Michael Burt “Bea” Lilly
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 and journalist.