The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 30, 2013

Upcoming Lilly Reunion: Elvis, tons of food, and cousins by the dozens

BECKLEY — One might scour every place on the planet, even the remote pockets of this place called Earth, and still manage to come up with someone bearing the surname Lilly.

In two weeks, thousands of them plan to descend on a 34-acre tract in Flat Top for an annual reunion, not rivaled by any other family known to man.

While assembled for a three-day gathering, set for Aug. 9-11, they will devour tons of food, renew old family ties, listen to gospel and bluegrass music, and be treated to a return performance by Elvis.

No, not the King himself, since the real Elvis took off for the Promised Land decades ago, but a more than reasonable facsimile named David Chaney out of Myrtle Beach, S.C., spotted a few years back during a performance by the Lilly Reunion’s vice president, Tom Okes, who oversees the entertainment fare.

“He drew the biggest crowd of any of the entertainers,” says Darrell Lilly, president of the reunion the past 12 years.

Bedecked in a blue jumpsuit, Chaney tosses an occasional scarf to the female admirers and is known to invite an occasional one to join him on stage.

“He pretty much follows the Elvis routine,” Lilly said.

Unlike the original, the tribute artist isn’t afflicted with a weight problem, so he should have no trouble getting through a 33-song repertoire in two hours upon the stage Saturday at the Flat Top site.

Besides the soundalike Elvis, there will be plenty of bluegrass and gospel, the latter represented by the Single Echoes, a group formed in 1969 in Cleveland, Tenn., with a number of hits, among them “Wake Up to Sleep No More.” Other such groups lined up are the Soul Winners, the Sounds of Victory, and New Covenant.

Even the Lilly clan takes its time on the stage, with such veteran musicians as Okes, a retired Raleigh County school teacher, and Dr. Everett Lilly, joined by some family members in a group known as The Songcatchers. A mainstay has always been the Lilly Mountaineers, another popular bluegrass outfit.

Usually, the three-day event attracts Lillys from half of the continental United States, along with some foreign lands, such as England, Japan and Canada.

“I’m sure they’re all around the world,” the reunion president said.

 “I don’t know how many total there are. But overall, there’s quite a few. Everybody seems to enjoy it. Some have never been there. When they’re able to come to it, usually they come back again.”

Politicians are familiar guests, and this year’s lone guest from that arena will be Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., scheduled to address the gathering Saturday.

Many anecdotes are associated with the Lilly clan.

One of them involved a man who took one of his kinfolk fishing one hot afternoon, and, failing to get a bite in about 15 minutes, hurled a can of earthworms into a lake, about $2 worth — no small figure, given the 1950s — and announced, “To heck with this, let’s go to the Lilly Reunion.”

And that illustrates a message the Lillys hammer each summer — no familial ties are needed to attend.

“Everybody is welcome to attend here,” Lilly said.

“A lot of people don’t know that. They think you have to be connected to the Lilly family to be able to attend. That’s not the case.”

Abe Lilly, a Charleston attorney, organized the Lilly Reunion in the throes of the Great Depression, and the first installment came in 1930. After his death in the 1950s, the gathering took a long hiatus, but Jack Lilly of Canton, Ohio, revived it two decades later and it has been an annual event ever since.

While the spacious grounds have space for 10 hookups for recreational vehicles, few bring them these days, given the steep price of fuel, preferring for the most part to stay in area motels or move in a few days with relatives in the region.

Four summers ago, the Lillys set a record for a family reunion with 2,585, a mark recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. And all in that number had to show a connection to the clan.

“We have a playground, inflatable rides for the kids,” Lilly said.

“We try to have something for everybody to enjoy while they’re there. Other than concessions, or T-shirts, or something in the gift shop, everything is free. There is no charge for any of the entertainment or anything like that.”

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