By Lisa Shrewsberry
The name Everett Lilly, especially around these parts, conjures images of banjos picking out the tunes at the heart and fabric of Appalachian society. Call it old-time social networking — music as expression, as heritage and bond. And Everett Lilly, eldest son of the late bluegrass great of the same name, also shares that association, having loved and, in one form or another, perpetuated the folksy music style his entire life.
Saturday at 6 p.m., The Songcatchers, Lilly’s most recent musical affiliation which features his 13-year-old daughter Ashley, an up-and-coming bluegrass singer, will perform with Isle of Woodlawn, an Irish music group led by Andrew Caldwell. The concert will be held at the John W. Eye Conference Center, at the corner of Church and South Kanawha streets, Beckley.
“Bluegrass music is multicultural in its origins: The banjo was brought over by African-American slaves, the mandolin was Italian, the guitar is a Spanish instrument. The Irish are known for their fiddle tunes and ballads,” explained Lilly.
“It’s fair to say the major influence on bluegrass music in terms of songs has been Irish music.”
To understand the importance of connecting a style of music to its cultural origins, one must understand that Lilly the bluegrass musician is also Dr. Lilly, dedicated to the field of social work. The sum-total of his life’s work is evidence that the music of a society does feed and is fed by the people of a society. As Lilly proves, the pair makes perfect harmony.
In his “other life,” Clear Creek born-and-raised Lilly joined his father, whose group The Lilly Brothers was at its prime, migrating from West Virginia to a home base of Boston, Mass.
“I had a one-year plan,” said Lilly. “I was playing guitar, mandolin and bass, but my main goal was to go to college.”
College meant escape — from poverty, from the hardscrabble life of a musician in general and of a bluegrass musician in particular. Lilly had been valedictorian of his class. While his father’s group enjoyed success at making its indelible mark in the world of bluegrass, music wasn’t enough. The boy was equal parts picker and thinker.
“I had an interest in mental health from my high school days, but I didn’t know anything about social work. I worked at a Massachusetts hospital for emotionally disturbed children and I watched psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers in action.”
It was then that he decided on two paths: music and social work.
“Of course, I couldn’t give up bluegrass and didn’t try to. It was my life, too … as is social work.”
Lilly secured his Master of Social Work degree from Boston College, and a Ph.D. in social policy from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He practiced in various positions as a social worker in the Boston area before moving to California, ultimately becoming president and CEO of a family services program in San Bernardino.
Then, the hills of West Virginia tugged at him, like the moon on the ocean’s surface, pulling him back to the people whose ways and music enchanted.
“I had this interest in Appalachia from the time I did my first English paper. I felt my roots calling,” he explained.
Another one-year plan now finds Lilly, director of the Social Work Program at University of Charleston-Beckley, a decade later helping to rebuild a program he first accredited at Mountain State University in the late ’90s, when he returned to southern West Virginia, from all present indications, to stay.
UC-Beckley is backing his determination to maintain an educational program to prepare a new generation for the diverse discipline of social work. Due in great part to student resolve, Lilly expects the program that weathered the storm of a university-wide transition will stand at least 50 students strong again this fall. At its peak, there were 100 students. To recoup half after a complete change in institution is more than Lilly could’ve expected.
“The public really doesn’t know what a social worker is because we do so much — psychotherapy, community organizing, client advocacy — the diversity of social work is partly why the profession is so misunderstood. There is a serious shortage of social workers in West Virginia and in this region.”
The re-establishment of the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree has also given Lilly hope that he will be able to fully resurrect the culture, music and heritage mash-up he’d been a part of with the Appalachian Visions series of programs created by Dr. Irene Moser.
Intended to connect the people and the music of Appalachia, Appalachian Visions introduced students and the public at large to courses in bluegrass music and performances, to the history of country music, Appalachian issues and studies. There were also jam sessions, fiddle and other instrumentation classes, the impromptu jam sessions spawning, among other connections, The Songcatchers.
Since Appalachian Visions had not yet hosted an event blending Irish music and bluegrass, Lilly felt it was ideal to be the only concert for 2013.
Yet, he is optimistic there is more to come, emphasizing UC-Beckley’s support and commitment to the community.
A Center for Appalachian Visions, says Lilly, is part of his ultimate vision for the UC-Beckley Social Work Program, for those who will go into the region to understand it and to serve it.
“In another one to two years, we expect to be back to where we were and beyond,” stated Lilly.
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