By Lisa Shrewsberry
Singer Ashley Lilly, a 13-year-old bluegrass phenom from Beckley, comes by her talent honestly, although it wasn’t an expected inheritance.
“I had no idea this little girl would grow up to be a singer,” says third-time-around dad Everett, a father also of two grown sons and son himself to the late bluegrass great, Everett Lilly.
Daughter Ashley is the present lead singer for The Songcatchers, a multi-generational bluegrass ensemble he founded at Mountain State University, where he is director of Social Work.
By the time she was 11, Ashley had already performed with the likes of guitar legend Doc Watson and West Virginia’s own Kathy Mattea on Mountain Stage.
“It’s still on PBS nationwide,” says Everett of the Doc Watson performance. “It just showed up in Alaska a year and a half later. We have people asking us to come to Alaska now.”
Ashley’s spark for singing surprised him and wife Karen Cummings-Lilly when five years ago, she announced her artistic ambitions from the backseat of their car.
“We were in North Carolina. Out of the blue, Ashley asked, ‘Dad, can I join the Songcatchers?’ I thought Karen was going to wreck the car.”
Shocked himself, Everett turned around and tested the waters of her intentions. “Sure,” he responded, “but you’ll have to learn some of our songs.”
All of a sudden, she started singing one song after another from The Songcatchers’ playlist.
“Do you think I haven’t been paying attention?” she answered.
There is no shortage of stories of overbearing parents living out nagging and unrequited personal dreams through their children, but such is not the case with the Lillys.
“It’s Ashley’s agenda, not ours. We haven’t tried to impose anything on her and we never will. We’ve never even made her practice,” states Everett.
Everett had his own distinguishing run of music success playing with his father’s group, The Lilly Brothers, including a groundbreaking bluegrass tour in Japan in the 1970s, something he is contemplating writing a book about.
“I never really had to prove myself,” Ashley adds, with a confidence beyond her years. “Everyone has been very supportive.”
Today, Ashley is featured on what debuted as the number three bluegrass album on Billboard back in early November, “The Farthest Horizon” by the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, a family of New Jersey boys ranging in age from 10- 14. The trio became an overnight YouTube sensation, thanks to their banjo-picking and guitar-strumming performances.
A featured act on the David Letterman Show now set to play at Carnegie Hall in New York City, according to Everett, the group reportedly turned down offers from a number of known artists to select Ashley to sing for two numbers on their latest release, including “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” She also performed with the boys (Jonny, Robbie and Tommy Mizzone) at the 2012 International Bluegrass Music Association Fanfest in Nashville.
In May 2012, legend and grandfather Everett Lilly Sr. passed away at age 87.
“He had achieved so much in the world of Bluegrass music,” states his namesake son. Lilly was renowned for his instrumentation on the mandolin, having played and recorded with, among others, influential guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo picker Earl Scruggs of the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Ashley only sang one time with her grandfather on stage. To the tune of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” she lit a new torch to carry for his life’s craft as he was being honored by and inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2008, along with the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover. He became a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame (International Bluegrass Music Association in Nashville) in 2002.
Many a fair balladeer has had the pipes, but lacked the bravery for the stage. Ashley possesses both.
“I was only nervous the very, very first time,” she says. “It was outdoors at a park. I thought I was going to throw up.
“It doesn’t really bother me to sing in front of people now, unless it’s just two or three people. I guess that’s because I don’t really know (the audience members) so if I mess up, I don’t have to see them again,” she says with a smile.
Ashley credits her parents with strength in confidence, but also her friends.
“They’re really supportive. If I think I mess up on something, they say, ‘No, you did amazing!’”
Aside from the dawn of limelight on the horizon, Ashley’s life is very much that of a normal teenager. She’s a cheerleader at St. Francis de Sales. She hangs out with friends and even texts her new musical peers the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys.
“I’ve been doing Tae Kwon Do for about a year. I like feeling tough. It gives me a lot of confidence.”
Her predominant style isn’t the most frequently trodden path for someone her age and is undoubtedly inherited in measure, but her interests are more diverse than those of her predecessors.
“I like Maroon 5, Katy Perry and Rihanna,” she admits.
“Was that the one where I wore the sparkly hat?” Ashley asks, prompted by her father’s discussion of a large-venue bluegrass performance, not as much concerned with adhering to a genre as she is remembering an amazing experience in detail.
Ashley, raised on the firmament that a woman can do anything she sets her mind to, is learning the guitar. She is also strumming out tunes of her own, still in their formative stages.
“I’d like to record one to two cover albums — pop music. I would like to write my own music, too. I’ll come up with an idea and I’ll say, no, wait, that tune is already invented.”
Perhaps for her father, in honor of her grandfather and for the sake of bluegrass music itself, which endures with little change, Ashley will also continue to develop her skills inside the tune of family tradition. No doubt, whatever path she chooses will always be influenced by it.
“I see myself making a career out of music. There’s nothing else I want to do,” she explains.
“I used to sing Ashley to sleep with bluegrass songs,” reminisces Everett. “Sometimes I’d be holding her and wake up three hours later and realize I’d gone to sleep singing to her. Life is funny. I never realized singing her those songs that she’d grow up one day to sing them, too.”
“The Farthest Horizon” is available on Amazon.com or on www.sleepymanbanjoboys .com.
Videos of Ashley are posted on www.thesongcatchers.net.
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