Musician Everett Lilly of Clear Creek
By John Lilly
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.
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