believe it!’”
Over the last 30 years, Everett has performed extensively with his sons in the bands Clear Creek Crossing and the Lilly Mountaineers, along with periodic appearances with B as the Lilly Brothers, until B’s death in 2005. The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Hall of Fame in 2002 and into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2008, Everett’s recording, titled Everybody and Their Brother, was named the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year.
Though his health has slowed him down a bit recently, Everett still enjoys getting out and sharing his music with an appreciative audience. He also feels it is important that the music is passed on to another generation. “This kind of music needs to keep a-going,” Everett says. “I’m sure it will, but the other music will smother it out, if it can.”
Everett calls his style “American folk mountain country” music, and it will keep on going, as long as he has anything to say about it.
John Lilly is a musician/songwriter in Charleston, West Virginia. He has served as editor of Goldenseal, the state’s quarterly folklife journal, since 1997. This article first appeared in Goldenseal magazine and is used by permission, all rights reserved. www.johnlillymusic.com and www.wvculture.org/goldenseal