Monday, January 25, 2016

Old-time Fiddler Found his Muse in West Virginia

The following story was written by Sandy Wells and appeared in the January 25, 2016 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail (links below)

In his Fort Hill home, champion fiddler Paul Epstein demonstrates the musical prowess 
that earned him a first place award in the senior division of the Glenville Folk Festival last year. 
A founder of FOOTMAD, he performs regularly with his contra dance band, the Contrarians

He hitchhiked around the country. He lived in a cabin in Maine. A quest for warmer weather lured him to West Virginia. A back-to-the-lander from Pennsylvania, he found his sweet space in Roane County.

He settled eventually in Charleston. He counseled troubled teens at Daymark. For 25 years, he taught school. For a decade or so, he worked with the West Virginia Writing Project. Now, he’s making a new label for himself as an environmental activist.

But nothing in Paul Epstein’s intriguing life defines him more than the music. Through it all, there was always the music.

In West Virginia, he discovered old-time mountain fiddlers and recognized his true calling. Something about the fiddle touched his soul. So he learned to play. Taught himself. Just like that.

With kindred old-time music fans in Roane County, he started the Booger Hole Revival, a band bent on bringing back mountain music.

In Charleston, he helped form FOOTMAD, an organization devoted to old-time music and dance. That spawned his current contra dance band, the Contrarians.

He retired from the 9-to-5 world three years ago. Now, music no longer plays second fiddle. At 63, still vibrant and involved, he finally can focus full-time on the instrument that captured his heart.

It’s paying off. He won first place last year in the state fiddling contest.

He believes his father, a violinist, would be proud.

“I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a city the size of Charleston in Lehigh Valley, about 60 miles from Philadelphia.

“My dad was a social worker, head of social services at Allentown State Hospital nearby. My mom raised four children, three boys and a girl. It was a good life. I excelled at school most of the time, though I was somewhat of a troublemaker at times, a typical boy.

“My father played violin in community orchestras. He loved classical music. I hated classical music. I grew up with popular music on the radio.

“I took piano lessons until I was a teenager and said no more. It didn’t fit my view of myself at the time. My older brother started playing a little guitar, so there was a guitar around and I learned a little of how to play. In my early 20s, I got my own guitar and started playing that.

“I dropped out of college and traveled the country hitchhiking with my girlfriend. It was 1969. The world was in turmoil. I was not excited to go to college. I went to a couple of big protest rallies. My hair was long. I guess I was a hippie for a few years.

“I had a few jobs to get money. I worked construction and drove a cab. I had a little money, like graduation gifts that my parents had saved for me, a couple thousand dollars that we lived on for a couple of years.

“My dad was pretty tolerant of all this. My mom was definitely fuming. I don’t regret it at all. Everyone grows up a different way, and I had to find my own way.

“It gave me more time to play music and learn more about music. I spent some time learning guitar and started playing in a band. I started on a stand-up bass in a band in Maine. They were playing bluegrass and some Irish music.

“I was hearing these melodies that I loved and I remembered them. I started picking out the notes on guitar.

“I got hold of a mandolin and started playing tunes on mandolin. Once I was in West Virginia and heard my first old-time fiddlers, the old guys playing at festivals, I had to start playing fiddle.

“We’d been living in Maine out in the woods. I built a little cabin there. We were looking for a warmer place. This was the early ’70s. I guess you could say we were back-to-the-landers. We landed in Roane County, a little place on a road leading to Green Creek beyond Frame.

“I settled in this empty building that had once been a church, just a wood frame 24-by-24 building. We lived there for a while. People referred to this as the Booger Hole Church. A booger hole back then was kind of a place of ill-repute. There apparently had been a moonshiner in the hollow and maybe some shootings, colorful stuff people could tell stories about.

A photo from the early 1980s shows fiddler 
Paul Epstein (left) with the Back Road
 Travelers, a successor to Booger Hole Revival, 
the band he helped organize in Roane County
“There were a lot of people there like myself there who had come from other places. We started a band called the Booger Hole Revival because we were reviving old-time music.

“I was playing fiddle. It’s the instrument to me that most defines old-time music, that and the banjo, but there was already another guy playing banjo. It was challenging. But the fiddle had all that energy.

“I never have taken a single lesson on guitar or fiddle. I just learned by ear and recording things and listening to records and tapes, just working on it.

“Booger Hole lasted six years, ’77 to ’83, when we changed our name to the Backwood Travelers. We didn’t have a lot of expenses in those days. We had been able to buy a piece of land. We raised a garden.

“We had the money that came in from playing in the band, and I would do odd jobs. I worked for a logger for a couple of years. In ’77, my daughter was born and I married the woman I traveled the country with.

“Then I started working for Daymark Inc., for Patchwork. I started taking college classes at West Virginia State and got into the teacher education program and continued with Daymark until about ’85 when I graduated.

“I had always said about social work that I wouldn’t want to do that. People said I was a natural at it. I grew up in a family of social workers, so I understood how to talk to people.

“I listened to these troubled teens and found out what their issues were and tried to help them set goals to do better. I enjoyed working with people, but you don’t get a lot back from troubled teenagers.

“I thought elementary education would be a good spot for me to get a job I could stick with. The burnout rate working with troubled teenagers is hard work. But so is teaching.

“I taught for 25 years, first in Clendenin, then I moved to Ruffner Elementary and moved into Charleston. I divorced.

“I helped start FOOTMAD (Friends of Old Time Music and Dance). I was the first president. A group of us got together and started having meetings about how we were going to put together a nonprofit organization to sponsor folk music.

“For a period, working full time and going to school full time, I didn’t do much with music. That didn’t last long. I started going to the FOOTMAD dances and joining the pickup band that gradually became a band to play for contra dances. We were called the Trusty House Band. FOOTMAD named us because we were always there for them. Then we became the Contrarians, our band now.

“In the early ’90s, I started writing a lot more songs. This was around the time I was getting divorced. I wrote a bunch of songs and did a CD of my own songs, ‘Lessons Life Taught Me,’ and I was playing as a singer-songwriter.

“The songs are folk-country, what they call Americana, a mix-up of country blues and whatever genre that would fit a song I was writing. I was also writing a lot of fiddle tunes and children’s songs.

“Before I did the CD of original songs, I did a cassette and then a CD of songs I had been writing for the kids at school. I called it ‘School Bus Comin’.’

“The Contrarians for the last 10 or 15 years have been playing once or twice a month. We started with out and backs, going out for a Saturday night dance in Columbus or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Louisville or Lexington or Cincinnati. We are a pretty well-known band for contra dancing in the mid-Atlantic region.

“Sometimes we get hired for a dance weekend that will draw people from the region, maybe 200 people. They will hire two bands and two callers and there will be dancing all weekend.

“Last year I won first place in the senior division of the Glenville Folk Festival. I don’t consider myself much of a contest fiddler but in retirement, I decided to put a little more time into preparing for contests.

“As a teacher, I got involved with the National Writing Project. I took some workshops and classes from Fran Simone at the graduate college and eventually I ended up leading the local Central West Virginia Writing Project. I did that for about 10 years.
In 1996, Paul Epstein married Rita Ray, a name long 
associated with West Virginia Public Broadcasting. 

“I recently wrote a song called ‘Green Revolution’ about climate change. I have gotten more involved in environmental issues, especially after the chemical spill into the Elk River. I always supported environmental issues, but I never considered myself any kind of an activist. But I started writing more songs on that topic and wanted to share them with people who were activists.

“I went to many of the rallies and became involved in raising money for the West Virginia Environmental Council and actually formed a little project through CAG (Citizen Action Group) that I called AWARE (Artists Working in Alliance to Restore the Environment). I wanted to use it as a vehicle for getting other artists like myself to come together to help raise money for environmental issues in West Virginia. It hasn’t been wildly successful. We raised a few thousand dollars.

“It’s just another thing I’m interested in and will continue to do. As a retired person, I’m not looking for a full-time job or mission. I have my music, my environmental work and I continue to write songs and sometimes go out and perform them.

“It’s been a great life. I was glad to be able to retire when I turned 60. It gave me more time to focus on my music.

“I might not have had time or energy or desire to learn the music if I hadn’t had that period where I wasn’t driven to do anything else. If I had stayed in college and gone on the track that was set up for me in those days, I probably wouldn’t have had time to pursue those things.

“The things that didn’t go as well as I would have liked, I probably learned from. It made me who I am, and I like who I am. So I’m not going to waste time imagining what might have been.

“My dad died in 1996. I think he enjoyed the band and was proud of it. He was a very open-minded man. He loved music, and he loved his children. Even though I bewildered him sometimes, he allowed me to be who I chose to be.”

Reach Sandy Wells at or 304-342-5027.

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  1. Wonderful article! I may have to go to you tube and see if I can find one of your songs to post. Whenever someone hears one of your albums on my CD player at home or work, they always want to know who it is. You already know that I love the music and miss our writer's group!

    1. Thanks, Ingrid! Here's a YouTube link to some of my music:

    2. I posted my favorite - Waltz to Remember.

  2. Nice!!! So true to the person I thought you were :-)