Michael Bea Lilly
Michael Burt "Bea" Lilly
Born: December 5, 1921, Clear Creek community, Raleigh County, West Virginia
Died: September 19, 2005, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Primary Instrument: Guitar
"Bea played fine rhythm guitar in an earlier style, utilizing a thumb and index finger technique."
Traci Thomas, "Bluegrass Hall of Honor to Induct the Lilly Brothers & Don Stover," press release, August 15, 2002.
Blue Sky Boys
Came to fame with:
The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover, 1948-1996
"The Lilly Brothers sing with the sturdy implicit honesty of the old-time singing greats, and with a supple fluency that characterizes bluegrass singing at its best."
Bill Vernon in liner notes to The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover: Early Recordings, County Records, 1991.
The Lonesome Holler Boys, 1938
Molly O'Day & the Cumberland Mountain Folks, 1945
The Smiling Mountain Boys, Knoxville, TN, 1940s
Red Belcher's Kentucky Ridgerunners, 1948-1950
The Confederate Mountaineers, Boston, MA, 1952-1956
The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover, 1956-1996
The Lilly Brothers and the Lilly Mountaineers, 2001-2002
Led the way:
• Bridged the brother duet style of the 1930s into the emerging bluegrass genre of the 1940s and 1950s. A kind of "iving encyclopedia," the Lilly Brothers evoked for modern audiences the sounds and performance techniques of earlier decades.
• Influenced a generation of country, bluegrass, and folk artists in New England, including Joe Val, Bob & Grace French, Herb Applin, Louis Arsenault, Jim Rooney, Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, and Joan Baez.
• Appeared in the movies Festival (1967) and Bluegrass Country Soul (1971) and the West Virginia Public Television documentary True Facts in a Country Song (1979).
• Massachusetts Country Music Hall of Fame, 1986.
• Bluegrass Hall of Fame, 2002.
• West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, 2008.
By the Way:
• When asked to spell his first name at the U.S./Canadian border, reportedly responded, "Jist a big ol' B."
• Accused by younger brother Everett of "going modern" when he added a few Lefty Frizzell and Hank Snow songs to the group's otherwise-well-aged repertoire.
• Performed in 1959 with Merle Travis in the first all-country program at Boston’s prestigious Jordan Hall.
For more information on the Lilly Brothers & Don Stover, see profiles of Everett Lilly and Don Stover.
Driving through the mountains of West Virginia, a visitor can't help but notice how many mailboxes display the names Lilly and Stover (a popular bumper sticker reads: "West Virginia: 1 million people and 15 last names"). Bea began life in the beautiful but remote community of Clear Creek, across Spruce Mountain from Beckley, dominated by a railroad trestle.
Known throughout his life as "Bea," the guitar player and mostly lead – but occasionally tenor – singer of the Lilly Brothers was born Michael Burt Lilly in 1921 (in later life, he sometimes signed his first name "Mitchell" and legally changed his middle name to "Bea"). In 1924, tow-headed brother Everett joined the family of three brothers and four sisters. Bea and Everett loved the singing at Clear Creek Methodist Church as well as the mountain music they heard on a neighbor's battery radio and wind-up Victrola.
As children, both learned guitar and mandolin, but Everett progressed enough to claim the mandolin chair in their classic mandolin/guitar brother duet. They listened to 78s by a variety of early country acts, but the Monroe Brothers – Charlie and Bill – became their particular favorites. Bea could copy Charlie Monroe's vocal parts and guitar style almost perfectly (later in life he was thrilled to perform onstage, with Bill, the Monroe Brothers' hit "What Would You Give In Exchange for Your Soul," after which Bill remarked, "That'll put Everett in his place. We don't want to hear no more out of him!").
As they noted when interviewed in the movie Bluegrass Country Soul, the brothers didn't have bicycles or the other things that modern kids enjoy, so they had to entertain themselves. Both left formal education at a young age to work in the local coal mines, where they had close brushes with death. Music was a safer and more pleasurable – if not more remunerative – outlet for their talents. While still in their teens, Bea and Everett performed with neighbor and old-time banjo player Paul Taylor on radio shows and small performances in the local area. They made their radio debut in 1938 as the Lonesome Holler Boys on the Old Farm Hour on Charleston's WCHS. As the Lilly Brothers, they also played briefly on WPAR, Parkersburg; WHIS, Bluefield; and WMMN in Fairmont, West Virginia.
Known for their vocal harmony and instrumental accompaniment, the Lillys became popular on WJLS, Beckley, "The Voice of the Smokeless Coal Fields." There, during 1939 and the early 1940s, they met Molly O'Day & the Cumberland Mountain Folks and went with them in 1945 to Knoxville, Tennessee. In Tennessee they also worked with Paul Taylor, fiddler Burke Barbour, and harmonica legend Lonnie Glosson as the Smiling Mountain Boys.
Early in 1948, the brothers' biggest break came when they joined the cast of WWVA's Wheeling Jamboree as featured members of banjo-playing comedian Red Belcher's troupe, the Kentucky Ridgerunners. While in Wheeling, they made their first records for the Page label of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. As the Lilly Brothers, they recorded "They Sleep Together Now At Rest" and "What Are They Doing in Heaven." Under Red Belcher's name – and with Coahoma County, Texas, native Tex Logan on fiddle – Bea sang the solo "Kentucky is Only a Dream." He also backed Tex on "Old Gray Goose." Everett refused to participate on the latter recordings, vowing to record only under the Lilly name.
A disagreement between the Lillys and Belcher broke up the Kentucky Ridgerunners in 1950. After a short interlude at WMMN, Fairmont, Bea went home to Clear Creek and worked in Beckley while Everett spent two years with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys. In 1953, after Everett had left the band, Flatt & Scruggs recorded Bea's composition, "Your Love Is Like a Flower," which he wrote while sitting on a big rock by Clear Creek (according to nephew Everett Alan Lilly).
Meanwhile, fiddler/mathematician Tex Logan left to finish a master’s program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Boston, Tex found a burgeoning country music scene and soon the Lilly Brothers arrived there to form with him the Confederate Mountaineers. Bea and Everett brought with them a twenty-four-year-old neighbor, Don Stover, who had mastered the new three-finger banjo style popularized by Earl Scruggs. Thus was bluegrass music (although it would not be so named for another few years) introduced to New England.
The Confederate Mountaineers aired a daily radio show on Boston’s WCOP and performed every Saturday night on that station’s Hayloft Jamboree. They also found work at the Plaza Bar and the Mohawk Ranch before settling into a seven-night-a-week gig at the Hillbilly Ranch, next to the Trailways Bus Station. The area became known as the "Combat Zone" for the frequent scuffles involving sailors, soldiers, and other denizens of its X-rated businesses and bars.
Tex Logan went on to pursue a doctorate at New York's Columbia University and a career at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Bea, Everett, and Don continued year after year at the Hillbilly Ranch as the Lilly Brothers & Don Stover. Owners of the establishment confided that dancers found the quick pace of the band's music exhausting – and thus drank more – a key to the group's longevity there.
The brothers were fish out of water in the urbane, fast-moving, and fast-talking northeast. Seemingly unchanged by the entire experience, their wonderfully droll characters and expressions (they sang "Down on the banks of the old Hio" and spoke of the "Silver War") are fondly remembered by hundreds of bluegrass pilgrims who made their way to the unlikely shrine at Carver and Stuart Streets. Everett was loquacious and given to sermons on both biblical and musical subjects. Bea was quiet, and he developed a streak of stubborn resistance to his younger brother's assertive manner.
When Everett briefly rejoined Flatt & Scruggs in the late 1950s, Bea and Don Stover held down the nightly job and recorded for Folkways, with the help of fiddler Chubby Anthony. Other temporary members of the Lilly Brothers' band included fiddlers Herb Hooven and Scotty Stoneman; banjoists Bob French, Joe Val, and Billy Pack; guitarist Tom Heathwood; and bassist Everett Alan Lilly (Everett's son).
During two decades spent in Boston, the Lilly Brothers & Don Stover recorded two singles for Event (re-released with additional tracks on the County label), an album for Folkways, and two albums for Prestige. The albums sold primarily to the folk music market, and the group was booked by Manuel Greenhill (Joan Baez and Doc Watson's manager) into Newport, other folk festivals, and several colleges. Radio, television, and concert appearances in the late 1960s were shadowed by Bea's occasional last-minute failure to appear. Another generation of Lillys was primed to fill in on lead vocal and guitar.
In January of 1970, Everett's 16-year-old son Jiles – one of Bea's stand-ins – was killed in an auto accident. Everett and his wife moved back to Clear Creek with their three younger children. Bea briefly joined Everett there on a local television show, but soon returned to Boston.
In the years that followed, the Lilly Brothers & Don Stover would reunite for appearances at bluegrass festivals (sometimes with Tex Logan), a gospel album on County, and two tours of Japan that produced three live LPs. Bea made little other music in his last years, slowly declining into the Alzheimer's Disease which took his life in September of 2005.
Fred Bartenstein is a bluegrass music historian, journalist, and broadcaster, based in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
"Tex fondly remembers Bea singing 'Little Cabin Home on the Hill' with his lower lip full of snuff, the juice from which he would occasionally let fly out the fifth-floor window, not only staining the side of [Wheeling's] Hawley Building, but once, legend has it, scoring a direct and splashy hit on the WWVA program director in the bargain."
Bill Vernon, "Tex Logan Remembers the Lilly Brothers," Muleskinner News, November-December, 1970.
"[During their 15-minute segment on WWVA radio in 1948] Bea would list the songs to be performed. Everett did not concern himself with Bea's selection. Without warm-up, rehearsal, or discussion, they went on the air, and their music was dynamic."
Mac Martin in liner notes to The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover: Live at the Hillbilly Ranch, Hay Holler Records, 1996.
"Bea, with his quietness and stubborn sincerity, is a good counter to Everett's impulsiveness. He spent a year carving a guitar out of a piece of wood with a penknife and sandpaper, put strings on it, and uses it every night at the club, without feeling any necessity to tell anybody about it."
Sam Charters, "The Lilly Brothers of Hillbilly Ranch," Sing Out!, July, 1965.
"On countless slower nights at the Hillbilly Ranch the band would sit in this one particular booth during our 30 minutes off. The talk almost invariably turned to things Appalachian and the old folks back home. Bea reflected, promoted, and even preached Appalachian values in his conversations. He could be quite forceful and effective when he wanted to. Had the economic situation in West Virginia been different, I imagine Bea would have played that role on my grandparents' porch back in Clear Creek. We were all in Boston because of the devastating impact of the economic depression in our part of Appalachia. The city was not Bea's world – he just found himself there, as did the rest of us."
Everett Alan Lilly, personal communication, 2009