Bulgarian Bluegrass Musician researching roots

Two decades ago, Liliana Hristova Drumeva was a young economics student in Vienna, Austria.

One night, a friend invited her to a concert featuring an American country/bluegrass band — Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers.

“I saw this beautiful woman playing a big Gibson guitar and singing this beautiful music,” Drumeva recalled recently on a visit to the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky. “I bought her album, ‘Live At The Ryman.’ This is like the Bible of bluegrass for me.”

In 1995, Drumeva began singing and playing American country and bluegrass herself. And the following year, she returned home to Sofia, Bulgaria, and formed Lilly of the West — Bulgaria’s first country and bluegrass band.

Today, most people in the industry refer to her as “Lilly of the West.”

The name comes from the title of a 19th-century American folk song that begins, “When first I came to Louisville some pleasure there to find/A damsel fair from Lexington was pleasing my mind/Her cherry cheeks and ruby lips, like arrows pierced my breast/They called her Handsome Mary, the Lily of the West.”

“We all learned bluegrass from scratch,” Drumeva said of her band. “We listened to American tapes. But they were hard to get because Bulgaria was still a Communist country and western music was frowned on.”

Bulgaria is in southeastern Europe — bordered by Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and the Black Sea. Its population is around 7.4 million.

In June, she organized Bulgaria’s first country and bluegrass festival, “Country West Fest,” in Bankya.

“We had about 300 people,” Drumeva said. “It was a little small, but it was great.”

This year, she won a Fulbright scholarship to come to the United States to research the history of bluegrass and country music as well as the music industry.

She’s been researching in Bowling Green at Western Kentucky University’s folklife archives and in Owensboro in the archives of the bluegrass museum.

“This is a bluegrass paradise,” she said. “These archives are so great.”

“Lilly is one of the rare beauties whose music is as gorgeous as she is,” said Gabrielle Gray, the museum’s executive director. “She has everything it takes to succeed in any form of roots music. She’s an extraordinary talent, quite brilliant with a huge heart. She’s the total package.”

Earlier this week, Drumeva visited Bill Monroe’s grave and boyhood home in Rosine.

“There were these huge mosquitoes and grasshoppers,” she said with a laugh. “We were afraid to roll our windows down.”

This fall, she’ll be researching in Nashville.

When she’s finished with her research, Drumeva will write a book on American bluegrass and country music to be published in Bulgaria.

“I am the bluegrass and country music presence in Bulgaria and the Balkans,” Drumeva said. “But bluegrass and country music are both growing across Europe.”

Her repertoire includes country, bluegrass, swing, jazz and folk music. She records primarily in the Czech Republic.

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