This article originally appeared on WKU Public Radio and is being republished courtesy of the author.
When you think of bluegrass and country music, places like Kentucky and Tennessee probably come to mind. A scholar and musician who has been studying at WKU has another location for your list: Bulgaria. Lilly Drumeva is a Bulgarian bluegrass and country musician who has been conducting research at WKU as part of her Fulbright Scholarship. During her time in Bowling Green, Lilly has worked closely with the WKU Folk Studies Department and Erika Brady, host of WKU Public Radio’s Barren River Breakdown. Lilly will also travel to Nashville to research the business side of country and bluegrass music, as well as attend an international bluegrass conference in Raleigh, NC. She returns to Bulgaria in November, and will begin crafting her research into a Bulgarian-language book on bluegrass and country music. She stopped by WKU Public Radio to talk to us about how she first encountered bluegrass music, and how the genre’s roots can be traced back to different part of Europe—including her native Bulgaria.
What made a nice girl from Bulgaria get interested in American bluegrass and country music? “That’s a long story. It started 20 years when I was a student in Vienna, Austria. I was studying economics, and I heard country music for the first time when Emmy Lou Harris had a concert in Vienna. So I got hooked and started buying CDs. I had a boyfriend then who played guitar, and he taught me to play a few chords. And I started buying bluegrass and country music CDs, and when I returned to Bulgaria I formed a bluegrass band, and I called it “Lilly of the West”, because Lilly is my name and also my favorite flower. And—for the Bulgarians—I came from Austria, which is in the west, so I was the “Lilly from the West.” In 1998, we went to the Netherlands where there was a big bluegrass festival and competition. And we won it—we were voted “European Bluegrass Band of the Year.” And since then we started touring Europe, and we’ve released nine albums to date.”
When you gathered these fellow Bulgarian musicians, did you have to explain to them what U.S. country and bluegrass music was all about? Did they have any knowledge about it before you spoke to them? “When I came back from Austria, I brought lots of CDs, so we had lots of material to learn from. But also, the three guys I found—a banjo player, a guitar player, and a bass player—they already knew a little bit about bluegrass, because in 1990 Tim O’Brien visited Bulgaria. So the American Embassy invited bluegrass musicians from the states to celebrate the fall of communism. So in 1990, the U.S. Embassy brought Tim O’Brien, Laurie Lewis, and Sam Bush who gave a concert. And that’s when my colleagues heard bluegrass music for the first time.”
You mentioned that you were hooked when you heard Emmy Lou Harris at that concert in Vienna. Were there aspects of the music you felt that you could personally identify with? Why was it so special to you? It’s hard to say. This is also the topic of my research—why this music is so captivating, why people get hooked. Probably it’s the energy in it, the melodies, the sincerity of the songs, the great voices, the instrumentation…the fact that this is acoustic music from the heart. And also the social element of it. You know, bluegrass is not only music, it’s also a friendship and a comraderie that you find anywhere in the world. Some years ago I was in the states, and we visited Wisconsin. I didn’t know anybody there, but I found a banjo. He invited me on to his radio show, and just like this I was part of the community, and I was welcomed. And as a bluegrass musician, no matter where you are from you are welcome everywhere in the world.
Is there anything in bluegrass or country music that is similar in any way to—say—Bulgarian folk music? “Of course there is! Since the United States is a melting pot of many different cultures, these nations brought their cultures and their music with them. For example, if we trace back the origin of the instruments, the banjo came from Africa, the mandolin from Italy, the guitar from Spain, the upright bass from Germany. There are also instruments that came from Bulgaria. For example, a Bulgarian instrument is the tamboura, which is mixture between guitar and mandolin. And the tamboura was imported to Greece. The British, who fought in Greece, brought it to Ireland and England. And that’s how the bouzouki appeared in Irish folk music, and the Irish settlers brought the bouzouki with them to America.” One of Lilly Drumeva’s original songs is being showcased at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Wide Open Bluegrass conference Sept. 24-28 in Raleigh, NC. You can find Youtube videos of Lilly Drumeva and Lilly of the West performing here.
The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program and is supported by the people of the United States and partner countries around the world. For more information visit www.iie.org/cies.