Alameda musician, retiree now free to focus on career full-time
By Lou Fancher
While pursuing a largely inventive seven-decade life’s journey, music has been the one constant for Alameda resident Paul Kotapish.
With careers that had him at various times in clerical, custodial and security jobs — including planting trees in a clear-cut reforestation project; becoming a graphic designer and applying the skills to architectural design and drafting; assuming the role of editor and writer for respected music publications; taking a job with an Oakland law firm involving forensic graphics; paralegal tasks, trial support and becoming a tech manager and director of marketing — Kotapish has rarely been without a guitar or mandolin in his hands.
Born in 1952 and raised primarily in northern Virginia, Kotapish says in 1964 he began to beg his parents for the guitar he finally received in December 1965. A few months later, he and some buddies had formed the Yorkshires, a high school band that took off like a rocket and soon had a manager and bookings in northern Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Maryland.
“It was a lucky start,” he says.
Closer examination of the ensuing years proves his musical achievements result from more than mere luck. Consistent devotion explains his successes and his most recent decision to retire from a six-year stint as managing editor at San Francisco Classical Voice. Kotapish now plans to pick up his Santa Cruz Guitar Co. H-13 guitar and F-5 mandolin custom-made by Stephen Gilchrist and “gig as much as possible.”
One project, exploring the folk roots of Grateful Dead music with Danny Carnahan and other members of the Wake the Dead ensemble, will command his immediate attention. He says the band grew out of a one-off attempt for exploration and that, although he was always a fan, he was never a true Deadhead. Even so, when people at the Grateful Dead office heard their first demo 22 years ago, they put it out on their label, and instantly, Wake the Dead gained legitimacy.
“We made another three records and continue to gig as much as possible,” he says. “In June we did a little tour to Oregon, and we have gigs lined up for the fall including (in Berkeley) at the Freight & Salvage on Oct. 29.”
Although Kotapish says performing live music was rarely his full-time job, history makes that hard to believe. In addition to Wake the Dead, he has performed nationally and worldwide with Hillbillies from Mars, Hurricane Ridgrunners, Irish fiddler Kevin Burke’s Open House, the Rodney Miller Band, New Vintage Revelers, Euphonia and on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” and Sedge Thompson’s “West Coast Live,” among others.
Kotapish came to the Bay Area in 1982 and recalls highlights of his musical escapades in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. After teaching himself to play Doc Watson tunes on acoustic guitar, a bluegrass festival opened his ears as never before.
“Suddenly, having played bluegrass a little, I experienced it live at a weekend festival with only about a hundred other people. Music that had sounded corny suddenly sounded virtuosic. Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs — it was an all-star lineup. I got to absorb it in the front row and go up to these musicians in parking lots where they sold their records out of their campers.”
In 1976, he and fiddler Paula Walters busked their way across the country in a funky 1952 International Metro step van with a Volkswagen beetle welded to the top.
“We were playing every day in new places. One highlight was ending up at the National Folk Festival in D.C, where the Celtic band Boys of the Lough, Pete Seeger and other great musicians appeared,” he says.
Times that weren’t so great were when the van once burst into flames; when the headlights went out while crossing the Mississippi River; and finding themselves alone in a Kansas parking lot with a tornado barreling down on them.
“Touring doesn’t hold the allure now that it did in my 20s,” he says, laughing.
Kotapish and his wife, Shivaun McDonald, a primary care physician’s assistant at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, are the parents of two children, Claire and Emmett Kotapish, 18 and 16, respectively. The couple moved from Berkeley’s lively cultural scene to low-key Alameda with the intention of starting a family. Kotapish says becoming a first-time father at age 51 had him “holding his breath.” The Island in 2003 beckoned them with its family-friendly, small town experience and amenities. He says that hasn’t changed during 19 years, despite Alameda’s growing pains and successes.
“I can walk to the grocery store, see a movie downtown and run into people I know everywhere. I can ride my bike around the whole island on a great system of trails. Neighbors have become friends. Many are musicians, and we’ve gathered to make music on a casual basis. I can go a week without getting into my car and have everything I need.”
What Kotapish will have in the coming days and years is more time for making music.
“I got the bug for performing in seventh grade,” he admits. His heroes are musicians whose careers demonstrate longevity: David Grisman, Chris Thile, the late Kenny Hall (a blind mandolinist in Fresno) and “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe.
Kotapish says playing the mandolin well requires a strong left hand to power through long sessions and perform rapid transitions on tight-strung, close-together strings. The “magic” is in the right hand, where rhythm is paramount. Achieving fluidity, coordination and crisp, plain, punchy or smooth expression requires perseverance.
Motivation for Kotapish comes not solely from more time and gigs but from what he hopes will be people turning away from spending more than $200 to see a musical act in a coliseum and memories that will soon be forgotten. He sasy great music played for free or at low cost by exceptional, local musicians is something to treasure and more often remembered forever.
“I’m more excited to see people go to a square dance where a fiddler plays and everyone’s having a good time. So much of the country is embarrassed by the small engaged effort of musicians doing it for themselves, not for a camera. I’m well aware that old-time music isn’t a path to fame and fortune for anyone who is 70 years old. Which doesn’t mean the music isn’t good. I’ll be happy to play with friends and with luck, gig into the future.”
You can see Kotapish play Saturday with Eric Thompson’s Kleptograss at the Back Room in Berkeley; on Sept. 22 with the New Vintage Revelers at the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention; and Oct. 29 with Wake the Dead at the Freight & Salvage.