Lester McCumbers passed away on January 26, 2015 at the age of 93. He was born in 1921, deep in the hills of Calhoun County, West Virginia. His wife Linda was two weeks older, and they grew up together, walking a few miles to Beech Grove School every day. Lester and Linda got married in 1937, when they were both 16 years old, and spent their lives together raising nine children and making a living. When Linda passed away in 2010, they had been married 73 years.
Lester learned to play the guitar when just a young boy, and later played with local fiddlers French Carpenter, Ward Jarvis, and others. He was about 15 years old when he started learning a few fiddle tunes from his father, Henry Franklin McCumbers. Playing the fiddle became a large part of Lester’s life, and he played nearly every day. “I just don’t feel right if I don’t play a tune or two every day. Music gives me a lot of satisfaction in my heart. I’ve always tried to play the fiddle or sing a song to suit myself and the way I feel it,” Lester said in an interview that appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Goldenseal.
In the mid-1960s, Lester and Linda played in a bluegrass band with their sons Roger, Bill, and Tim, along with their son-in-law Paul Cottrell. They called themselves Lester McCumbers and the Sandy Valley Boys, and hosted a radio show on WSPZ radio in Spencer, West Virginia. The 30-minute shows were live on the air every Saturday afternoon and featured many local musicians.
After their son Roger passed away in 1998, the Sandy Valley Boys disbanded, and Lester and Linda began playing with Braxton County old-time banjo player Carroll Hardway, with whom they played until his death in 2002. After that, Lester and Linda continued to play and sing at festivals around West Virginia with old-time banjo player Kim Johnson, and were often joined by their sons Bill and Tim.
Even though Lester and Linda’s music was known across the country and around the world, they mostly played local festivals within a few miles of their home. It was a big deal for Lester to travel to Virginia and play at the Richmond Folk Festival in 2009, and also for him to make a trip to Tennessee for the Breaking Up Winter gathering in 2012.
Their favorite festival of all was the West Virginia Folk Festival at Glenville, where Lester made many friends and won many blue ribbons at fiddle contests over the years.
In 2004, Lester became the first West Virginian to win the first place blue ribbon in the fiddle contest at the Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia.
In 2005, Lester was the recipient of the Vandalia Award presented by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Each year, the Vandalia Award, the state’s highest folklife honor, is presented to recognize lifetime contributions to West Virginia’s folk culture.
Lester meant a great deal to me. I had played music with Wilson Douglas for many years, and after he passed on in 1999, I was at loose ends and was looking for somebody to play with when I visited Lester at his home in Nicut one day in 2001. Lester liked the sound we made and decided that it would work out fine if we played together. I definitely appreciate the fact that I have struck the mother lode of West Virginia fiddling by being lucky enough to have known and played with both Wilson Douglas and Lester McCumbers.
Lester McCumbers was a great friend and a wonderful guy to know. Lester was talented at fixing just about anything that needed fixing. Fishing was always one of his most favorite things to do, and he was known for catching many muskies. He told many fascinating stories, and generously shared his music with all. I miss him very much.